How to handle arguments in a relationship

It’s normal to feel anxiety about conflict, especially if you’ve never been taught how to handle it in a healthy way.  Many of us were taught growing up that conflict is bad and has negative results.  This is because most people, even married couples, do not know how to approach conflict in a healthy and productive way.  We weren’t taught the skills to navigate and manage conflict, which leads us to: 

  1. Avoid arguments 
  2. Attach devastating meaning to conflict, or 
  3. Attack, get defensive, blame, shame, and criticize.

The truth is that conflict is inevitable, and it’s often even necessary.  Conflict is a part of every relationship.  We are all individuals with different beliefs, histories, ideas, perceptions, preferences, values, personalities, and desires.  Rather than try to avoid conflict, deny it, dread it, or allow it to destroy your relationship, we must accept conflict and learn how to approach it in a functional way.  

It’s not about whether or not you have conflict in a relationship; the important thing is how you approach it.  Healthy relationships see conflict as an opportunity for growth and connection. Conflict has the potential to teach you how to better love and support one another.  

Common arguments in relationships

There are many different types of conflict you may face in a relationship and all have the potential to destroy your relationship or bring you closer.  Some common things couples argue about are: 

  • Roles and responsibilities
  • Money
  • Frequency of sex and preferences for intimacy
  • Boundaries with family and friends
  • Jealousy
  • Amount of time spent together vs apart
  • How to parent 

Personality differences are also a frequent source of conflict, resentment, and frustration in relationships.  Some examples of personality differences that may affect your relationship include: 

  • Extroverted vs introverted
  • Morning vs night person
  • Money saver vs money spender
  • Logical vs intuitive
  • Pessimistic vs optimistic
  • Adventurer vs homebody
  • Neat and tidy vs messy
  • Energetic vs calm and collected
  • Talkative vs quiet
  • Emotionally reactive vs emotionally calm 
  • Planner vs spontaneous

Never resort to name calling, personal attacks, bickering, or using the silent treatment in the heat of the moment.  These create trust issues and make your partner feel attacked and unsafe.  

The key to managing personality differences is to learn to respect your differences, communicate about them, give each other the benefit of the doubt, and find ways to honor each other’s desires, preferences, and needs.  

You can use problem-solving to find a middle ground and find constructive ways to compromise around your differences.  You can learn to use your strengths to build a happy, healthy, thriving partnership with your significant other.

A couple hugging each other after an argument

How to initiate a difficult conversation

When a conversation or couples fight starts negatively, it almost never turns positive. Research from The Gottman Institute found that 96% of the time, the first three minutes of a conversation predicts the outcome of a conversation. So, when a conversation begins poorly, it generally ends poorly too.  

Starting a conversation gently and positively with your loved one requires awareness of your tone of voice, volume of voice, eye contact, and body language when you approach the other person to initiate a conversation. First, check in with yourself to identify your own emotions and needs. If you are too angry or upset to communicate in a gentle, kind way, take a moment to self-soothe before starting the conversation.

During an argument, it’s best to focus on one problem at a time. This allows you to focus, come to a deeper understanding of what’s really going on beneath the surface, problem solve, and give and receive mutual support without the distraction of other problems that need attention. 

How to repair during an argument 

During conflict is the best time to make repairs to the relationship. Repair attempts are a way to de-escalate tension and get the relationship back on track. It is a way to shift the energy, reconnect, and express care and support. Repair attempts make you both more receptive to finding compromise. 

Ways to repair during conflict include: 

  • Expressing appreciation and care
  • Sharing vulnerably
  • Expressing empathy
  • Complimenting
  • Reaching out to hug, holding hands, or rub their back 
  • Using humor and silliness 
  • Finding similarities and common ground 
  • Expressing curiosity and seeking to understand the other person’s thoughts and feelings
  • Expressing fondness and admiration 
  • Apologizing and taking responsibility 
  • Initiating a break 

As a couple you can pick a secret phrase or word that communicates that you’re trying to repair. This can also be a way to use humor to defuse negativity. 

Another way to repair is to offer a repair in your partner’s love language. For example, if your partner’s primary love language is words of affirmation, you can offer a repair by telling them what you love about them.  If it’s physical touch, you can offer a hug, hold hands, or give them a back rub.  You get the idea!  

If you’re not able to make or receive repair attempts during conflict (or you just don’t want to), take a 20 minute time-out. During that break, take steps like deep breaths to self-soothe and regulate your nervous system. 

Couple talking on a swing after a discussion

Working Towards Compromise 

The key to compromise is learning how to respect and honor the other person’s needs desires without sacrificing your own. Their needs and opinions are just as important and legitimate as yours.  

Open communication is crucial for compromise. It’s so important to be open and honest about your thoughts and feelings.

If you can approach conversations about compromise with a willingness to be curious, actively listen, empathize, and show love toward the other person, you are creating the emotional safety necessary for these tough conversations. 

Then, once you’ve come to a mutual understanding around the presenting problem and found a space of temporary closure, you can decide if you’d like to address another problem at this time as well or schedule a later time to discuss it.  

The importance of repairing after conflict 

If we don’t fully process and repair after conflict, we tend to ruminate, consciously or subconsciously.  We’ll begin to experience cognitive dissonance, an increase in negativity, and a slow erosion of trust and intimacy in the relationship. 

The more you have left un-repaired, the more distance there will be between you and the more defensive walls you will put up. You may feel irritable, anxious, resentful, depressed, or miserable.  Eventually, you’ll feel distanced, apathetic, and so hurt that it will be really hard to take down your protective walls and repair. It usually happens slowly, over time, until one day you find yourself contemplating separation.  

It’s so important to learn how to process conflict and repair after conflict. It’s so important to find a sense of emotional completion so that negativity, hurts, and resentment don’t follow you. If you don’t repair, your relationship is building emotional baggage that will weigh you both down, create distance, and slowly erode and destroy your relationship.  

couple smiling after having an argument

How to fix a relationship after a big argument

Repairing after conflict requires vulnerability and responsibility. 

After an argument, you may be feeling hurt, shame, guilt, anger, fear, or anxiety.  It can feel so scary to share your pain with your partner. An important part of the repair process is allowing your partner to enter your pain by sharing your point of view, feelings and experience with them.  

By sharing past experiences and current thoughts that contribute to your feelings, you give them the opportunity to understand, empathize, comfort, and repair. You give the relationship an opportunity to heal. This is an important step in healing your bond.  

Sharing so openly requires vulnerability and trust that the other person will respect and care for your emotions. If your partner has shared openly with you, be sure to validate their emotions and experience. Remember, conflict is an opportunity for intimacy. It’s an opportunity to more deeply understand each other, to connect, and to show how much you care.  

To repair, it’s also important for both people to accept responsibility for the ways in which they contributed to the conflict. It’s common for both partners to feel defensive and self-righteous.  

Blame is often used as a defense against emotional pain, but while there is blame, there is no opportunity for repair. Shifting from blame to personal accountability is a step toward repair.  

Taking responsibility can be as simple as saying:

  • “It’s not all your fault, I play a role in this by…”
  • “I was too harsh with you.” 
  • “I was stressed and took it out on you, I’m sorry.”

Taking responsibility prevents the escalation of tension and is a step towards repair.  Part of taking responsibility may include making an apology. The important thing is that you acknowledge the hurt you caused and take responsibility for your actions. 

Next, you’ll need to make a plan for how you will improve your communication during your next argument or the next time conflict arises. Make sure you’ve fully emotionally digested the conflict so that you can both move forward with love, support, and peace.  

At the end of any conflict discussion, I always recommend expressing gratitude for one another. I recommend that each of you express 3 things you’re grateful for about the other person. It’s a great way to repair, reconnect, and help one another to feel appreciated. 

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