The expectation to enjoy the benefits of a strong marriage, or long-term relationship without conflict, disagreement or argument, is one that new couples adopt readily. After all, we are shown examples on television every day, of what it means to be in a healthy relationship with a partner. Even conflicts between married couples on some of our favorite shows, are misleading, and disproportionately mild, compared to real life.
The idea that you and your partner will never ‘bump heads’ or disagree on issues such as spending and finances, the household value system, discipline, leadership and guidance for children, is a positive aspiration. Wouldn’t it be nice if every relationship we had was tranquil, and without conflict? Disagreements however, are not unhealthy, as long as both partners agree to a code of ‘fighting fair’, which keeps the focus more on the issue of disagreement, rather than personal criticism and blame.
If the focus in your relationship has been to minimize, or avoid any type of conflict, the stifling of things that are important to you (for the sake of maintaining peace) becomes a bigger threat to your relationship, than healthy periodic disagreements. We share some insights and clinical studies that demonstrate it is not whether you have arguments, but how you communicate and demonstrate value and respect during the disagreement, that matters most.
Clinical Evidence That Couples Who Constructively Argue Stay Together
In a 2015 study, published by the Journal of Counseling Psychology, “Forgiveness-reconciliation and communication-conflict-resolution interventions versus retested controls in early married couples,” 145 new couples received conflict management training. There were two aspects to the training that helped the focus group navigate disagreements that strengthened (instead of damaged) their respective relationships.
The Hope Focused Approach was applied as two, nine-hour interventions. The training modality (HOPE) stands for Handling Our Problems Effectively, which provides resources and tools that emphasize communication and conflict resolution. The second modality used in the research study was (FREE), which is Forgiveness and Reconciliation Through Experiencing Empathy.
Couples who received the enrichment training, reported that they felt happier in their relationships over the long run, than those who received counseling, without conflict management tools. This demonstrated that the rules of engagement, and quality communication, allow couples to express grievances and find solutions, without collateral damage to the relationship.
How Can Couples Train Constructive Communication During Disagreements?
In the heat of the moment, when emotions are on high-alert, your body also responds by increasing cortisol levels (the stress hormone). This can escalate a mild disagreement, to a level where feelings and trust between partners, can be negatively impacted. Learning to fight fair, means cherishing your partners emotional health, while honoring your own expression, and meeting somewhere in the middle, where both partners are happy with the outcome.
Here are five tips that can help couples adopt constructive behaviors in arguments and disagreements:
1. Never wait on an issue or problem that upsets you. Clinical studies show that the longer an individual suppresses something that has upset, disappointed or concerned them, the more likely they are to compound the stress of the issue, resulting in hostility. The best time to say something, is in the present (without allowing it to fester over time).
2. Understand that individuals deal with conflict in different ways. Some people prefer to address it ‘head on’, while others try to simply let it go, without creating what they perceive to be discord or disruption to the day. Introverted individuals can be less likely to say something, and in a relationship, they may even appear aloof, given the lack of emotional reactivity. Extroverts may be more prone to say exactly what is on their mind, without pausing to choose their words carefully, and inadvertently hurt the feelings of their spouse or partner. How you argue, is closely linked to your personality type, and other environmentally learned behaviors; don’t assume, simply try to understand their communication style may vary from your own.
3. Attack the issue, but never attack each other. A disagreement can be a positive and productive exercise, that opens the channels of communication, and resolves an issue or problem. Couples should work together to solve the issue (like members of the same team in a business meeting), rather than distract from the problem by harsh, personal criticism. If name calling, insults or rehashing of previous mistakes is part of the argument, you are creating damage to the integrity of your personal relationship. Never say things that you cannot take back; harsh words can resonate for months or even years, after an argument.
4. Learn to compromise. No relationship is about one partner getting everything they want, all the time. If something matters to your spouse or partner, you may not value it, or understand it, but you should honor it, simply because it is important to them. It’s not always about meeting half way; to have a healthy relationship means that sometimes, you will acquiesce to your partners needs, because you love them.
5. If you are wrong, apologize to your partner. No one is perfect, but long-term couples are prone place some unreasonable expectations of perfection on their spouse or partner. Just as you make mistakes, and communication blunders, so does your partner. And forgiveness is the ultimate healing power, in any relationship.
Couples who learn how to communicate effectively, value, nurture and strengthen their relationships, even after a disagreement. Because nothing validates how much someone means to you, than giving them time to express their needs, and being caring enough to work together, to resolve any obstacle or miscommunication in your relationship. That is the secret of some of the strongest couples and marriages, we know.