Let’s face it, all couple argue. Even the most blissfully married have the odd wobble about who forgot to buy the loo roll or who ate the last Rolo. But does it always signal trouble in paradise or is it sometimes a good thing to have a big old barney and clear the air?
“All couples will hit disagreements. The unhealthy thing is not acknowledging them and instead allowing them to fester,” says relationships coach and author of Stop Arguing, Start Talking, Susan Quilliam.
“If you’re not arguing at all, you’re not engaging in the relationship. And that is toxic.”
Of course if you’re arguing all the time, that is just as toxic, and can be much more dramatic and a much quicker route to splitting up. So it’s not to say that arguments are always a good thing either.
It’s all about how you argue, explains Susan.
“Get it out in the open,” she says. “There’s no need to worry when you’re hammering these issues. The time to worry is when it turns vicious and nasty. That’s when one or both of you are going to do what all animals do when they feel threatened and that is flight, flight or freeze.
“Nip it in the bud. You have to love somebody deeply in order to have a really raging argument, and if you love someone deeply it suggests you know each other pretty well, in which case you should be able to see it coming and put a stop to it before it really gets going.”
How to resolve an argument
But sometimes there’s just no stopping the argument juggernaut when it sets off on its course. In these cases, you need to try to get a hold of your emotions.
“The reason why we fight, flight or freeze is because we’re afraid in some way or the emotions come rushing to the surface. The first step is to acknowledge that and fall back on our natural way to calm ourselves down. Some people like to take time apart, even just a half hour walk; for others it’s to have a hug. Whatever yours is, calm yourself down and you’ll be in a far better place to negotiate.”
And once you’ve calmed yourself down, turn your attention to helping your partner do the same. There’s really no point in trying to discuss anything unless you’re both calm.
Going to bed angry
It’s not just how you argue, but when you argue too. If you can genuinely say you never go to bed angry, that is a really good sign, says Susan. “It’s a sign of being able to let go of the anger and it suggests there’s much less chance of getting into a toxic war of attrition.”
But if you do occasionally stomp off to bed in a huff, do not despair. “Sometimes you do need to go to bed and sleep on it. Tiredness, work lifestyles and alcohol often make differences seem much bigger and more meaningful than they are and in the cold light of day you can wake up and look at each other across the bed and say ‘well, that was stupid, wasn’t it?’ and it’s soon forgotten.”
Stuck in an argument rut
Arguments that just won’t go away, even after a good night’s sleep, can be tricky to get past. If you’re in an argument rut that revolves around one single issue that keeps coming back again, that can actually be easy to solve. If it’s ‘shall we send our child to this school or that school’ then the key is to take the emotion out of it and use logic to solve it.
“There is a logical answer to this as surely you both agree you want the same thing, which is that you want your child to be happy and well educated. Once you decide that, then all you arguing about are the details and, with some compromise on both sides, details can usually be sorted.”
However, if you’re arguing about anything and everything, that is down to the exact opposite. It’s not about what you’re arguing about at all and it probably won’t be resolved rationally, because there is some deeper, underlying resentment, often from many years ago, that is now manifesting in the relationship.
“She’s never forgiven him for going out with someone else when they broke up for six months. She has kept in down while the kids were growing up but now she really wants to put it on the table. He’s never gotten rid of that feeling he got from his parents that he is somehow always in the wrong. His mum always shouted at him and now he feels his wife is shouting at him and by god, he’s going to shout back.
“I often say to couples it’s not about the here and now but about the there and then. It’s about what happened in the past and it’s about being frightened about it happening again in the future, so you need to look to the past to get past it.”
Winner takes all?
And it is never, ever about winning and losing, however much it might feel like it definitely is. One of the most important things to realise about arguing is that no matter how important it is to win the battle, you’re not going to win the war that way.
and the biggest, hardest shift they have to make is to accept that this will never work. But if they can’t make that shift, then very often there is no way forward. There are very few ways of coming through that gridlock intact.”