Let’s face it—fighting is one of the most terrible parts of a relationship. Nobody likes arguing with someone she cares about. Conflict resolution, however, is one of the most important parts of a relationship, and unfortunately the two things often go hand in hand. Disagreements are normal, whether they’re with a romantic partner, a friend, a work acquaintance, or a family member. The key to keeping all your relationships happy and well adjusted isn’t having fewer fights, it’s treating those you do have as small, manageable battles, not an all-out war.
1. Fight About One Thing at a Time—And Know What It Is
Sometimes in the heat of an argument, it’s easy to bring up every single time you’ve ever felt slighted, insulted, hurt, or angry, but bringing up unrelated issues can feel like a game of “Gotcha!” to your partner. Psychologists call it the “kitchen sink” effect, because it’s like you’re throwing in every single complaint you have. If you’re arguing about money, leave housework out of the picture, and definitely don’t bring up old arguments or reopen old wounds. If you stick to the point, it’s easier to get a resolution without getting out of control. A fight about one specific issue is manageable, but when an argument starts including past hurts or small, niggling complaints, it can feel overwhelming.
Also, when you’re fighting with your roommate over who’s going to do the dishes, be sure that you’re not really trying to say, “I feel overworked … let’s split up chores more evenly.” Sometimes small trivialities can indicate a larger problem, and if you can articulate your feelings and come to an agreement on the bigger picture, you won’t have to quibble over the small stuff.
2. Don’t Generalize and Don’t Accuse
Blanket statements like “You never want to spend Christmas at my parents’ house” are unfair. Sweeping pronouncements like “I always” or “You never” not only tend to be incorrect, but they also put the person you’re fighting with on the defensive and can make the argument escalate or start to lose focus. Instead of accusing someone of slighting you, focus on how the actions make you feel. Instead of saying, “You hate my parents,” say “It seems like you’re not interested in spending time with my family and that hurts me.” People are more receptive to change when they can understand how their actions impact others and when complaints are phrased as statements rather than demands.
3. Keep It Above the Belt
Name-calling is a lowdown and dirty tactic that’s sure to fill fights with animosity and anger. Never stoop to calling your partner nasty names or saying something purely malicious, no matter how heated the moment is. Saying hurtful and irrelevant things to a friend like, “You know, your boyfriend cheated on you” only makes that person reluctant to be open and honest for fear of getting hurt. It’s hard to erase the memories of vicious insults and they can hurt both the person you’re fighting with and your relationship. Don’t make cheap shots about someone’s body, degrade her income or career, spill her secrets, or attack her character.
4. Take a Time Out
It can be hard to remember, but when arguments get especially heated, sometimes it’s a good idea to step away for a few minutes and cool down. Take a walk around the block, sit and relax, or just spend a few moments in separate rooms to let both parties’ emotions subside and give everyone time to collect themselves and their thoughts. Just say, “Obviously we’re both really passionate about this and yelling isn’t getting us anywhere. Let’s cool off for a minute and try to resolve things with a clear head.” Often, with a few minutes’ contemplation, people can make a calmer attempt to re-visit the argument. In the thick of a fight, adrenaline can take over and people start focusing on shouting and forget to listen. Taking a minute to breathe ensures that the argument stays on track and never gets vicious or nasty.
5. Know When to Say You’re Sorry
Love does mean having to say you’re sorry—over and over again, whether it’s your spouse, your friend, or anybody else you’re having a disagreement with. Arguments aren’t one sided, and just as you’d expect your partner to accept and admit when he’s wronged you, it’s important to take criticism constructively yourself and acknowledge when you mess up. A simple statement like, “I didn’t realize how much that upset you. I’m sorry and I’ll try not to do it anymore” is enough to engender good will from your partner and shows that you’re willing to compromise. It’s easy to get wrapped up in the things that hurt us, but remember that most arguments are resolved by the parties agreeing to work together, not by one person acquiescing to the other’s demands.
6. Remember That There’s Not Always a Winner
Try not to think of arguments as being between a “winner” and a “loser.” In any kind of relationship, the point of an argument is to settle a conflict, not for one person to exert her authority or get his way at all costs. Some arguments just don’t get a resolution and all you can expect is to make your voice heard and try to understand where the other person is coming from. Couples, especially, tend to argue about the same things over and over and many things never get fully resolved. While an end to the fight isn’t always possible, it’s still important to speak out about your frustrations and try to come to a consensus. Sometimes, the best possible outcome is to agree to disagree.
People who fight by screaming, yelling, accusing, and demanding often find that they rarely reach an amicable conclusion and their relationships end up being adversarial and mistrustful. On the other hand, those who fight fairly tend to find that they can resolve disagreements more easily and with fewer hurt feelings and bruised egos. Arguments are a fact of life, but fighting fairly can make them less traumatic and even less numerous.