Sometimes despite our best intentions to raise difficult issues gently, things can escalate. Arguments can quickly become stressful and unproductive, especially when we are stuck in bad patterns. Most of us don’t get taught how to deal with horrible rows! But learning how to resolve arguments constructively can save you a lot of stress and heartache. Here are my tips.
How To Resolve Arguments Constructively
How To Recognise Flooding
Emotional flooding is when you become overwhelmed by rage, hurt, panic or fear. This happens in response to negativity from your partner in the form of criticism, contempt, or defensiveness. Flooding can feel very physical – you might feel tense, hot, sick and even deaf. It becomes difficult to think straight.
You might feel so defenceless against your partner’s negativity – and the flooded feeling that follows – that you disengage emotionally and stonewall your partner, looking away and keeping quiet.
Stonewalling is deeply damaging to your relationship, so it is important to learn to recognise flooding and know what to do next so that you can start communicating again.
How To Deescalate Tension
You can learn how to slow things down when a conflict is escalating, and also to notice and respond to it when your partner is trying to reach out to you. If a discussion starts off on the wrong foot, or you are getting into a cycle of recriminations, there are things you can do to stop it.
A repair attempt is any statement or action that prevents negativity from escalating out of control. Repair attempts deescalate the tension during a touchy conversation, putting the brakes on so flooding is prevented.
You might say…
- I feel scared/sad/blamed/defensive/flooded/criticised/worried right now.
- Please slow down/be gentler with me/just listen and try to understand/help me calm down.
- I need your support/a hug/to finish what I was saying/to start again.
- I’m sorry/I didn’t mean that/I can see I’ve upset you/can I take that back?
- I’ve never thought of it like that/I want to understand your point of view/I see what you mean.
- We can find a way to work this out together.
- Can we stop/take a break/come back to this later?
As well as saying things like these, look out for your partner making repair attempts. Think of them as opportunities to make the situation better, take a deep breath, and respond as gently as you can.
How to Resolve Arguments Constructively – Know When to Take A Break
Conflict is really stressful. You’ve probably experienced your heart pounding, your breathing getting shallow, maybe even sweating. It’s up to you to learn how to calm and comfort yourself.
If you’re fighting a lot, it might help for you to agree a safe word. If either of you is feeling flooded, you can say the word and separate for at least fifteen minutes – that’s how long it can take to calm down. Agree in advance where you will both go, and that if you haven’t calmed down enough, you’ll wait longer.
Learn How to Self-Soothe
Once you have hit the pause button, it is time to turn your attention inwards. Reassure yourself that this will pass, and you will be fine. Your mind will most likely be racing with thoughts of righteous indignation or innocent victimhood – but remember that so will your partner’s!
If you can do something that will soothe and distract you like exercising, reading, or listening to music, that should help. Or you could try sitting still, focusing on your breathing and gradually tensing and releasing your muscles from your head to your toes. Use the time to actively self-soothe rather than obsessing over your version of what has been happening between you.
In an intimate, loving relationship, you have to compromise. It’s a key part of how to resolve arguments constructively. If one of you is always getting his/her way, you might have peace, but without fairness, the relationship will suffer.
For compromise negotiations to work, you need to be open to your partner’s opinions and desires. You don’t have to agree with everything your partner says, but you have to be honestly open to considering his/her position.
Agree to both think about the aspects of the problem that feel immovable to you, and the ones you feel willing to compromise on, and each write them down separately under two headings. Remember the aikido principle of yielding to win – the more able you are to compromise, the better able you’ll be to persuade your partner. So try to make your compromise lists longer than your immovable lists.
Now you are ready to work to find common ground. Look at your lists and consider
- What you agree on
- What feelings are most important to you both
- What feelings you have in common
- What goals you have in common
- How those goals can be accomplished
Keep an eye out for flooding and make repair attempts/take breaks/self-soothe as necessary if things get tense again.
Your Partner Isn’t Perfect – But Neither Are You
If you want your relationship to last, you’ll have to be tolerant of each other’s shortcomings. Thinking the problem is something about your partner’s faults won’t get you anywhere. Accepting flaws and foibles is a prerequisite to compromise.
In calmer times, try taking a mental snapshot of your partner at his or her best. Think of a time when you have felt a strong love and appreciation for your partner and memorise as much detail as you can about that moment. Then when you find yourself thinking of him/her very negatively, you can bring this image to mind to balance out your view.
No one is perfect and every healthy relationship has struggles and disputes. Your role as loving partners is not to seek to change one another, but to negotiate, find common ground, and ways that you can accommodate each other.
As your communication improves, your difficulties should become easier to resolve. But sometimes it can help to have an impartial third party listen in and support you both. If you are in or around Brighton and Hove and would like to see if I could help in this way, please get in touch.
Advice on how to resolve arguments constructively adapted from The Seven Principles For Making Marriage Work by John Gottman and Nan Silver, which comes highly recommended.