Mike and I don't really fight.
We definitely don't agree all the time, but I would say we argue maybe 3-4 times a month. (And by argue I mean personal arguments, not arguments about politics and such, which we also have.)
We had one such argument tonight, which followed our usual pattern:
- Come to a resolution
- Agree that we've reached a resolution
- Deconstruct the argument we just had to figure out what went wrong*
Having said that, I try to share with you, my wonderful readers, those things that I have found to work well for myself in hopes that they will be of some benefit to you.
And so, here are the tips Mike and I have picked up over 7 years of arguing and analyzing our arguments:
- Set ground rules. Mike and I came from two very different backgrounds, almost stereotypically so: the one in which conflict was avoided whenever possible -- my mom still gets visibly anxious anytime Mike and I so much as disagree in front of her -- and the one in which conflict was woven into the fabric of daily life. In Mike's family, it was understood that when you were fighting, all bets were off and you could just vent freely without worrying about fighting fair. He quickly learned that I took everything he said seriously and was not quick to forgive if he said something truly hurtful.
- Understand your involuntary habits. We've established that while I hate crying and try to avoid it at all costs, I have no control over my tendency to cry, so my crying is not meant to be manipulative or make me out to be a victim, it's just something I can't help that should be ignored. On another point, Mike will sometimes raise his voice without even realizing it, which I interpret as yelling and which can lead to a subsequent argument about whether or not he was yelling at me. We've talked over these things so we both have a better idea how to react when they happen.
- Focus on the issue at hand. To my overly logical mind, it's like a courtroom: You can summon evidence to back up a point, but not simply for character defamation. Stick to specific facts rather than making broad, sweeping statements. For example, "I asked whether you went to the store not because I don't trust you, but because last week you said you were going, and then you didn't." That is different than, "I asked whether you went to the store because you're always forgetting to do stuff and I have no idea if I can trust you to follow through on anything."
- Acknowledge the other person's feelings. When you focus on actions and reasons, you may lose sight of the real issue. "You did X." "I did X because of A, B, and C!" The point is rarely whether you had a good reason for doing something. In a relationship, the important thing is to act in a way that doesn't hurt the other person. This is why Mike always uses the phrase "Have you considered..." rather than "Why don't you..." even if he thinks that "Why don't you..." is a perfectly reasonable thing to say.
- Similarly, explain how you feel. I know it's a cliché to use "I feel" statements instead of "you did" statements, but it really does make for a better conversation. As mentioned above, focusing only on actions can derail a conversation. If you keep your focus on why the other person was wrong, all you're going to do is make the other person defensive because they don't probably feel like they were wrong. But if you help them understand the connection between their actions and your feelings, you can reasonably request that they don't do it anymore without having to prove that it's the "wrong" thing to do.
- Focus on solutions rather than blame. There are two ways to work toward a resolution: past-oriented and future-oriented. Past-oriented is saying, "You did X, which upset me." Future-oriented is saying, "If you could do Y in the future, then I would not be upset / not react the way I did." Certainly you can explain both, but focusing more on what you would like to see happen rather than what you didn't like that happened will help you agree on a solution more quickly.
- Clarify the solution. Maybe your partner says, "If you did Y in these kinds of situations, that would really help" and you're thinking, "But I already did Y and it didn't work!" Rather than privately stewing or lashing out about it, just clarify. Say, "I thought I was doing Y when I did A, B, and C. How is that different from what you're asking?"
This happened tonight when Mike and I were talking. He said, "I'd appreciate if you just asked whether I'd thought about some detail, rather than assuming that I hadn't and telling me to do it." I asked, "Hm, I thought that's what I was doing when I asked, 'Have you thought about when you're going to send the fax?' How could I ask differently?" He thought about it for a minute and then decided that actually the way I'd asked was fine, it was just the fact that I'd asked while he was in the middle of doing the dishes that was the problem. I could have said, "No, I already tried that and it didn't work!" but instead I tried to clarify exactly what Mike wanted me to do, which led to a better solution.
- Once you've reached a resolution, stop. Let's say your partner acknowledges that the thing they did upset you or hurt you, and they explain how they will avoid doing it in the future. It can be so tempting to continue hashing out why it upset you so much or how many times they've done it in the past or trying to make them apologize, but none of that is going to make things any better. The goal is to make sure both parties feel heard and understood and that you both understand and agree on the solution.
*EDIT: I realized after writing this that there's actually one more step, of agreeing on a second solution about how to avoid turning this kind of conversation into an argument in the future. We realize that often what leads to an argument is not the topic itself but how we communicate about it. Thus, in tonight's argument, our first resolution was that Mike was going to make a doctor's appointment for next week. Our second resolution was that I wouldn't bring up things like that while he was doing the dishes.