8 Essential Do's & Don'ts For Having Productive Arguments (And A Long, Happy Relationship)

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Tips For How To Argue In A Healthy Relationship

It's inevitable that couples argue and fight in a relationship — it's totally normal and expected.

Arguments happen in all relationships, even in the best ones, but how you argue is what matters.

RELATED: The 6 Types Of (Healthy) Fights Every Long-Lasting Relationship Must Have To Survive

In long-lasting, happy, and healthy relationships, both partners can use specific strategies to fight correctly so they can disagree or express dissatisfaction or even get really mad without hurting each other.

If your fights leave you or your partner feeling emotionally bruised, bad about yourself, misunderstood, or resentful, then the way you’re fighting could be damaging your chances of staying together.

Bad fighting and arguing habits can leave long-lasting emotional scars, have you reeling in hurt feelings for days, or bring up relationship doubting questions like, "Does he even want to be with me anymore?", "Will I ever be able to do anything right for her?", or "Should I stop trying at this point?"

Tempers run hot when the stakes feel high. Bad fights could actually mean that the relationship is extremely important to you both.

When it feels too scary to disagree, one or both of you might stop listening, get defensive, counter attack or walk away in the middle of the conversation in an attempt to shut down the fight.

But, these strategies actually end up escalating the conflict.

As a therapist, I often see couples turn the tiniest disagreements into unnecessarily huge fights for just this reason. Couples are scared that the disagreement might mean they’ll have to break up so they try to shut it down.

But, reacting with bad fighting and arguing habits can escalate the conflict, instead. Too many of these damaging fights might lead to a breakup conversation between two people who actually love each other and would prefer to stay together.

One of the best things about learning how to fight correctly is that it opens up communication lines for you both to express dissatisfaction, get angry, or check out your fears while still feeling respected and valued.

John Gottman’s well-known "Love Lab" divorce prediction research resulted in books full of useful insights and relationship advice, including the do's and don'ts of fighting in a relationship.

1. Do phrase your dissatisfaction as a complaint not as a criticism or as contempt

When you make a complaint, you describe the specific behavior that you didn’t like, what you thought it meant, and how it made you feel. Then, you say what you wish they’d do instead.

It is not a character assassination or an accusation. A complaint opens a conversation about something that bothered you. It leaves room for the possibility that your interpretation was incorrect and lets the other person clarify what they intended.

Here is an example of a complaint: "When you looked away from me while I was telling you a story, I felt like you weren’t interested, and you thought I was annoying. I wish you would not suddenly look away and do other things while I’m talking to you."

The receiver of this sentence may feel like his attention and opinions are important.

Here is an example of a criticism: "You are so annoying when you turn away while I’m talking!"

Calling him annoying is character assassination because it’s not talking about the behavior, it's talking about the person.

Here is an example of contempt: "I am sick to death of trying to communicate with you when you keep looking away. It’s pointless."

The receiver of this sentence may feel hated, not valued.

2. Do express your mind-read as a worry or a story you tell yourself, not an accusation

A mind-read is when you think you know what your partner is thinking, but you did not hear them say it themselves. We are sometimes right but often wrong when we mind-read.

A great thing to do when you think your partner is thinking something negative about you is to check it out. And give your partner a chance to agree or disagree with your theory.

Here are some examples of expressing your mind-read the right way, as a worry or a story you tell yourself:

  • "When you sighed heavily as I asked you to take the trash out, I worried that it meant you were annoyed at me for wanting you to participate in kitchen stuff."
  • "When you grunted and kept reading the paper this morning when I left the house, I told myself that maybe it meant you were glad I was leaving."

3. Do stick to a single, specific incident only

Do not bring in other similar past events as evidence of a character flaw or failure. That is not a path to resolving a problem.

Instead, when you’re fighting, try to limit the discussion to just one specific incident. It’s much more likely to end well because the receiver of the complaint can still feel generally valued and not like he has been accused of having a fatal, repeating flaw.

Here is an example of sticking to one specific incident: "When you turned down going to the party tonight, I felt frustrated and hurt because it’s been a while since we went out together and I’d really like to go with you."

Here is an example of bringing in past incidents: "You always say no. Remember last month when you wouldn’t go on the double date? And a few months ago when you wanted to stay home instead of going with me to the school function? Why don’t you ever go out with me?"

4. Do start with hearing and validating, when receiving a complaint

Always start with at least one compassionate sentence when receiving a complaint. An angry person needs their point to be heard before they can listen.

A successful strategy is to show that you understand what the angry person is saying by repeating and validating what they said. You’ll be surprised how much this actually defuses anger and calms people down.

This does not mean that you agree that their interpretation is correct. You still have the right to disagree with their point of view and represent yourself fairly. But, if you want your story to be listened to, then show him you’re listening first.

Here is an example of hearing and validating without necessarily agreeing that they are interpreting it correctly: "I hear that you thought I was annoyed with you and your story when I turned away. I understand how it might have seemed that way to you. And I see that you were hurt by it. You might like to know that I was not actually annoyed."

RELATED: 8 Smart Ways To Fight-Proof Your Relationship (Even When You Two Disagree)

5. Don't criticize or demonstrate contempt

Criticism and contempt are both character assassinations. Criticism is milder, contempt is more hateful. Either one communicates dislike, disrespect, and is a guaranteed descent into a destructive fight.

If you phrase something as criticism or contempt, it naturally elicits defensiveness or retaliation from your partner. And there is no rerouting that conversation in a positive direction.

Here is an example of criticism and contempt: "Having sex with you is boring. Why don’t you participate anymore?"

"This leaves the receiver feeling hated.

Here is an example of phrasing the same concern as a (healthier) complaint: "I think I might have noticed that you were participating less when we had sex last night. I felt worried that you might not be interested anymore. I miss the enthusiasm you’ve had before. Was there something bothering you?"

This leaves the receiver feeling wanted.

6. Don't mock or impersonate your partner sarcastically during a fight

Don’t ever do this. It absolutely never has a positive outcome. And it makes you seem like the bad guy.

Although it may feel like venting off some steam or might seem funny to you, it feels extremely disrespectful, ridiculing, and hurtful to the receiver.

Mocking or sarcastically impersonating someone in distress is considered by Gottman to be the kind of contempt that is a significant predictor of a breakup.

7. Don't say "You always..." or "You never..."

Avoid these even if you've witnessed the offending behavior many times from your partner.

"Always" and "never" statements are often not completely true, and will most likely make the receiver feel misunderstood or falsely accused, and will naturally elicit a counter-attack.

Here are examples of fight-starting "always" or "never" statements:

  • "You never listen to me when I’m talking."
  • "You always just lay there during sex."

Here is an example of sticking to a single incident: "When I asked you if you fed the dog and you walked away, I felt like you either didn’t hear me or didn’t want to, and I felt frustrated and sad. I wish you would stay with me when I’m asking you something so I know you’re listening."

8. Don't attempt to be neutral or avoid a fight by ignoring your partner’s complaint or being non-responsive

It may seem like a fight stopper to be non-responsive to a complaint or criticism. But it can come across as uncaring or even hostile.

Withdrawing from the conversation, walking out or being non-responsive actually escalates the fight because the person trying to communicate their feelings can’t get through to you.

Here are examples of withdrawing or non-responsiveness:

Person A: "Who ate all the whole 30 breakfast muffins? I wanted those for tomorrow!"

Person B: (runs into the other room and slams the door)

Person A: "Can we talk about yesterday when you told the neighbor that I never take the trash out? I felt really upset about that."

Person B: (Looks down at magazine and grunts)

It’s always uncomfortable when your partner is mad at you, or when you need to bring up something he did that scared or hurt you. But, if you’re in an emotionally connected relationship, you’ll eventually step on each other’s toes and need to talk it out.

If you know how to fight right, you can make these uncomfortable moments into opportunities to build solid listening and communication skills for a long-lasting healthy relationship. And remember, no couple fights perfectly all the time.

These are habits to practice and bring yourself back to. If you try to use these in the majority of your fights, you’ll be headed in the right direction.

RELATED: 10 Most Common Need-To-Win Fighting Styles That Destroy Relationships

Heidi Hartston, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in Oakland, California. She has been helping people repair relationships, manage parenting stress, overcome anxiety, OCD, depression, and addictions for 18 years. Learn more about her on her website or watch her Youtube videos.