Arguing is not always a bad thing. It can be a sign that you are invested in your relationship and that your partner still matters to you. But there’s a right way to do it, says Anna Moore
From time to time — once or twice a year — I’ll have an ugly, explosive row with my husband. I once lobbed a bowl of curry across the living room (ten years on, the stains remain). I’ve stormed out of the house and circled the block barefooted on rainy nights (can’t faff around with shoes when you want maximum impact). Triggers include a broken shower door and how to fix it, a hairy drive through the Troodos mountains in Cyprus (apparently I’m “risk averse”) and a printer buried in dust by builders (I should have noticed).
All so trivial — but 15 years of marriage, three kids, two careers and a London mortgage cause the odd meltdown, yes? There’s drudge to be divvied out, personal habits to set your teeth on edge, money to be made, spent or saved, socks on the floor, sleep and space and sex to be scraped back. Sometimes, we bicker, less often we snap. That’s normal isn’t it? Healthy, even? I know from personal experience that absence of rows is not the key to marital health. My parents never argued — my mum hates conflict. They separated after 33 years and are both happier apart.
Arguing can indicate that you still care, that you’re invested in the relationship (as opposed to being nice as pie while playing away). It shows the way your partner thinks or acts still matters to you — or that you’re not willing to be so downtrodden that you can’t get back up. Preliminary research by the think-tank the Marriage Foundation suggests that well over half of the UK couples who split up were not in a high state of conflict the year before. Linda Blair, the psychologist and author of The Key to Calm, to be published next February, puts it this way: “It’s not that it’s necessarily bad not to argue in a marriage — but it is a good idea to be honest. And if you’re honest, you will disagree. Can you imagine two people who have no differences?” At the Marriage Foundation, Harry Benson, the author of Let’s Stick Together, takes a similar view. “Everyone is different — different values, different thoughts, different opinions. In marriage, what matters is how you manage those differences. Most of the time we bumble along and paper over them — and usually that’s fine. It’s reasonable to let a lot of difficult issues go because the marriage is more important. But there are some differences you’ll probably have to deal with.”
According to Benson, the worst possible way of dealing with them is conflict avoidance — opting out, blocking the subject, heading back to your cave. (It may not surprise women to learn that this option tends to be more common among men.) “There’s research indicating that it’s the No 1 predictor of divorce,” says Benson. “If you close the door, you’re creating a no-go area. Then, when the next difficult issue arises, you close the door on that too. Gradually you close too many doors, lose the friendship and the ability to talk about everyday stuff. You drift apart.”
Internationally known for his research on marriage stability, John Gottman, professor emeritus in psychology at the University of Washington, has developed multiple models, scales and formulae to predict divorce. He, too, identifies stonewalling as fatal to a marriage (calling it a “horseman of the Apocalypse”). Even if the intention is good — to avoid a row — to the recipient it conveys disapproval, disengagement and icy distance, especially when a man stonewalls a woman. Most men don’t get physiologically aroused when their wife stonewalls them, whereas wives’ heart rates rise dramatically.
So, if you’re going to confront your differences and let it all out, is there a “healthy” way to do it? Yes, of course. In an ideal world, according to Gottman’s research, you’ll begin an argument with an “I” not a “you”‘ and go for a “soft start-up” (“I’m feeling frustrated by all these socks on the floor” as opposed to: “YOU SLOB!”). When the argument is in full swing, “reflective listening” — really hearing your partner’s concerns, empathising and paraphrasing them back can be, Benson says, “incredibly powerful”. (“So what you’re saying is that the pile of dirty laundry on the stairs signifies to you a lack of respect and consideration on my part?”) Really, though, how helpful is all this when you’ve lost your rag? “Not very,” Benson admits. “You’d have to be icy cold to use it when you’re angry. My wife and I have probably managed it only two or three times in the past 20 years.”
Before formulating your attack or defence, Blair advises taking a deep breath through your nose and holding it until you feel slightly uncomfortable. “It slows you, calms you down and makes it less likely that your voice will roll ahead of your thoughts,” she says. “And if there’s a subject you want to raise that you know is likely to lead to a row, it’s a good idea to do it in a public place. That tends to limit the escalation.”
For Benson, the key is the ability to keep the “big picture” view in your head even when you’re steaming ahead mid-row. Try to hold on to the thought that winning the relationship, keeping the marriage strong, is far more important than “winning an argument”.
You can’t really “win an argument” in a marriage, for what would you win? “Framing it the right way is also helpful,” Benson says. “When my wife says certain things that can be construed as criticism, I tend to see it as being ‘told off’, that I’ve fallen short in some way. That can lead to sulking or defensiveness or coming back with your own list of criticisms. Not long ago, my wife said: ‘Harry, when I say this to you, I’m saying it because I love you and I want to be close to you.’ It was a lightbulb moment. It really helped to hear it in that context — an opportunity to make things better between us, not worse.”
“It’s crucial to be able to agree to disagree at the end,” says Blair. “There’s no black and white — most of life is a messy grey. Finally telling my husband that I didn’t want to go on another narrow boat holiday is a good example here. I was happy for him to go. I went to a spa instead. That way we were both happy.”
Most “marital issues” are never resolved. Our shower door still leaks occasionally (Tony — if you’re reading this — it leaked this morning). I remain “risk averse”, preferring to avoid hairpin bends on holiday. We just live with our differences, ignore them and shout about them every once in a while.
There are red flags to watch for in any marital row and helpful habits that minimise the damage (see panel). However, Gottman found, whatever your style, be it bickering or ballistic, the key dynamic is whether the good times with your partner outweigh the bad. Is there enough humour, happiness and connection to balance the blowouts? Do you touch, smile, laugh and love in between? According to Gottman’s formula, the crucial ratio here is not 50-50, but five to one. Five positive encounters for every meltdown should keep a marriage out of the danger zone. By all means, get it off your chest — but spend a lot more time making up.
The do’s and don’ts of a domestic: the expert guide
Be aware of the STOP signs
According to Harry Benson, of the Marriage Foundation, there are four behaviours that can sabotage any argument. He calls them the stop signs, and you need to nip them in the bud.
- Scoring points — where one person says “You did this”, and the other says, “Well, you did that” — can cause a row to escalate.
- Thinking the worst — in which people apply negative attitudes from their past inappropriately to the present and hear criticism where none is intended — can lead to paranoia.
- Opting out — where you want to avoid conflict, but the other person thinks you are blanking them out because you don’t care — can lead to a total breakdown of communication.
- Finally, put-downs, insults that are essentially saying that you have value while the other person does not, can lead to contempt.
Don’t roll your eyes
The worst thing you can do is to show contempt, says Professor John Gottman, marriage expert and professor of psychology. Don’t roll your eyes, grimace, smirk and shake your head, mock, insult — or behave as if you’ve lost all respect. It goes straight to your partner’s sense of self and is corrosive in a relationship.
Complain rather than criticise
Don’t dredge up old issues to point-score or throw in every negative thing you can think of — also known as “kitchen sinking”. It makes the argument harder and harder to resolve. Don’t bring in third parties (“Even your own mother agrees”) or generalise (“You always …”/”We never …”). All these move the row from a “complaint” (expressing anger and disagreement is necessary and reasonable) to “criticism” (identified by Gottman as disastrous to marriage.)
Comment on the argument
It can be helpful to comment on the argument itself. Describe what is happening. “Please let me say something now”… “That felt like an insult … ” “I think we’re getting off track”. This allows you to distance yourself from the strong emotions involved when you argue.
Show that you are listening
Try to use phrases such as “Uh huh”, “Go on”, “Yes, I see …” These small conciliatory gestures — and showing you’re listening and engaged — can reduce anger and tension.
Take time out
Remember, you can call time out if necessary without opting out. If you’re desperate to end the row but your partner still has plenty to say, ask to stop without closing the door. “I know this is important to you — but I just can’t listen any more.”
According to Benson, it’s OK to call a “halt” (because you’re “hungry, angry, lonely, tired”). “If you can’t concentrate because you have a need that isn’t being met, it’s fine to give yourself five minutes to make a sandwich or recover from your commute,” he says. But you do need to agree on a time to come back to the subject afterwards.”
Know when to change the subject
Get into the habit of “quick shift”. Being able to change the subject and move on when the argument has run its course is a sign of a strong relationship.
Don’t be defensive
Avoid getting defensive — a default response of making an excuse, denying responsibility or counteracting with an unrelated complaint of your own stops your partner from feeling as if they are being heard and will push the two of you apart.
You can’t really “win an argument” in a marriage, for what would you win?