Rachel Costain and her husband, Aaron, have been arguing about renovations to their home for several months. While the issue has yet to be resolved, Rachel says that dealing with disagreements is just a normal part of their eight-year relationship.
“We have learned to argue together,” says the 30-year-old elementary school teacher. “I think arguing now and again is a good thing.”
As most adults know, being part of a couple isn’t all romance and happy endings. “It’s rare to have a couple that doesn’t disagree at some point,” says Kevin VanDerZwet Stafford, executive director of the Ontario Association for Marriage and Family Therapy. “I think it can be healthy for couples to disagree.”
However, VanDerZwet Stafford says that it’s the way that a couple deals with their disagreements that makes for a healthy relationship. Here’s how to make sure you’re fighting fair with your partner.
1. Argue in good faith
When you and your partner enter into a disagreement, it’s important to realize that you have each other’s best interests at heart. “[Your partner] may not agree with what you’re saying at the moment, but they’re not maliciously out to get you,” says VanDerZwet Stafford. Treating your partner as an adversary isn’t going to help resolve an argument about who will carpool the kids to soccer next week. Even in the most heated arguments, trust that your partner cares about you and your feelings.
2. Timing is everything
If you’re going to bring up a contentious issue with your partner, make sure you have time to listen to the response. “Don’t dish it out if you’re not willing to stick around and work it out,” says VanDerZwet Stafford. “If you’re willing to take responsibility for what you’re saying, that’s when [an argument] becomes healthy.”
Bringing up a problem five minutes before you’re both about to leave for work, for example, may not be the best way to resolve a disagreement. Instead, make sure you and your partner have the time to commit to a discussion before tackling a serious issue. For busy partners, that might mean planning ahead. “I have couples in my office who rebuff the idea of scheduling conversations, but as they go through the course of therapy, they discover how helpful it is. It allows both people to get prepared for the conversation,” says VanDerZwet Stafford.
3. Keep it out of the bedroom
The bedroom may be the only place where you and your partner can find privacy in your home, but VanDerZwet Stafford strongly advises against arguing where you sleep. “Bedrooms are places of calm,” he says. “If you’re arguing in the bedroom, where are you going to go to get some rest?”
Rather than bringing negative energy into your sleeping area, choose a quiet place in the home away from the television and computer. “Cellphones need to be turned off, not just put on vibrate,” says VanDerZwet Stafford. If you have children, make sure they’re at school, asleep or in a different part of the house before engaging in a disagreement.
4. Control your emotions
VanDerZwet Stafford says that he mostly sees two types of arguing styles in his therapy practice: people who need to time and space before dealing with an issue and those who need to discuss the situation right away. “If you and your partner have different styles,” he says, “part of the argument becomes helping each other understand why you need to deal with the issue in different ways.”
If you’re the type who needs to discuss things right away while your partner needs time to think, VanDerZwet Stafford suggests using techniques such as deep breathing, exercising or journaling to relieve stress while you give your partner space. Discussing the situation with a trusted friend or family member may also help give you perspective on the argument.
5. Stay on topic
One of the biggest mistakes couples make in arguing is that they don’t stay on track, VanDerZwet Stafford says. If a disagreement about the cleaning schedule snowballs into an argument about the in-laws, dinner menus and homework duty, your chances of resolving anything are slim.
“Be clear on what you’re arguing about,” says VanDerZwet Stafford. “For some people, that means writing the issue down on a piece of paper.” If you notice that the discussion is getting off topic, gently remind your partner of what your argument is really about and guide the discussion back to the topic at hand.
6. Lay the groundwork
It’s important for couples to discuss strategies for dealing with arguments before a disagreement arises, says VanDerZwet Stafford. “There’s reluctance from couples to revisit these issues when times are good because they don’t want to upset the apple cart. But that’s what will strengthen the relationship.” For Costain and her husband, that means keeping each other in the loop about what’s happening in their lives.
“We try not to drop things in each other’s laps at the last minute,” she says. “For instance, Aaron lets me know in advance that he might have to work all weekend. But if he told me that on a Friday night, I’d be upset. That’s our groundwork, keeping each other up to date.”
Web exclusive May 2009 Best Health magazine