Fighting the Good Fight
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Fighting the Good Fight

Why arguments that build understanding, not strife, are good for your relationship.

Clash of the Couples

When Meg and Brett used to fight, the tension was so thick that it frequently took two days for them to recover. "At the time of the fight it felt good to let every thought and emotion fly, but a day or two later when the other person was still damaged and hurt, you wished you could take everything back," says Meg, 32, from Boston.

After one particularly harrowing battle, they realized it wasn't worth it and decided on a strategy to keep their fights more sane: whoever was the least upset would stop arguing and start listening. "So if Brett was hysterical, I would basically agree to work through his point of view on the topic. And if I was the one who was insane, he'd agree not to try to prove that his point of view was the right one," says Meg. After the emotions simmered down, usually a day later, the other person would explain their side of the story.

Meg and Brett discovered key principle of a happy marriage: Fighting to win gets you nowhere. The purpose of a "good" fight is to build mutual understanding and come to a resolution that suits both parties. "The key question to ask yourself after a fight is, 'Do we feel closer or more distant?'" says Pat Love, EdD, and author of The Truth About Love: The Highs, the Lows, and How You Can Make It Last Forever (Fireside, 2001). "An argument isn't productive if it makes you feel more distant."

But fighting well is not the same as the same as "being nice." According to research by University of Washington psychologist John Gottman, PhD, who has studied married couples for 30 years, couples in healthy relationships often show anger in arguments. However, they don't lace their frustration with criticism or contempt for their mate. They also don't stonewall -- which often comes in the form of a seemingly peaceful gesture. Rachel, 43, from New York City, frequently feels this when her boyfriend apologizes to her. "He'll apologize to me when he sees that I'm upset, but he doesn't know why I'm upset. So he says 'I'm sorry' but he's not really sorry. He just wants me to shut up," says Rachel.

10 Tips for Better Battles

According to Gottman's research, the way a couple fights is one of the most accurate indicators of whether they'll stay together. Couples who are good at de-escalating arguments with humor and compliments are in good shape. Those who shut each other out or jab each other with sarcasm and insults are headed for trouble. Fortunately, anyone can learn the tools of relationship-friendly fights. Below, our experts weigh in with their advice on how to argue happily ever after:

  1. Surrender the need to be right. We fight because we believe that we're right, and we want the other person to understand that. But Love suggests you ask yourself one important question: Would you rather be right or happy? "Focus on a solution that would be right for everyone, rather than worry about who's right and who's wrong," says Love.
  2. Stay on topic. If you're fighting about the fact that he drank too much at your sister's wedding, then stick to that grievance. This is not a good time to throw in that he was late picking you up last week and never puts his empty bottles in the recycling bin. "Bringing up all the past hurts and done-wrongs will put your partner on the defensive. Sticking to your point will keep your mate from getting confused, impatient, and even angrier," says Lew Moore, PhD, chair of the marriage and family therapy program at Harding University in Searcy, Arkansas.
  3. Focus on your partner's point, rather than yours. Your husband will be more likely to hear your perspective if you let him know that you're genuinely listening to his. So instead of just trying to ram your point of view across, spend at least as much time listening to his. "Ask him questions like, 'Could you say more about that'? Then you're not in the same shoot-and-reload position," says Love.
  4. Give the other person an out, when necessary. Many women get frustrated when their man changes the subject or makes a joke during a heated argument. But Gottman and his team discovered that this was not necessarily a bad thing, as it can be an effective way to break the tension and give each partner some breathing space. By allowing him to change the subject and stop talking about the problem, you're giving him an out -- and that can be helpful if emotions are running high or he is starting to feel defensive or trapped. You can also do this by calling a "time out" when you feel things are getting out of hand, resolving to finish the discussion when each party has cooled off. Of course, you must resume the conversation at a later date.
  5. Pick your battles. Sometimes you just have to accept that he'll always be 15 minutes late and will never learn to see the black stuff that grows between the bathroom tiles. If you're always picking a fight about little things, it will be hard to get him to listen to the big things. "Some people argue for the sake of arguing," says Love. "So you have to ask yourself, 'Is this really important to the relationship? Do I really want to spend my time and energy bickering about this stuff?'"
  6. Avoid personal attacks. So you're mad at your husband for leaving you stranded at his office barbecue. Fine, you have a right. But telling him what an inconsiderate jerk he is probably won't make him correct his behavior for the next office function. Instead, explain how it made you feel when he left you stranded for 45 minutes with that tedious dweeb from HR.
  7. Offer positive feedback. Gottman's research found that happy couples make at least five positive statements or actions for every negative one. Positive feedback means anything from saying, "Good point. I hadn't thought about it that way" to a smile or nod. Love agrees. "Have the maturity and ego-strength to validate your partner's position when he has a good point. Disarming your partner keeps things from escalating," she says.
  8. Watch your body language. Head-shaking, eye rolls, clenched jaws, and derisive snorts can be just as damaging as verbal insults. "Pay attention to how your words are landing," says Tina B. Tessina, PhD, a psychotherapist and author of It Ends with You: Grow Up and Out of Dysfunction (New Page Books, 2003). If your partner looks hurt or has closed body posture -- folded arms, crossed legs, sagging shoulders -- you might be broadcasting more hostility than you think.
  9. Pick the right time and place. If you've had a brutal day at the office, if your precious children have been perfect monsters, or if the outdoor temperature is above 95 degrees, then try to avoid a major conflict with your spouse. "Resist the temptation to try to resolve problems during particular vulnerable times. It's much more effective to say, 'I want to work this out, but I'm not at my best right now. Let's set a time for tomorrow,'" says Daphne Stevens, PhD, a marriage and family therapist based in Macon, Georgia.
  10. Take the high road. Okay, say you've done all this stuff and your partner continues to criticize or stonewall. That's frustrating. It might suggest that you might consider couples counseling, but sinking to his level won't help the situation. "Treat the other person with respect even if you're not getting it in return," says Laura Giles, MSW, who has a private counseling practice in Norfolk, Virginia. After all, when you both start behaving with bitterness and derision, nobody wins.

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