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Argue Effectively

by Jason Collins

No couple agrees on everything all the time. Disagreements are a normal part of every relationship. In fact, two people who feel the freedom to express their individual thoughts and opinions with their partner, even when they differ, is a sign of health and safety within the relationship. So, whenever I’m working with a couple, it’s not the fact that they argue that most concerns me. It’s how they argue or disagree that matters most to the flourishing of their relationship. Many times, the unhealthy ways we express ourselves to our partners can increase the likelihood that a destructive argument will start. But, when couples develop healthy emotional skills and awareness, they can actually learn to approach and respond to one another in ways that draw them together rather than push them away. Here are a few skills and strategies I encourage couples to develop that can help them disagree more effectively…

Learn to identify your own emotions.

In my experience, most of us were taught to avoid and deny negative emotions. This tendency can lead us to approach our partner in unhealthy ways. Many arguments begin with an unmet expectation or an unmet need, and these lead us to feel specific emotions. Understanding what you’re feeling and why you feel this way can help you approach your partner more effectively. I encourage couples to spend time building their emotional vocabulary. A great tool to help with this is the feelings wheel. Notice your body’s reaction and your thought processes when you’re feeling emotionally triggered. Spend time investigating the emotion and ask yourself: What is this emotion that I’m feeling? Where did it come from? How and when should I express this emotion to my partner?

man and woman sitting on couch
Photo by Mikhail Nilov on

Communicate using “I” statements.

Once you’ve identified the emotion, choose an appropriate time and express it to your partner in a way that doesn’t immediately evoke defensiveness in them. “I” statements are healthy ways to do this. Instead of saying “You never clean up around here! You’re such a slob!” Try expressing your feelings. “I feel overwhelmed and frustrated when the kitchen is cluttered. Would you help me clean up?” In this way, you’re not pointing the finger at your partner as the problem. You’re expressing yourself and being vulnerable, which is the best way to invite connection and cooperation.

Respond to your partner’s emotions with empathy.

Whenever your partner practices vulnerability with you and expresses their feelings, do your best to practice understanding and empathy rather than defensiveness. Remember, emotions are not accusations. They’re just a window into your partner’s inner world. So, try not to take it personally. Start by trying to understand and empathize with them. One way I frame this for my clients is the phrase – “Feel it, don’t fix it.” Many times your partner doesn’t need you to fix their negative emotions. They just need to know you understand and you’re with them.

Take responsibility.

If you see that you’ve done something wrong whether intentional or not, consider this feedback from your partner as an opportunity to grow. Show remorse and apologize when it’s appropriate.

Remember these are all skills that take time to develop. So, be patient with yourself and your partner while you’re learning this new way to interact and disagree. And, of course if you’re feeling stuck, reach out for help or learn more about how therapy works.

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