Supporting your journey to a healthier, happier you
Sara Frawley, LMHC

Fighting Fair: How to Argue Better

The aim of argument, or of discussion, should not be victory, but progress. -Joseph Joubert

Arguments are a part of relationships. This is true for all types of relationships. Often the key is to learn how to argue more productively.

Have you ever gotten into a big, blow-out argument only to later realize that you don’t even remember how the fight began? You probably remember how you felt, though, and I’m sure it was all that great.

Arguments that get out of control can lead to many emotions: anger, fury, hurt, sadness, confusion, feeling overwhelmed or misunderstood, guilt, fear, and more.

Arguments in relationships are normal. Some people even believe that if you never disagree with your partner, for example, then someone isn’t voicing their opinion because people can’t possibly agree on everything!

While there may be some truth to that, each relationship is different. There are varying levels of what an individual and a couple think about disagreements and how they handle them. However, there are some guidelines that almost all couples can find helpful.

You may have heard of the “Rules of Fair Fighting.” (You can find much information out on the web.) The general rules of thumb are that when you argue:

  • Try to stay calm and not yell
  • Don’t call each other names or bring up a sensitive topic to purposely be hurtful
  • Avoid swearing and sarcasm
  • Give each other time to speak – don’t interrupt
  • Focus on the one issue at hand and not bring up past arguments or other issues
  • Don’t accuse or blame

One of the most important tips I share with clients who are struggling with arguments in their relationship is, if nothing else, to have a plan in place to stop arguments before they escalate too far.

Arguments are not innately bad; when they get out of hand is when they do real harm, and no disagreement is resolved once emotions run high. The key is to have a conversation ahead of time, whenever everyone is calm, and agree about how you will argue.

An easy way is to pick a word or phrase that you both have the option of using during a fight that basically indicates a timeout. Choose whatever works for you. For example one couple used the phrase, “Break time” to indicate taking a break from the argument. Another couple would say, “This is one of those times” then separate and take some space.

Whatever your word or phrase, once said, everyone has previously agreed that they will stop, separate, and come back to the issue later when calmer.

The timeout word or phrase can be used by either person – basically whoever notices or feels first that the argument is getting out of hand. The goal is to have a timeout before one person storms out or feelings get really hurt.

Part of the initial agreement is that you both respect when the other person uses the word or phrase. You also both have agreed that using the word or phrase does not mean the issue is being ignored but that it will be addressed again in an hour, day, or week – however long it takes for feelings to cool off.

This last part about agreeing you will come back to discuss the issue is important because the timeout is not about walking away and ignoring a problem but taking a break to cool off and come back later when everyone is in a better place to talk it out.

Here are a few tips to think about when coming back to discuss an issue after an argument.

  • What is the problem exactly and what do I need out of this discussion? It’s not unusual for an argument to have blown up into a new problem not even relate to the original problem. Make sure you know what it is you’re trying to work on.
  • When you come back and discuss the issue, share your feelings clearly. Use “I” statements to focus on yourself rather than “you” statements, which can make the other person defensive.
    “I feel hurt when you XYZ” will really get to the issue better, and cause less defensive reactions, than if you say, “You are a jerk when you do XYZ.”
  • This is not a contest or competition to be right or win – you are trying to work together.
  • Remember to choose your battles. If you want something, make sure you really think about it and weigh the pros and cons to decide if it’s worth it. Also consider the possibility of compromise, which often ends up being the best solution.
  • Practice mutual respect and listen to the other person’s perspective. You may not agree, but hear each other out and expect the same in return.
  • You may find it helpful to talk it out beforehand out loud or write down your thoughts to process them. This will help you be better prepared to state your thoughts and feelings on the topic.

Arguments are a normal part of relationships. The key is to make sure you maintain respect for the other person – and for yourself. Don’t be afraid to talk about arguing with the people close to you. As is often the case, communication can make all the difference.

How do you deal with arguments? What tools have helped you in resolving disagreements?

For good ideas and true innovation, you need human interaction, conflict, argument, debate. -Margaret Heffernan

Please note that the Toolbox articles are meant to be informative and are not a replacement for therapy.