In Aotearoa, there are very strong social norms about keeping relationships private and not arguing in front of others. It can be rare to see examples of healthy arguments; arguments where partners can express frustrations or anger or sadness, but everyone’s emotional well being is taken care of, and the argument ends in a way that everyone feels good about.
Planning to argue
One aspect of having healthier, safer, and more productive arguments is planning how to argue. Partners can choose a time when there is no stress and argument to be had, and sit down together to talk about how they can have better arguments. It can help to write things down, draw some pictures together, or even write up an “argument contract” – it’s ok to be creative and do whatever works for you. It’s not about winning or tricking the other person into something, it’s about finding ways to argue without causing harm to each other.
Planning communication in a semi-structured way can feel a bit strange at first, but when arguments have guidelines which partners have agreed on, they tend to work better for everyone.
What’s the point?
What is the point of arguing? Agree on what you ultimately want to get out of arguing. Try to agree on a simple positive shared goal such as ‘to understand each other better’ rather than ‘you stop doing X behavior’. If your partner understands you better, they will probably see why you want them to stop doing X.
The bottom line
What are your bottom lines for safety? This might be physical, it might be about volume of voice, name calling, comparing, swearing, put downs, or anything else that makes you really upset, hurts you, isn’t acceptable to you. Every person will have different limits, so discuss and work out what your minimum requirements are for feeling safe and OK to continue. It’s always OK to stop before you reach your limits, but it’s good to know each other’s bottom lines in advance so you can stay well away.
What behaviors trigger you (bring up past trauma); what things should your partner avoid saying? For some people this might be a certain type of accusation, threatening to leave, or particular words. As an argument escalates, you can try to remember your goal and avoid triggering each other, so you have more opportunity to reach your goal before the argument has to stop.
When you feel triggered or you’re very upset, how can you stop the conversation, and what will happen next? This may be saying “let’s stop, I need a break” or “time out, this is too much.” The agreed action might be 5 or 10 minutes alone for a cup of tea. Plan the details so it can run smoothly.
Reconnecting after a being very upset – what will help you refocus on your argument goal? Some people find that reminding each other about their argument goal helps them both re-focus on it. For some people, taking turns to explain why they felt overwhelmed or needed to take a break can help. Listening for emotions can help people reconnect.
Finishing an argument
Stopping and rescheduling; what will you do if the argument seems to be going nowhere? There is no shame in deciding to stop an argument. Some people ask their partner for specific reassurance when finishing an argument. For example one person asks their partner “After we argue, I want to know that you still care about me, and you want us to talk about the issue again in the next few days, and find a solution”.