You may think conflict is bad, but experts say it can be an opportunity for growth.
It may sound counterintuitive, but a happy relationship isn’t necessarily one that’s totally conflict-free.
Arguing is actually a sign that you’re deeply invested in the other person, says Robert Allan, PhD, a licensed clinical psychologist and associate professor at University of Colorado Denver who supervises trainings of couples therapists. “People don’t fight with you if they don’t care about you,” Dr. Allan says.
In healthy relationships, both the romantic kind and platonic connections with friends or family members, people approach conflict as a catalyst for positive change, rather than something to avoid, says Maria Thestrup, PhD, a licensed clinical psychologist in private practice in Washington, DC.
“Conflict is an opportunity for two people to actually grow and understand themselves better. It’s better to see conflict as a catalyst rather than something to avoid.”
The science backs this up. One study found that happily married couples don’t argue less than couples in distress, but they do argue differently.
Happy couples tend to be good at problem-solving in their disputes, while avoiding “negative and coercive exchanges,” the research showed. In other words, it’s not arguing that’s the problem. “The problem is that most of us don’t know how to do it properly,” says Dr. Thestrup.
Allan and Thestrup have a number of specific tips that you can use to learn to have healthier arguments in a relationship, based on their experience with treating married couples. (Both offered the caveat that these tips don’t have a place in abusive relationships, where the conflict is fundamentally toxic or traumatic).
And it’s also important to note that these tips can be useful for finding ways to argue better in any kind of relationship, including those with colleagues and family members, as well as friendships. Keep in mind that family relationships may operate differently; they come with a different history, Thestrup adds. But in general, these tips are a way to see conflict in any relationship as an opportunity for growth.
1. Start With Respect
Approach your partner (or whomever you are arguing with) with respect, Thestrup says.
We all have different life experiences that colour what is upsetting to us and what types of arguments make us feel uncomfortable.
Setting boundaries, such as agreeing to avoid using toxic language like name-calling, can be helpful in terms of having more productive arguments, because it makes the exchange more likely to stay positive. It’s also a way to show respect to the other person even while disagreeing with them.
But be flexible, Allan adds.
Recognise that it’s hard to be a perfect communicator when you get emotional.
2. Come With an Open Mind
Don’t judge the argument before it has even started. “That means setting aside your ego and what you think is right and true. Really listen to your partner when they come to you with a problem or a complaint,” Thestrup says.
3. Recognise Underlying Pain Points
If you keep getting in the same fight over and over again, Allan suggests taking time to think about why. Ask yourself: “What is happening for me? What is happening for the other person?”
Even long-married couples that Thestrup sees are often repeating a particular fight because of a past pain, for example, from something in childhood. That doesn’t mean those feelings aren’t valid or that your partner shouldn’t try to avoid something that triggers that pain for you, says Thestrup. But recognising when the fight isn’t really about what your partner is doing can make those conflicts less emotionally fraught, which in turn makes you more likely to reach a resolution.
4. Share Your Feelings
In other words, don’t just say, “You didn’t clean up the dishes,” says Thestrup. Instead, begin with what you’re feeling. For example, try sharing: “Seeing dirty dishes in the sink makes me feel like you don’t care.”
Keep the facts as objective as possible. And follow that up with what you need or how you would like the other person to resolve the problem. Try: “It would make me feel a lot better if you put the dishes in the dishwasher before you go to bed.”
5. Practise Active Listening
The American Psychological Association defines “active listening” as a psychotherapeutic technique during which the therapist listens to a client closely, asking questions as needed, in order to fully understand the content of the message and the depth of the client’s emotion. Thestrup says that the technique can help you have healthier arguments with a partner, friend, or family member, because it forces you to focus on what the other person is saying and where they’re coming from, rather than focusing on your defence.
You can do this by listening closely to the other person, even restating what they’re saying in some cases, Allan says. “Ask questions and get clarification.”
“Try to slow down and not offer your rebuttals right away,” Thestrup adds. Practising mindfulness can help train your brain to do this better, because you’re teaching yourself to focus on the moment or the task at hand, she says.
6. Remember You’re on the Same Team
It’s why you’re having the argument with the other person in the first place (as opposed to ignoring the problem), says Allan. So don’t assume bad intentions.
7. Hit Pause if Things Get Too Heated
Don’t be afraid to hit the pause button and revisit the conflict at a later time, says Allan. Maybe you always get into a fight in the morning as you’re rushing out the door, for example.
Ten minutes before bedtime may also be a bad time to try to work out a conflict, because you’re already tired. Agree to set a time that’s going to work for both of you, and talk through the conflict then, he suggests.
8. Reach a Resolution
Just because a conflict becomes heated or challenging, don’t give up on it. It’s all right to take a break if you need a time-out or if you don’t have time to solve the issue at the moment it comes up. But don’t abandon it entirely, or it will come up again, says Thestrup.
9. Stay Curious
Ask yourself: “What is my part here?” suggests Thestrup. Think about what got you so upset about in the first place. Why are you in this argument? What triggered you? If you can recognise what bothers you, you’re more likely to find opportunities for personal growth.