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Let’s Argue [Well]: A Therapist’s Guide to Healthy Relational Conflict

Holidays are a complicated time for most couples. It is a time of merriment, gift exchanges, and thanksgiving. At the same time, it can also be a time of conflicting values, arguments, and tension. This month's blog post by therapist Sam Secord aims to give spouses some practical tools and insight into how they can have a more productive holiday season. Sam's goal is to help couples start the new year well.

The worst thing we can do in a relationship is play it safe. As men, we may think our job is to “not rock the boat” or to “choose our battles.” As a therapist, I have seen many men take these phrases so far to heart that they forget how to adjust in the boat and feel unprepared for a battle. I hope that in this article, you will feel encouraged not to see relationship conflict as a battle but a chance to be better understood. 

Men’s conflict avoidance can be broken down into one common theme– the lack of trust. Some men do not trust themselves to say the right words, that their concern or frustration is worthless, or it will be pointless. More important than self-trust is partner trust. Men who do not trust their partner in conflict assume their partner will react poorly, take their words out of context, or attack them. The lack of trust leads to discouragement, which leads to contempt. Contempt is described as the feeling of anger, hostility, and disgust toward one’s partner. Contempt shows up through putdowns, insults, sarcasm, and nit-picking behaviors.

When couples show up to therapy with contempt, defensiveness, criticism, and lack of trust impairing their relationship, asking if they communicate well or are conflict-avoidant is pointless. The most vital question is, “Have you lost your friendship?” When friendship is lost, research shows that couples tend to hold onto wrongdoings, have increased defensiveness, and shut down more quickly. So, if you want to argue better, marital friendship needs fostering. Here are some ways to grow your marital friendship. 

The first step to rebuilding a friendship is to look at quality time spent with your partner. Please note that quality does not mean quantity. It is not about how much time you spend with your partner but rather how the time is utilized. The same activity with intentionality can add quality time to any interaction. There is a significant difference between quickly making dinner with your partner and making dinner with engaging conversation and non-sexual touch. As a counselor, I have seen the power of simple, purposeful touches on marriages. As men, we sometimes get so task-oriented that we forget to pause and be relational. If touch in your relationship is only correlated with sex, you may be missing out on a simple way to change simple interactions into intentional quality time. 

The next step is increasing knowness in a relationship. As we grow and change in relationships, we can forget to check in with our partner's changing passions, interests, and even tastes. One common misconception is that people are consistent, which is far from the truth. I ask clients frequently, “Are you/your partner the same person you/they were 5 or 10 years ago?” When they inevitably answer “no,” I respond, “Maybe your frustration is that you are trying to love someone who no longer exists. You may need to update your roadmap.” Knowness is incredibly powerful. When we have knowness, we are more likely to catch a joke or playful sarcasm. We are significantly more likely to practice forgiveness when we know the other person well.

My last piece of advice is to look for the positive. We are biologically wired to look for negativity and minimize positivity– known as the negativity bias. If allowed, the negativity bias can ruin relationships and tank intimacy. An example of this is having a great date and spilling a beverage. Another example is expecting green lights while being inconvenienced by red lights. If we focus on the negative, the date was ruined by a stupid mistake, and the drive was ruined by the city not knowing how to properly time stop lights. If allowed to creep into a relationship, we may point out (too often) the flaws in our partner and, in turn, permit them to point out (also too often) our flaws. To increase positivity, do not expect people and tasks to be seamless. Praise and thank your partner for doing routine tasks and encourage their attempts. Just like negativity, if we seek positivity, we will find it. 

One last thing that I cannot emphasize enough. If you want to change your relationship, invite your partner into the journey and conversation. Changes in a relationship tend to backfire if the other partner is not on board. If you begin acting differently than you have been, it can cause a partner to become suspicious rather than intrigued. You and your partner have spent years creating your current normal. For a new normal to come to be, it will take time, patience, and failure. Friends support and encourage one another in failure. 

When your friendship is central in your marriage, you will naturally argue better because you will care more about the other person than an argument. Meditate on the following Bible verses as you reflect on your marital friendship.

James 1:19-20

My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires.

Proverbs 15:1

A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.

Job 6:14

Anyone who withholds kindness from a friend forsakes the fear of the Almighty.

Proverbs 17:9

Whoever would foster love covers over an offense, but whoever repeats the matter separates close friends.

Written by Samuel Secord, MA

Licensed Associate Marriage and Family Therapist (LAMFT)

Licensed Alcohol and Drug Counselor (LADC)

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