Whether you’re arguing over something as trivial as dirty dishes or as serious as infidelity, arguing with someone you love stings. In the moment, you may feel angry, alienated and hopeless, but research shows that the effects of fighting can be long-lasting and affect your mental and physical health.
“There is a growing abundance of research that sheds light on marital conflict and the consequences it can have on an individual’s health in a relationship,” says Christina Eller, LMHC, psychotherapist specializing in partnership, marriage and intimacy. “Marital conflicts that lead couples into a negative state of mind tend to suffer increased stress, anxiety and depression.” But the effects aren’t just mentally challenging; they can also harm your physical health.
In 2018, researchers at Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center found that couples who engage in particularly nasty fights had higher levels of bacteria in their blood (which can enter the intestines and lead to poor gut health). Even more studies indicate that hot weather can harm your cardiovascular health And make wounds heal more slowly.
However, according to Eller, every tense moment doesn’t have to leave you feeling hollow and distant from your partner. There are better ways to manage conflict and protect your well-being in the process. Below, Eller and Elisabeth Gulotta, LMHC of NYC Therapeutic Wellness, offer their top tips for resolving conflict before, during, and after an argument.
Before the conflict
Understand how and why you fight
For a long time, a common message was that couples argued over things like money or sex. But according to Eller, most arguments have much deeper roots that are worth exploring with your partner. Before you start exchanging words. “With couples, there is a misconception that the partners argue over common topics such as finances, inequality in the household, co-parenting, or even infidelity. Research has shown that couples rarely argue over a clear topic,” she explained. “Occasionally they do, but couples are more likely to inadvertently build emotional wounds during conflict due to a lack of understanding from their partner, hence miscommunication.”
Gulotta says our emotional reactions to disagreements can stem from childhood wounds, unmet needs, or simply feelings of insecurity. “We all come into relationships with our own wounds and things that aren’t healed, and they can be pain points and trigger points,” she says. “There’s a vulnerability to going deeper, so a couple can get stuck arguing over things on the surface level if they don’t take the time or have the awareness to seek out the root.”
Going to therapy together or asking your partner what their basic needs are can help you anticipate potential arguments and better manage them as they arise. Chances are, you’re not just fighting for the dishes.
Be aware of the “four horsemen” in conflict situations
“According research by John Gottman, there are four habits of communication that couples use in states of conflict that are inevitably damaging to the relationship and can increase the likelihood of divorce. These four behaviors are criticism, defensiveness, obstruction, and contempt,” Eller explains.
In this context, criticism is characterized by attacking someone for who they are. For example, “You never do the dishes because you’re lazy.” Being defensive means putting up an immediate shield when someone brings up something that bothers them. For example, “I do my best. I was just too busy today! The third response, contempt, is like making fun of someone for who they are in a genuinely mean way, while obstruction (which is a normal response to contempt) is like ignoring your partner and telling them that you just don’t want to talk about it. he.”
These are normal human responses, but they’re worth remembering so you can keep an eye out for them when conflicts arise between you and a loved one.
Talk about how you fight with your partner and agree on a safe word
Once you’re done with all of this self-reflection, start a conversation with your partner. Tell them how you tend to fight, ask them about their fighting style, and devise a plan to deal with future conflicts. (More on how to do this below.)
As part of this conversation, Eller recommends finding a “safe” word that the two of you can say in the middle of a fight to signal that you need a moment to process your feelings. “The word safe means you need to take a time out,” she says. “This means you or your partner need to take a break from the interaction. This is not giving up! This is how if one of you gets too active in an argument – to avoid saying things you you will regret – you will take a time out.
She says that word or phrase can even be humorous or a reminder of how much you love each other. For example, if you had a wonderful trip to Paris, your safe word might be “Paris”.
During an argument
Recognize what anger looks like in your body
Fighting alters your body on a physiological level: Your heart rate increases, as does your breathing and blood pressure. Recognizing these warning signs in your body will help you pause before you act on emotion and impulse and say something you don’t mean (or default to the four horsemen). “It’s the key to creating some distance between you and the storm of thoughts and feelings,” Eller says. “Mentally notice that you have been activated. Begin to investigate what happens when you are emotionally overwhelmed.
Use your “safe word” to interrupt the discussion and reflect
If your brain is starting to think a mile a minute and your emotions are running high, it’s time to say your safe word. Say it and go find some space away from your partner.
Take time to relax and reflect
According to Eller, you should have three to five self-soothing practices up your sleeve when in conflict. Each should take around thirty to sixty minutes, and you should share them with your partner ahead of time so they know that, for example, the bathroom is off limits because you’re going to take a bubble bath. You should also keep their self-soothing practices in mind so that you can respect them.
Eller also has a little exercise to try while taking your time out. “Imagine a moment when you experience your partner as loving, generous and well-meaning. Add as many details as possible to really capture how you experience your partner when you feel loved and cared for,” she says. “It helps your brain get out of reactive myopia and reintegrate a more balanced view of your partner.”
Make a plan to get together later
Before you go your separate ways, establish a place and time where you will get back together and talk about it. “After your 30 to 60 minutes of self-soothing time, go to your designated space and continue the conversation,” says Eller.
This is what Gulotta calls the “repair” stage of an argument. With time, space, and thought behind you, you should have a more understanding and compassionate conversation with your partner about the root of the argument. However, this takes practice. “These are all skills that can develop over time and allow us to better manage conflict without escalation, huge disruption, and the need for repair after the fact,” says Gulotta.
After an argument
Schedule a weekly relationship check-in
One way to avoid future fights is to schedule a weekly meeting with your partner. “It’s a designated time where it’s a safe and open space to share,” says Gulotta. “Both people are okay with coming into this space and being open and willing to listen in the same way that people prioritize gym class or time with friends. It is important to prioritize this connection and this opportunity to communicate openly and in a more vulnerable way with your partner. »
Like anything, getting better at conflict resolution is a matter of practice. “Conflict is an opportunity for two people to really grow and understand each other better as individuals and collectively,” says Eller. “It is better to see conflict as a catalyst rather than something to be avoided.”