Apr 15, 2021 / Gary W. Lewandowski Jr PhD
Let’s get one simple fact out of the way: All couples argue.
Whether you see them or not, every couple has disagreements. You may think that happily and unhappily married couples argue about different things, but they don’t.
According to a 2019 study, here are the top three conflict triggers that upset, irritate, hurt, or anger partners. They are:
- Condescension (i.e., you are treated as stupid or inferior; your partner acts like they think they’re better than you)
- Possessiveness, jealousy and/or dependency (i.e., your partner demands too much attention or time or is overly jealous, possessive, or dependent)
- Neglect, rejection and/or unreliability (i.e., your partner ignores your feelings, doesn’t call or text, doesn’t say they love you)
Other high-ranking contenders were inconsiderate partners, self-absorbed partners and moody partners.
But what about the topics that we routinely avoid? While we sidestep thorny areas such as past partners and our past and present sex life, there is one topic we avoid altogether: The relationship itself.
Couples who believed “arguing should not be tolerated” were less satisfied and more aggressive, and the female partners were more depressed.
Much like parents who avoid the “sex talk” with their kids, partners avoid discussing their relationship because it provokes anxiety. In a study, it was the number-one taboo topic for one out of every three people and among the top topics to avoid for seven out of ten people.
But never have we paid so little attention to something so important — when couples believed that conflict was a bad sign, they had worse relationships. Those who believed “arguing should not be tolerated” were less satisfied and more aggressive, and the female partners were more depressed.
When researchers from the University of Michigan and Penn State University followed more than 1,500 adults for more than a week, they found that while people felt better on the day they avoided an argument, the next day they had diminished psychological well-being and increased cortisol, which can lead to weight gain, mood swings, and trouble sleeping. Short-term gain, long-term pain.
When we avoid conflict, we miss the opportunity to help our relationship improve. Without arguments there is no progress.
Studies have found that avoiding conversations now means making the relationship worse later. A 2017 study found that when partners avoided important relationship topics, they had worse communication, were less happy, and were less dedicated to their relationship seven weeks later.
Not only that, but when we avoid conflict we miss the opportunity to help our relationship improve. Without arguments there is no progress.
So most couples need to argue more, not less. To be clear, we shouldn’t seek friction and intentionally find reasons to fight, but we should willingly embrace naturally arising conflict. With that in mind, we should embrace frequent low-stakes disagreements and occasional arguments and have few, if any, big confrontations.
When we assume the best of our partner, we’re less likely to see malice in their actions, which makes arguments less stressful and more likely to be resolved.
For the good of the relationship, every argument needs to start the same way: Partners need to give each other the benefit of the doubt. Rather than start off assuming your partner is wrong, is hopelessly flawed, has bad intentions or is trying to hurt you, you give them what psychologist Carl Rogers calls “unconditional positive regard,” or the belief that at their core, everyone is a good person.
Research from 2019 backs this up, finding that when we assume the best of our partner, we’re less likely to see malice in their actions, which makes arguments less stressful and more likely to be resolved.
For successful conflict resolution, next you need to know what type of problem you’re dealing with. For serious problems like infidelity or substance abuse, it’s better to be direct by demanding change, taking a nonnegotiable stance, and showing anger, especially if your partner is able to change.
If the problems are more mundane (for ex., divvying up chores), you’re better off taking a cooperative approach by using love, humor, affection, and optimism. This is also the better tack for unsolvable problems (e.g., a meddlesome mother-in-law) or a partner who is hopelessly stubborn.
We are too confident in our ability to understand our partners, and they overestimate how clear they are when speaking to us.
Regardless of the problem, there’s no substitute for listening to your partner. Sounds simple, but we rarely truly listen.
How do we become better listeners? Give a “CRAPO”. Here’s what I mean:
When your partner talks, you need to be sure that you’re clear about what they’re saying. We are too confident in our ability to understand our partners, and they overestimate how clear they are when speaking to us.
To remove all doubt, ask questions like, “When you say ______, what exactly does that mean?”; “Am I correct that ______ is the key issue?”; and “Can you give an example of ______?” It’s possible you’ll get it wrong, but then your partner can set the record straight and they’ll appreciate that you cared enough to try.
2. Reflect the other person’s feelings
This one should probably be named “empathy,” but I needed the letter R. Of course, the R could also stand for “Really Important” because of the five keys, this one is the most critical to get right.
Mastering empathy starts with a simple realization: Behind everything our partner says, there’s an emotion they’re dying to have us notice.
When you give a CRAPO, your job is to reflect back the deeper feelings that your partner is expressing: hurt, embarrassment, confusion, disappointment, frustration, annoyance, nervousness, bewilderment, apathy, or feeling overwhelmed, undervalued, lost, and inauthentic.
When acknowledging your partner’s feelings, you can hedge a bit with phrases like “You seem.. .,” “It sounds like… ,” or “Are you feeling . . .?” If you’re wrong, your partner knows you’re trying to understand, and empathy research shows your effort is more important for relationship satisfaction than accuracy.
Trying to find the right thing to say is only half the battle. You also need to watch your nonverbal signals, or the ways you communicate that go beyond the words you’re using.
For example, you need to show you’re listening by maintaining eye contact and sitting squarely facing your partner in a relaxed and open position, with just the slightest lean toward them.
Appearing fully engaged and present, without nearby distractions like your phone or other screens, conveys to your partner that the conversation is important. Prioritizing nonverbal signals also helps you pay attention, which is important because you need every ounce of mental bandwidth to master the other four steps to giving a CRAPO.
We need to realize that problems won’t just disappear and that talking things out is our only hope for improvement.
To demonstrate your understanding, you should be able to recap what your partner is saying, using your own words. The process of rephrasing and summarizing has two big benefits: First, it shows your partner that you’re deeply invested in the conversation; second, knowing you need to paraphrase forces you to pay close attention.
5. Open-ended questions
If we’re being honest, in most conversations we’re waiting to turn the focus back to ourselves. When giving a CRAPO, you keep the spotlight on your partner by giving them the space to talk through how they feel.
To do that, ask open-ended questions that help your partner process their feelings. Lead them toward deeper analysis by asking questions like “What would you suggest to someone else in this same situation?”; “How did you make this decision?”; “What would make things better?”; “Why do you think this happened?”; and “How do you see this turning out?”
Each question focuses the problem, helps our partner gain perspective, and allows greater insight into the issue at hand. Now all you have to do is really listen to your partner’s answers.
Every relationship has flaws. We need to realize that problems won’t just disappear and that talking things out is our only hope for improvement.
We must see those conversations for what they are: difficult but necessary steps that help a strong relationship get stronger.
Excerpted from the new book Stronger Than You Think: The 10 Blind Spots That Undermine Your Relationship and How to See Past Them. Copyright © 2021 by Gary Lewandowski. Used with permission of Little, Brown Spark, an imprint of Little, Brown and Company. New York, NY. All rights reserved.
Gary W. Lewandowski Jr PhD Gary W. Lewandowski Jr. PhD is the author of the book Stronger Than You Think, a TEDx speaker and a psychology professor at Monmouth University in New Jersey. His writing and research focus on using science to help improve relationships.