Even if emotions are running high, or you’re both feeling frustrated, it’s still possible to keep an argument with your partner from turning toxic by slowing down, listening, and avoiding placing blame — among other things. There are many expert tips that can keep arguments healthy for couples. But first and foremost, it can help to remember that arguments aren’t inherently bad.
“In fact, arguments are essential to a healthy relationship,” Cathy Garner, The Relationship Expert, tells Bustle. “That’s because arguments bring out those real values, our real beliefs, those deepest truths within us and unless we share them with our partners […] we never get that deep level of intimacy and connection.”
It can help to shed the idea that healthy couples never argue, because that’s simply not true. It’s good to have debates, to speak your minds, and to occasionally bicker or argue. And yes, it’s possible to do it all without it going downhill. “Arguments are inevitable in healthy and unhealthy relationships; it’s how we deal with them that makes the difference,” Garner says. By following a few expert tips, like the ones below, you and your partner might be able to argue in a more productive way.
If things are getting heated, or one of you just isn’t listening, it may help to hit the pause button on the argument, and take a quick break. “Some may see this as an escape, but the time out […] always includes coming back to the conflict in order to reach resolution,” therapist Laura Jordan, MA, LPC, LMFT tells Bustle. “It’s really about finding balance and placing rules around the time out.”
For example, you might agree to meet back up in five minutes, or an hour, or the following morning. Knowing that you’ll reconvene in the future is comforting, since you know you’ll get to speak your peace. Only this time, it’ll be once you’ve both cooled off.
To remind yourselves that the fight probably isn’t that serious — and that you do actually love each other — it can help to use humor to keep things lighthearted. Just do so carefully.
“Utilizing a joke mid-argument can be tricky, because it needs to be crafted in such a way that it not only breaks the tension but also brings the couple closer together,” Jordan says. You don’t, for example, want to start joking around while your partner is super angry, since that can be insulting. But a well-timed inside joke or funny reference really can help.
Avoid calling each other names, no matter how heated it gets. “Even calling someone stupid or silly in the heat of the moment can really cause a lot of damage in your relationship,” Amica Graber, a relationship expert for the background checking site TruthFinder, tells Bustle. “Arguments should be about a situation or obstacle, not the person themselves.”
When you’re mad, you might start to bring up everything you’ve ever been angry about. But doing so can cause the situation to quickly spiral out of control.
“If you bring up something from the past and inject it into a present argument, you’re funneling past resentments into the current situation,” Graber says. “As a rule of thumb, only discuss the present issue when arguing with your partner. If you start bringing up old issues, it quickly becomes a toxic fight.”
It’s always OK to turn to friends and family for advice and support, when it comes to big relationship problems. But try not to make a habit of reporting every little thing to them.
“Don’t call up a family member or a friend in the heat of an argument and complain bitterly about your partner,” Graber says. “Your friends and family will probably take your side, and that can make it difficult for you to see things from your partner’s perspective. Instead of offloading your fight on someone else, continue to work things out with your partner. Talking it out with them will have far more benefits than talking it out with a third-party.”
Talking over each other means you’re not listening. And when you’re not listening, things can get toxic. Which is why the sand timer trick works so well.
As Nwasha Edu, a holistic relationship expert, tells Bustle, “One simple technique to help argue better is to use a sand timer for balanced communication. You can use an app, a timer, or actual sand timer. Start with three minute exchanges of speaking, listening, and reflecting what was heard.” And no speaking until it’s your turn.
“This sounds like common sense, but once the words are out, you can’t take them back,” Joshua Klapow, PhD, clinical psychologist and host of The Kurre and Klapow Show, tells Bustle. So always think before you speak.
“Remember the goal of the conversation is to solve the problem — not to ‘win.’” So even if you think of a real solid way to take your partner down a few notches, keep it to yourself. Take a few breaths, and then proceed with comments that are fair and level-headed.
It can be easy to assume you know what your partner is thinking, especially if you’ve been together for forever. But trying to read each other’s minds, or making assumptions, never ends well.
To avoid this mistake, talk about your feelings and be clear, Dr. Klapow says. That way your partner doesn’t have to guess what’s on your mind, and you don’t have to guess what’s on theirs.
Using words like “always” and “never” can put people on the defensive, since it implies that they’re 100 percent bad 100 percent of the time. And that can hurt.
“It’s easy to find exceptions to always and never so leave them out of your vocabulary,” Edu says. Instead, stay present in the moment, and call a time out if necessary.
Another trick is to talk about how you feel, instead of what your partner is doing. “Start your sentence with the word ‘I’ and focus on identifying what you’re feeling and why,” Dr. Klapow says. This will keep your partner from feeling attacked by “you did this” and “you did that” statements, which will, in turn, prevent them from shutting down.
Have you ever realized how heightened arguments feel the moment you both start yelling? At that point, it becomes more of a screaming match, and nobody’s feelings are heard.
To keep this from happening, it can help to lower your voices — and possibly even talk in a whisper. It may feel strange, but whispering can keep your tempers under control, Katie Ziskind, LMFT, tells Bustle. It also slows the pace of the argument, and forces you to actually listen to each other. (Pretty genius, right?)
While it may not always be possible to have a perfectly civil argument, you can certainly have fewer toxic ones by following these tips. It’s all about slowing down, listening, and reminding yourselves that you’re on the same team, in order to keep your arguments healthy.