How to Turn Arguments into Healthy Discussions

One of the most frequent complaints of couples coming for counseling is, "We're fighting all the time." Fights are the occasion for blaming, assuming the worst, dredging up the past, and most importantly, striving (and generally failing) to be heard. What if moments of controversy could instead provide opportunities for getting to know each other better? What if conflict provided the setting for showing support for each other's needs and values, and working together as a team to solve problems? Partners with a healthy focus do it all the time, and so can you.

First, it is important to redefine problems as jointly shared in the relationship. This makes any issue a challenge to be tackled together rather than a contest with a winner and a loser. This removes the elements of attack and defense, which clears the way for more effective communication on the issue. Techniques that help with this are the use of "I" messages and the use of neutral, descriptive (non-judging) language. For example, "I am frustrated about us not getting to appointments on time," instead of, "You always make us late."

Most conflicts do not represent a partner's attempt to hurt you or to "win," but many end up feeling that way. What fuels most fights is the great need of each person to feel acknowledged and valued. When people feel unheard or devalued, most will "fight" for themselves. Couples often speak of horrible fights in which the triggering event can no longer be remembered, because the fight itself was not about the initial event, but about struggling to feel valued and counted.

With this in mind, remember that the differences of opinion you may have on a particular topic, whether it be about parenting problems or what to do for fun this weekend, are not the real problem. They are merely the stage upon which your relationship plays out. What most of us really want is not necessarily to get our way. Well okay, we do want that, but what we usually want more is to feel respected, valued, understood, and counted. Most of us will happily support a solution that may look much different than the one we originally proposed if the solution includes our input and addresses our emotional needs.

Your next step then, is to discuss what you each need in order to feel comfortable with the solution.  For example, you can move from, "Jordan should be grounded for a week!" to, "I need for Jordan to know that what he did was wrong, and for our position as parents to be respected." You can see the greater flexibility in the second statement, which allows for more choices of acceptable solutions, while making the real need very clear. When partners talk about their emotional needs on an issue rather than fighting over differing proposals, they often find that they share much common ground. This allows them to unite in mutual support rather than splitting over more superficial differences of opinion.

Once the real needs have been clarified, the partners can then work together to brainstorm the maximum possible number of solutions to the problem at hand. Brainstorming needs to be a free-flowing, uncensored generation of ideas - quantity, not quality, is your goal in brainstorming. Don't be afraid to be silly or have fun with it, because sometimes the silly solution you offered as a joke may get you thinking about something that would actually work. Besides, a little levity in the process never hurts.

When you have fully exhausted your imaginations and can't come up with any more ideas, the partnership then evaluates which solutions may be workable. Any solution that cannot be adjusted to meet both sets of emotional needs will be removed from consideration. You work together to fine-tune the more promising solutions until you get at least one that you both feel good about. If you haven't yet found a mutually agreeable solution, then it means you keep looking -- the most important criteria in any solution are that the relationship be preserved and that the partners each feel valued.

At this point, implementation as a partnership will generally come quite easily, and the two of you may want to set up a date for later evaluation of the plan to assure that it worked out the way you both hoped. If either of you has felt dissatisfied with the outcome, this is your opportunity as a team to modify the strategy further until you both feel comfortable with your results.

It must be noted that several conditions will inhibit or defeat this process. It can't work as well in any relationship in which there is substance abuse, due to the impaired intellectual and emotional capabilities of the user(s). It seldom works in any relationship involving emotional or physical abuse, due to the chronic emphasis on a power hierarchy which defeats true teamwork and diminishes one partner (see How to Tell When Your Relationship is Out of Balance for more information about this). Although some of these relationships are doomed to eventual failure, many of them have untapped potential which may be realized through counseling or other efforts at self-education.

With an emphasis on relationship maintenance and mutual support, the fights of today truly can become the growth opportunities of tomorrow. Naturally, nobody enjoys growing pains, but without them, the relationship won't grow stronger. Get together with your partner and try a positive shift of focus, along with the steps outlined above, and see what it can do for your relationship.

Copyright © 2000, Elizabeth Babcock, LCSW.  All rights reserved. 

Related articles:

A Healthy Relationship Begins With a Healthy You  

How to Tell When Your Relationship is Out of Balance

Save Your Marriage and Keep It Strong

Financial Management Basics


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