The best way to be confronted by your deepest anxieties is to be in a romantic relationship. As adults we seek partners that mirror our earliest attachments and are inevitably exposed to very primal survival needs for safety and security. So when things go south (or when they don’t meet idiosyncratic expectations for what it means to be loved) our brains snap into fight or flight mode and we end up saying or doing things that can have damaging effects on our relationships.
Arguing is just going to happen when you put two people in the same household for any extended period of time, especially if those two people love each other. We tend to treat the people we love the worst. So if arguing is inevitable, how can we do it in a way that not only lessens the destruction that contempt and hateful jabs can cause, but can also strengthen your relationship and honor your partner?
1. Acknowledge and express your feelings. Let me guess, you feel angry? Most people start arguments when they are angry so it makes sense that this may be the first thing you notice. But take a moment to see what’s underneath that anger. Are you hurt, disappointed, lonely, embarrassed? Say what you feel. Nobody can argue about what you are feeling because it’s your personal experience. Might that feel vulnerable? Absolutely. But without vulnerability, you can’t have real intimacy.
2. Don’t blame. Blaming will either cause your partner to react defensively or retreat further from you. So as you express how you are feeling, keep in mind that these are your feelings and it is important that you are taking full responsibility for them. This is a sticking point for many people who are use to saying, “You’re making me angry!” Technically, your partner can only provide the stimulus. The anger (or whatever the feeling) is your response.
3. Take a break. If the first two suggestions seem impossible in the heat of the moment, it’s time to take a break. When you “flip your lid,” your brain is in fight or flight mode, which is a function of the limbic system, or “lizard brain.” When this is happening your pre-frontal cortex, the part responsible for executive functioning, strategizing, and basically making good decisions, is significantly compromised. You need some time to let your higher order thinking to come back online before you say or do something you may regret. Take a walk. Get some fresh air. Don’t think too much about the argument right now. This isn’t about taking time to refine your argument, it’s just about cooling down.
4. Be empathetic. Everybody hurts. If you are seeking connection and intimacy this is a time to listen and try to see things from your partner’s point of view. Reflect back what you hear them saying and make sure you get it right. If they don’t explicitly state how they are feeling, ask. Empathy takes most of our bandwidth to do properly, so in order to give your full attention you will have to let go of your own defenses, rebuttals and comebacks. Empathy is literally, disarming.
5. Let go of being right. If you have to be right, that means your partner has to be wrong. Building a strong relationship with mutual respect and admiration means that you seek out ways to support and elevate each other. I’m not saying, let them be right either, because that makes you wrong. What I’m saying is let go of right and wrong all together. Some people are addicted to being right. It feels good to be right, but when you have to be right, and terrible anxiety arises when you aren’t, you may need to deal with that. It’s likely a problem in other areas of your life, too.
6. Ask for help. Unlike demanding, controlling, manipulating, or coercing, asking for help is what partnerships are actually for. We cannot control another person’s behavior and doing so would be characteristic of a non-egalitarian kind of relationship. (I’m assuming you consider yourselves equals, but that very well may not be the case.) Asking for help conveys to your partner that they have something of value to offer. Asking for help does not start with “I need you to . . . “ If you are expressing how you feel and not blaming, and not trying to be right, then you can request help in specific ways or ask your partner to think of ways to help. The thing about requests, however, is that there is a chance your partner may say no. If you aren’t trying to control or manipulate, then the answer to this is, “OK.” Does that mean you lost the argument? It does if you were trying to win it all along (see #5).
Of course, even if you did remember all of these suggestions the next time your partner offends, it still won’t be easy to do. It may help to practice one thing at a time. Maybe you forgot to not blame in the initial stages of the argument, but then you remembered to show empathy. Empathy goes a long way! Give yourself credit for trying and don’t beat yourself up if you’re not the perfect arguer the next dozen times you try. Many of these suggestions take a good deal of skill. A routine mindfulness meditation practice is a great way to develop these skills. A mindfulness-based couples counselor can also be helpful in teaching mindful communication and other strategies designed to strengthen and revitalize your relationship.