In the beginning of a new relationship, it is all sunshine and roses. The world has a shiny glow to it as you are lost in the fairy tale of discovery. Just seeing a text from that special someone sends the butterflies in your stomach thrashing around like crazy. You cherish the memories you make, inside jokes you create, and that special look he/she gives just to you. However, as time moves on, you begin to feel the dark monster looming around the edges of your subconscious. You know it is inevitable when two independent adults come together to form a relationship. It is only a matter of time before you come face to face with what you dread: your first fight.
That first fight often shatters your view of the relationship, but it shouldn’t. Fighting is often unfairly viewed as negative and misinterpreted as a sign of incompatibility. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Having an argument is not necessarily a red flag in a relationship. In fact, couples who claim they never fight are the ones who have the most to be worried about. Instead of looking at arguing as sign of weakness in your relationship, you should change your paradigm and see it for what it is . . . an opportunity to increase your intimacy. However, not all fighting can lead to increased intimacy. There is definitely a right way and a wrong way to do it.
The biggest mistake in a relationship is avoiding having an argument because you worry about the consequences of introducing conflict into an otherwise blissful situation. However, this is where relationship research can help you. In fact, research shows that couples that argue are 10 times more likely to have a happier, more fulfilled relationship than those who do not. What is also clear is that very few individuals know intuitively how to argue in an effective way that increases intimacy. If handled incorrectly, arguing will completely destroy a relationship. Thus, it is worth the time to educate yourself on how to argue in a way that will increase your intimacy and build your relationship.
The Gottman Institute is the world leader on relationship research. From over 40 years of working with couples, here is what research shows can build intimacy when couples argue:
- Timing is extremely important. Issues should be addressed as soon as they become issues. If you let things fester in your mind, then you will undoubtedly create an unhealthy situation for an argument to occur. Instead of being level headed, your emotions will be stirred up and you will have a hard time staying focused on the present issue.
- Have each other’s best interests at heart. It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking it is you versus your partner in an argument, but what you need to remember is that you are on the same team.
- Keep it out of the bedroom. Often couples retire to the bedroom to have their arguments so they can have some privacy, but that can create problems further down the road. You want to maintain the fun, spontaneous nature of your bedroom. Gottman recommends keeping the fighting in a neutral location. In addition, contrary to the popular adage, it is completely ok to call a time out on an argument, go to bed, and get some rest without resolving the issue. Arguing late into the night is not productive. Being able to stop the argument and retire for some much needed rest in the bedroom is an excellent strategy for helping to maintain intimacy and resolving conflict.
- Stick to the facts and own your emotions. It is helpful to use this sentence stem: “I feel ______ about _______ and I need ________.” If you are unsure of what your partner is requesting or sharing with you, always ask a clarifying question. Repeat back to them what you think you heard them share and then ask them if that is what they were trying to say. Try this sentence stem: “So what I heard you say was ____________.”
- Do not get flooded. If you feel your heart rate begin to escalate and your mind spin out of control, call for a time out. A lot of the damage that happens during an argument occurs when we lose control of our emotions and we start to escalate the conflict. You may be angry, but you need to be responsible for your emotions. Do not call names. Resist the urge to curse your partner out. Do not hurl insults. You cannot take back words once they have left your mouth. Strip out accusatory, judgmental, and inflammatory language or you will wreak havoc on your relationship.
- Listen to your partner. The two words that can stop conflict right in its tracks are “I understand.” Set aside your need to win, the need to be right. Put yourself in your partner’s shoes and empathize. If you cannot honestly say I understand, try using the words, “Help me to understand” and then listen to what your partner has to say.
- Be prepared to compromise or not have any resolution at all. According to relationship research, ⅔ of relational issues are unsolvable. You need to be prepared to compromise a lot and to realize that just because your significant other might not budge on an issue does not mean they do not love you. You need to respect that they feel strongly about something.
None of us gets it right 100% of the time. We are all human. The odds are we will make mistakes while we have arguments with our significant other. The good news is there is a remedy for the times we mess up. A sincere apology will go a long way to healing the pain caused when we have “human” moments. Successful relationships are made of two good apologizers and two good forgivers. Do not save apologies only for when you think you were wrong. You can apologize for misinterpreting a situation, for inadvertently hurting your loved one’s feelings, for being insensitive, or for being absent minded. Refusing to apologize or to forgive will foster resentment and will ultimately lead to more pain and less intimacy.
After an argument, it is imperative to show each other an extra measure of love, kindness, and support. Do not sulk because things didn’t go your way. Find a way to reconnect with the one you love. Put the relationship first. Go for a walk, hold hands, and enjoy the beauty of the outdoors. Cuddle on the couch and watch your favorite show. Make dinner together. Reaffirm your commitment to each other. How you end an argument is as important as how you argue. If there is never any resolution and a demonstration of love and commitment, then that really is a red flag.
One of the most fulfilling parts of having a relationship is connecting with another person on a deep, intimate level. Having someone embrace your quirks, intuitively know what you need when you are struggling, and celebrate with you when you have a success is what makes a relationship with that significant person so special. Fighting can play a role in creating that close intimate relationship of your dreams but only if you take the time to do it right. So, take off the boxing gloves, take a deep breath, and address those issues head-on. Then don’t forget to follow through with an increase in love and an affirmation of your commitment. You’ll be pleasantly surprised at how well this helps you fight your way to deeper levels of intimacy.