True romance: how to keep the love alive when you fight (2024)

It wasn’t without a little smugness that I used to tell friends that my partner and I almost never argued. It turns out this isn’t necessarily something to be proud of. “When couples don’t argue ever, and never show their differences to each other, or their strong feelings, they risk getting quite disconnected,” says Joanna Harrison, a couples therapist and the author of Five Arguments All Couples (Need to) Have. “They might describe themselves as being on parallel tracks, and they become out of touch with each other.”

When my partner and I do have occasional disagreements, neither of us deals with them well. He is the peacekeeper and often acquiesces, but then feels resentful; I sulk, can nurse a grudge and have been known to produce percentage calculations (I am a dreadful person) to show why he’s wrong about something he says I “always” do. Both of us flinch from real conflict, preferring passive aggression. But Harrison says: “The thing about arguments is that they keep us in touch with our partners.” If, she adds, “we use them productively”.

Psychologists used to think, says Ian Leslie, the author of Conflicted, that clashes in relationships were generally harmful. Instead, when couples are studied over months and years, those who argue (and then get over it) “are the couples who are more likely to stay together, to be happy in the relationship, and to feel that they’ve made progress on whatever problems they have”. Conflict, says Leslie, “is information. In an argument, the veil of civility that we use even with our intimate partners gets ripped away and we say what we really feel. That means we get information on what our partner really cares about, what upsets them, and often that information is new. So now we have a more accurate, updated mental model of our partner and that means we can relate to them better.”

Of course some arguments, says Harrison, “are destructive and dangerous”, particularly those that are hostile and unsafe. And constant bickering over small things can, says Susanna Abse, a couples psychotherapist and the author of Tell Me the Truth About Love, be a sign that something in your relationship “needs attending to, there are feelings around something that have not been repaired, long-term grudges have emerged. Sometimes it’s because you’re competitive – what are you competing about? – rather than a notion of you being on the same side. I think if you find yourself in a relationship that is marked by constant sniping, you need to think: what really is going on here? Because it’s very eroding. The beginnings of contempt, which is very deadening to a relationship, start to creep in.”

But if we’re talking about arguments, however big, between otherwise loving couples, a disagreement can be creative, says Harrison. “It’s two minds trying to find a way of putting differences together and coming up with something new.” A big blow-out can “kind of clear the pipes and enable things that need attention to get some airing”.

Actively avoiding conflict, says Abse, “often stops life progressing, because if you avoid the difficult things, you often don’t make decisions that move you on, such as deciding to move home or have a second child. These things sometimes require conversations that involve differences between a couple. One of the biggest challenges of relationships is how to manage conflict in a healthy and creative way.”

How, then, do we prepare for battle, or rather approach a disagreement in a grownup and productive way? Leslie says we “communicate on two channels at once. There’s the ‘content’ channel – money, who’s taking the bins out – and there’s the ‘relationship’ channel, which is more about whether each party feels they are getting the respect they deserve, or the affection they want.” If you can stay attuned to that channel, “you can have a vigorous argument about the content without walking away feeling hurt or furious. Often when the other person is being difficult or irrational about the content of the argument it’s because of something at that unspoken [relationship] level – perhaps they fear that you’re trying to shame or humiliate them.” Leslie suggests putting some work in to “ameliorate that, by making sure to acknowledge your partner’s hard work or good intentions or whatever – and then get into the contentious issue you need to discuss”.

People find it difficult to be told what to think or feel – when you say “you should …” – so avoid that, says Leslie, who adds that “in tense situations, people are very alert for threats”. Describe the emotional impact of the issue on you. “It means you relax a bit and your partner realises what the emotional stakes are.”

Try not to get into a situation where you are blaming each other, says Abse. Instead, “place things in the middle, between you, as a shared problem, holding on to the idea that you’re a couple and the issues need to be grappled with by you both”.

Saying “you always” or “you never” is unhelpful, says Abse. It can lead to an escalation, which is what you’re trying to avoid. “The more the heat gets in, the less thinking there is,” she says. “You then try and rid yourself of all the bad feelings by pushing them back at your partner.” If the argument escalates, take some time out. “Say: ‘I can’t talk about this right now, because it’s upsetting me too much. I need a bit of space to think about it. Let’s talk about it again later.’ Sometimes it’s best to let things lie for a little bit and return to them,” says Abse.

“Don’t have arguments to win them,” says Harrison. “This is not a court of law.” Don’t bring in every (real or perceived) crime they have committed over the course of your relationship. “That makes the other person panic, and feel defensive.” Try to actually listen, rather than just waiting for them to finish speaking so you can have your say. If their volume is rising, it’s probably because they’re not feeling heard. It’s difficult to remember all this in the heat of the row, Harrison adds. “We’re all only human. Sometimes you’ve got to just have the argument.” Arguments can blow up out of nowhere, but if it’s an issue you know is going to be touchy, Harrison recommends scheduling a discussion. “Don’t put the other one on the spot. Say: ‘Should we go for a walk tomorrow and talk about this?’ So everyone knows that it’s coming.”

Be curious, she says. The row happened because you left a coffee cup somewhere you shouldn’t, but what is that actually about? Go into information-gathering mode. “That is a lot of what we do in therapy – being curious about disagreements and trying to find the deeper layers, because an argument about a coffee cup could be about some fundamental principle going on in the relationship that needs attention.”

The hot topics that often cause arguments – money, jealousies, big life decisions – usually have a resonance beyond the relationship, says Abse, often going back to childhood. “If you’re finding certain topics very difficult, having a bit of space where you think about why it’s so hard for you, together or on your own, is important.”

It is the repair of the relationship after an argument that is vital. “Ruptures followed by repair are strengthening and produce greater resilience in a couple than avoidance,” says Abse. Try whatever works for you both – an apology, a cup of tea, a biscuit. “And when the gesture has been made, really try to reciprocate. You can say: ‘I’m still cross with you’, but accept the hug or the cup of tea.” Refusing a peace offering “is likely to lead to gestures not being made and making it harder to come back from arguments. Sometimes it takes time – if the rupture has been about a big betrayal then you’ve got to make the gesture for longer.”

A lot of people, says Abse, are fearful of having rows – maybe you witnessed your parents arguing and found it frightening. “But sometimes you do have to have big arguments, and sometimes you have to accept that they go on for a while.” An argument may be resolved, but it may be a case of learning to live with your differences, she says. “Or realising: ‘We’re too different and we can’t live with that.’”

Since Leslie wrote his book, he has found himself more likely to engage in arguments with his wife. “Not angry ones,” he adds. He suggests having lots of “good-natured, low-stakes arguments. Then, when the bigger ones come along, you’ll be more prepared to deal with them.” As for me, I’m off to start a row.

True romance: how to keep the love alive when you fight (2024)
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