Do you fight fair?
How to turn an argument into a discussion
by Cheryl Dizon-Reynante
I’ve worked with many couples over the years who find that they argue often and that things are getting worse between the two of them. Each partner feels frustrated and tired, but don’t know how to fix things with their loved one. Not everyone can get to a couples therapist for one reason or another, but to start improving your relationship right away, here are common phrases and behaviours to avoid and what to do instead:
Using “shut the door” phrases
These are common things that I hear said between two spouses that make my heart drop because it subtly says “It’s your fault,” and “I don’t have to change in any way.” It feels like the door is being shut on any kind of useful communication and creates a barrier between two people.
Examples of these sayings include:
- “You knew this about me when we started dating/got married.”
This shuts down any communication about the issue and any steps towards positive change because what it really tells your loved one, “I’m not going to change. Too bad.” Avoid saying this at all costs because it will only upset your partner.
- “You always do this/you never do that” e.g. “You always pick your friends over me,” or “You never help me out with the cleaning.” What usually follows is an argument about whether this is true or not. One person lists all the times that support this statement and the other lists all the times that prove the statement is wrong. This is a waste of time because chances are that the accusation is not 100 per cent accurate. If you cut out the use of “always” and “never”, and use an “I statement,” it eliminates an unnecessary debate.
An “I statement” is a sentence that addresses the emotion that you are feeling and the specific situation. For example, “I felt left out when you forgot about our date night and went out with Jaime,” or “I felt upset when I had to clean up after our dinner party by myself.” This type of sentence is not accusatory and gives more room for proactive discussion.
- “You should know by now that…” e.g. “You should know by now that I would have preferred dinner out on Saturday rather than Friday.”
Well actually, the objective response to this is that it isn’t realistic to think that your spouse should be able to read your mind or guess right 100 per cent of the time. Instead, try to gently solve the problem with them by saying, “Please check with me next time.”
Whenever people resort to a mean label, e.g. “You are so stupid,” or “Don’t be such a baby,” or worse! – this action is childish and pointless. It shows that you are not able to express your own frustration and anger well and that you would rather transmit your emotions onto the other person and hurt him or her. Excessive amounts of this can lead to verbal or emotional abuse. Instead, use an “I statement” to express your position and listen closely to your loved one’s response.
Tallying or score keeping
This pattern of arguing keeps couples stuck because each person just lists everything that they do and bring to a relationship, but implies that the other does not measure up. For example, an argument may sounds like: “I take care of all the laundry… well I take care of all the yardwork… well that’s only once or twice a week, I have to put the kids to bed every night…” And on and on they go.
Instead, acknowledge something good that your sweetie has done, and then, express your need. For example, “Thank you for mowing the lawn, I know you’re tired, but could you please give me a hand with dinner?”
Dismissive non-verbal actions
Often times I will catch people who roll their eyes when their spouse is talking or worse, they will laugh inappropriately. It is never a good feeling to see your spouse do this when you are talking. Even more subtly, I will see couples lean away or turn away from each other. Theorists have said that communication is 93 per cent non-verbal! So to improve the quality of your relationship, watch your facial expression, do not inappropriately smile or laugh when your spouse is upset, and do not turn your back on your loved one. This is because these actions communicate to the other: “You are ridiculous” or “You are not important.”
So instead, you want to send the message of “I want to fix this.” You can do this by turning towards your partner, looking them in the eye, and if it feels right, reach for their hand, rub their back, or touch their arm. This let’s them know that you are listening.
Once you start making these positive changes when you communicate with your spouse, this will encourage similar communication behaviours from him or her. Ultimately, this starts a new, kinder and more respectful way to talk to each other.
Cheryl Dizon-Reynante is a licensed therapist with the Canadian Counselling and Psychotherapy Association.