Just for kicks, let’s say you and your partner are two different people. Even better, let’s say you’re two different people with two different personalities, childhoods, ideas, horrific unresolved emotional issues, and, in certain situations, even two different goals.
Now let’s imagine that one day, out of the clear blue sky, those things all combine into a perfect storm of disagreement. Well, if you’re going to do something, you ought to do it right. Right?
In the interests of being the best arguers ever, my wife and I have given an inordinate amount of thought to the best way to argue with one another. Here’s what we’ve learned in a few handy bullet points:
- Get a good understanding of your own and your partner’s argument styles.
You and your partner’s styles may be completely different. I’m sure there are a bunch of quizzes and pop psychology pieces out there about argument styles that you can go to, but I think a better approach is to just give some thought to what makes you feel better during an actual argument. Every word you say during a conflict has some sort of goal—and it may not be a goal you’re consciously aware of. Is it ending the conflict? Is it being vindicated? Is it showing them they should never have challenged you? Is it showing them that they’ve hurt you?
In my case, I’m so conflict averse that I want to get everything wrapped up quickly. I also hate being wrong, so I rarely just apologize. Instead, I lecture, dispassionately and without rest, until I’ve wearied my opponent into submission. If logic won’t do it, the grating sound of my voice droning on and on will.
This would work better for me if my wife didn’t have a very different style. When we’re in the very midst of a big disagreement, she tends to feel overwhelmed. When I lecture without giving her a chance to calm down, she tends to want to eat my soul. This is too bad, because she also loves me. Having a chance to think without me talking at her gives her a chance to formulate what she wants to say in the most persuasive and least hurtful way.
It really helps to be aware of one another’s predispositions and motives for these things. Now, when she says I need to be quiet and let her think, I’m happy to oblige because I prefer my soul in its uneaten state. Meanwhile, she doesn’t just leave things on the back burner for a whole day because she knows how hard it is for me to have a conflict simmering without being addressed.
- Assume best intentions.
It’s a lot easier to give your partner a chance to calm down, or a chance to say what they need to say, when you start out by assuming they’re motivated by something other than hurting you. This can be tough when you’ve had relationships that were hurtful. When you’re able to see things from your partner’s perspective, a lot of misunderstandings get resolved pretty quickly and easily. I often find myself saying, “Oh, you thought I meant X. I can see why you’re so upset now. I’m sorry it came across that way. What I was trying to say was Y.”
If you and your partner have a base level of respect and trust, you’ll find it’s easier to assume that their intentions weren’t just pure hate. Even better, if you can make that assumption, your relationship will likely increase its general level of respect and trust, thus making it easier as time goes on.
- Don’t say things you’ll regret.
This probably isn’t really a big surprise. Calling someone a dumbass and bringing up that painful insecurity they confided in you (you know the one – they cried for hours after they told you because they’d never told anyone before) is not the best way to make it easier to reconcile and move on. This is a nicer way of saying “Have some basic self-control and don’t be a dick.” People may avoid arguments with out of control dicks, but they don’t like to be around them either.
- Respond to your partner’s emotions as much as their words.
This is less obvious than not saying things you’ll regret. This is more about remembering that people’s emotions tend to move more quickly than their brains at times. So when you’re arguing with your partner and they’re clearly upset, but their argument is running short on logic, you should maybe hold off on pointing out their mistakes, no matter how obvious they may be. When emotions start to run high, you should address those before logical inconsistencies.
It may feel like a waste of time, but it’s not. I promise. Think of it this way, if you’re taking a math test do you do better when you’ve got to pee like nobody’s business, or when you don’t? Being really angry or really hurt or really sad can be every bit as distracting as having had three large cups of coffee two hours ago without a bathroom break. You may find that the specifics of the argument aren’t the actual obstacle. It may just be that your partner is feeling a certain way and needs you to acknowledge it. And now I’m going to stop comparing emotions to pee, because that’s just weird.
So, if you follow this step-by-step guide, you and your partner should be arguing like pros before you know it. I absolutely don’t guarantee this, but your disagreements should be shorter, more pleasant, and more rewarding than ever before!
One last thing: These how-to steps aren’t intended for situations where arguments are abusive. If your relationship is such that you and your partner are routinely trying to hurt one another emotionally, then you should find someone to provide professional help. If your partner is hurting you physically, you should look for services and supports in your area to keep yourself safe. No one should be subject to abuse.
This article was originally published in The Good Men Project.