Somewhere along the line, many of us have come to believe that when a couple argues, they’re destined to break up. Disagreements and conflict have come to indicate a relationships inevitable failure. The contrary is also true… We come to believe that a couple who seems to be getting along all the time must be doing something right. But the truth is that whether we see it or not, all couples disagree on things. A lasting relationship is not built by avoiding conflict. In fact, couples should fight, according to Gary W. Lewandowski Jr PhD, and here’s why.
In his book, Stronger Than You Think: The 10 Blind Spots That Undermine Your Relationship and How to See Past Them, Lewandowski writes that while you may think healthy couples and those destined to separate argue about different things, but you’d be wrong.
Rather there are three main conflict triggers which seem universal to all couples. These are condescension, possessiveness, and neglect.
Condescension involves your partner behaving as if they’re better, stronger, or smarter than you in a way that makes you feel undervalued or unappreciated. Possessiveness leads to jealous behaviour or dependency. Neglect, rejection and unreliability lead to feelings of abandonment and loneliness.
According to Lewandowski there are a few other common culprits – moodiness or selfishness for example –which may also rub us the wrong way. “But what about the topics that we routinely avoid?” he writes. “While we sidestep thorny areas such as past partners and our past and present sex life, there is one topic we avoid altogether: The relationship itself”.
In fact, he believes that couples who consider conflict a bad thing – and so, avoid it – end up having worse relationships. Avoiding arguments leads to lower levels of satisfaction, and higher chance of depression.
“When researchers from the University of Michigan and Penn State University followed more than 1,500 adults for more than a week, they found that while people felt better on the day they avoided an argument, the next day they had diminished psychological well-being and increased cortisol,” he writes, “which can lead to weight gain, mood swings, and trouble sleeping. Short-term gain, long-term pain.”
As with most problems, avoiding addressing problems in your relationship now, only leads to far greater problems later. And while Lewandowski doesn’t advocate actively searching for causes of friction and contention, he does believe that communication – even when it causes conflict – is an essential tool for the growth of any relationship.
So really, while we should argue with our partners more, it seems there are right and wrong ways to go about it. Bottling things up only to have a major, relationship-ruining cataclysm later is very obviously not the right way.
Lewandowski writes that every argument between partners needs to start the same way: by each giving the other person the benefit of the doubt.
“Rather than start off assuming your partner is wrong, is hopelessly flawed, has bad intentions or is trying to hurt you, you give them what psychologist Carl Rogers calls ‘unconditional positive regard,”’or the belief that at their core, everyone is a good person.”
This means seeing them first as human beings, before assuming there’s malice behind their actions. This may take some exercises in empathy, but it will significantly lower the amount of anxiety that comes with your disagreement.
Next you’ll need to figure out how to handle the problem in a way that best suits it. Serious issues, according to Lewandowski, may require demanding immediate and non-negotiable change, while others are better suited to humour, optimism, and cooperation. Whatever the subject of the disagreement is, you’ll need to practice listening to solve it.
An argument can, in fact, be an exercise in communication as well as a tool for problem solving if you’re using it correctly. This can be done through expressing your own qualms clearly, listening empathetically to those of your partner, being aware of the non-verbal cues you’re sending them ( like your body language), paraphrasing their point of view to help you understand, and asking open-ended questions like “How did you make this decision?” or “What would make things better?”.
To help us all remember these steps, Lewandowski suggests we practice giving a CRAPO.
- C: Clarify – both your own thoughts as well as those of your partner.
- R: Reflect – on how your partner is feeling, and reflect it back at them to be sure you’re understanding them correctly.
- A: Attend – “Appearing fully engaged and present, without nearby distractions like your phone or other screens, conveys to your partner that the conversation is important.”
- P: Paraphrase – You should be able to accurately recap what your partner has been trying to communicate
- O: Open-ended questions – These help you both gain perspective and and understanding how the problem so that you can solve it as a team.
In a world where communicating has become more important – and more challenging – as we try to build and maintain relationships through screens, we’ll find ourselves experiencing more and more misunderstandings. Some of those may lead to a laugh, while others will bring on full-scale conflict.
But that’s ok, because conflict is normal and important, and it’s how we deal with it that determines whether it will bring us closer together or push us apart.