Disagreements are an important part of any relationship.
If you want to keep your arguments productive and avoid causing undue harm, two leading psychologists say there are a couple of basic rules you should follow.
Decades of research suggest that these guidelines can help build and strengthen a relationship instead of causing more friction.
Arguments don’t have to be devastating.
On the contrary, disagreements are an important aspect of any relationship. But if you want a dispute to be productive and avoid causing undue harm, two leading psychologists say there are some simple rules you should follow.
Couples who approach disagreements this way tend to be happier overall and even stay together longer, their research suggests.
Don’t wait too long to talk about a disagreement
Psychologists Robert Levenson and John Gottman learned a lot from spending 14 years studying nearly 100 married couples. Over the years they observed the pairs, roughly one in five got divorced — a common phenomenon that allowed the researches to draw some key observations about what went wrong.
The researchers found some notable commonalities among the couples who stayed together compared with those who split up. Many of these trends had to do with the way people argued.
Disagreements, Gottman told Business Insider, could either be used in a positive way, as a means of “stabilizing a rocking boat,” or they could be used negatively, potentially leading the vessel to capsize.
The best way to guarantee that an argument will fit with the former scenario is to have it soon, Gottman said.
Waiting too long can lead to built up or oversized feelings of discontent, anger, and confusion. Not only do couples forget what the argument was initially about, they may have disproportionate responses to the initial situation that no longer track with what really happened. In that case, by the time a couple gets to talking about whatever the controversial subject was, there’s no straightforward way to address the problem.
A study of 145 couples published in the Journal of Counseling Psychology found that couples who received trainings on how to address conflicts immediately and clearly felt more satisfied with their relationship a year down the road. Couples who didn’t receive the training were also more likely to see their interactions deteriorate during the year they were reporting back to the researchers.
Instead of waiting for a disagreement to fester like an open wound, talk to your partner as son as you can. Gottman stressed that you should also recognize that both of you are partially responsible for the problem and both of you are responsible for making amends.
Approach the situation with an open mind
The couples who divorced over the study period had another commonality, Gottman and Levenson observed: They frequently had arguments that involved cutting each other off. Usually, the comments the individuals made to stop the conversation were unhelpful and insensitive, Gottman said.
“If you tell someone they’re not being logical or say something like ‘you’re getting off track,’ it just doesn’t work. It makes people angry,” he said.
On the other hand, couples who stayed together tended to approach an argument with a more open mind. Partners were usually willing to take responsibility for their actions and listen to what their partner had to say.
Couples who do this might use language like, “I can see that this is really important to you; tell me more,” Gottman said.
A 2010 study published in the Journal of Marriage and Family looked at the argument patterns of nearly 400 married couples. The results suggested that when both partners engaged “positively” during an argument— meaning they discussed the topic calmly and made an effort to listen — they were far less likely to divorce than couples in which one or both partners didn’t exhibit positive engagement. Those results held steady as long as 16 years down the road.