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Stay on topic. According to Atlanta-based relationship specialist Katherine Hannon, MA, "Only discuss what is presently causing discord. If it is about the trash not being taken out, do not bring up how your partner gawked at an attractive younger woman in the grocery store three months ago." Sticking to your point will keep the both of you from getting defensive, impatient, and even angrier.
In his enormously popular bestseller Blink, author Malcolm Gladwell discusses University of Washington psychologist John Gottman's work in decoding how even simple eye movements displayed by couples who are interacting can say a great deal about what they really mean. After studying couples' behavior for almost 30 years, Gottman says even a seemingly innocuous eye roll is a classic sign of contempt. He also points out that when you use statements such as "yes, but," even in a calm tone, it's still defensive when you appear to agree and then take it back. So when hubby comes home late from work because he stopped to have a beer with the boys and dinner is toast, maybe it's not the best idea to roll your eyes at him and say: "Yes, I understand you had a bad day at work and needed to decompress, but I slaved for hours in this hot kitchen to make you a nice dinner, which I have conveniently placed in the dog's dish for your dining pleasure."
Steer clear of "Never" and "Always" when pointing out your partner's side of the problem, advises Hannon. "You never take me out anymore!" goes over about as well as "I always have to do everything around here!" Chances are, you will be proven wrong, not to mention, you'll come off sounding like a 10-year-old who has been denied an iPhone.
Sure, it sounds crazy, but maybe you really are wrong. Maybe you're just overheated, overworked, and pulled one too many weeds in the backyard this afternoon. "Be accountable. Ask yourself if you may be culpable as well," says Hannon. Nobody is right all of the time. If you just can't handle taking all the blame, you don't have to be the bigger person, just call a truce. "Honey, let's just agree to disagree and we'll collect your belongings off the front lawn together."
What your grandmother advised still holds true today. When things heat up, insist on a cooling-off period, even if it's brief. Go for a walk (simple deep-breathing exercises will get more oxygen to your brain, so you can think reasonably and put the cutlery away). Check your e-mail (maybe a friend sent you a joke that's actually funny). If the argument takes a truly nasty turn, it's always better to sleep on it before saying something you can't take back.
Originally published on LHJ.com, August 2009.