Relationships: How to manage toxic arguments by using “Fighting Rules”

Couples feetUnfortunately relationships aren’t all fairy tales and rainbows. Those kinds of relationships only exists in books and on the screen. The unavoidable truth is that every relationship has disagreements. It’s how we handle those disagreements that can make or break a relationship. A bad argument can turn even a little problem into a big one, making it emotionally charged and painful. If not handled correctly such arguments can quickly turn toxic and eventually the whole relationship will become an unhappy one and toxic for all parties involved.

Couples who are struggling with toxic arguments often have a number of harmful habits. They might yell, use personal attacks, criticise each other, stonewall, become defensive or show contempt (to name but a few). These behaviours can turn small disagreements into heated arguments that can be difficult to recover from. People often act or react from a place of hurt and soon all logic flies out the window.

This is where we can adopt some “fighting rules” in order to navigate arguments successfully. “Fighting rules” don’t tell us we can’t argue, instead they tell us how to handle arguments without destroying the relationship. These “rules” tell us what’s okay, and what’s crossing the line when an argument does happen.

The “Fighting Rules”

  1. Ask yourself why you feel upset

Before you go on the attack, ask yourself why you feel upset. Are you angry because your partner did not put away the coffee tin? Or are you angry because you feel like you’re doing an uneven share of the housework, and this one thing just pushed you over the edge? Take time to think about your own feelings and what is really behind them before starting an argument. For example you might have your own emotions to deal with that has nothing to do with the current situation or just be mentally or physically exhausted.

2. Stay on topic

Discuss one topic at a time. Don’t let “You left dishes in the sink” turn into “You are always on your phone.” Discussions that go off-topic are more likely to get heated and spiral out of control. Arguments that spiral out of control are far less likely to solve the original problem, or any problem for that matter. Choose one topic and stick to it.

3. Do not yell

Yelling does not help anyone see your point of view. Instead, it sends the message that only your words matter, and that what your partner says or feel is irrelevant. Yelling can intimidate your partner into giving in, but that only makes the underlying problem grow worse with time, and it certainly doesn’t solve anything.

4. Do not stonewall

Some people respond to an argument by retreating into their shell and refusing to speak, because they might feel it is just easier. This is called stonewalling. You might feel better temporarily, but the original issue will remain unresolved and your partner will feel more upset as well as unheard. It might seem to them that you do not care enough to even discuss the issue. If you absolutely cannot engage in a discussion at that time, tell your partner you need to take a time-out and why. Agree to resume the discussion at a later stage, but don’t put it off indefinitely.

5. Stay away from degrading language

In an argument or disagreement it is important to discuss the issue, not the person. Attacking your partner is not helpful and only makes things worse. You should not resort put-downs, swearing, or name-calling to make your point. Degrading language is an attempt to express negative feelings while making sure your partner feels just as bad as you do. Doing so leads to more character attacks while the original issue is forgotten. In the end both parties feels hurt, and once again the problem is not resolved.

6. Express your feelings with words

Structure your sentences as “I” statements. Say I feel (emotion) when (event) to express how you feel while taking responsibility for your emotions. For example “I feel hurt when you don’t answer my phone calls” or “I feel neglected when you don’t spend time with me”. However, remember that starting with “I” does not mean that you can ignore the other “fighting rules”. Expressing your feelings should still be done with respect.

7. Take turns speaking

Give your full attention while your partner speaks and don’t interrupt. Avoid going on the immediate defence, making corrections while they are still speaking or thinking about what you want to say. Your only job in that moment is to understand their point of view, even if you disagree. If you find it difficult to not interrupt, try setting a timer allowing a few minutes for each person to speak without interruption. When it is your turn you can express what you are experiencing and feeling.

8. If things get too heated take a time-out

All these “fighting rules” are good and well, but it is easier said than done. It is not possible to stick to all of them all of the time, and you might be so stuck in your ways that a little practise is needed before you get it right.  So if an argument starts to become too personal or too heated, and you realise you are going off the tracks, take a time-out. You both should be able to realise what is happening and that continuing right now is not a good idea. Agree on a time to come back, and continue the discussion after everyone has cooled down.

9. Attempt to come to a compromise or an understanding

Unfortunately there isn’t always a perfect solution to a problem or argument. What is important is that you do your best to come to a compromise. This will mean some give and take from both sides. If you can’t come to a compromise, simply taking the time to understand your partner’s perspective can help diminish negative feelings, and show each other that you do care. Understanding and feeling heard goes a long way in any relationship.

10. Respect each other’s feelings

As a blanket rule we should always be respectful of each other’s feelings. Remember that your partner’s feelings are valid even if you don’t agree with them. You can’t tell someone how they are supposed to feel, just as no one can tell you how you are supposed to feel. Emotions aren’t always rational, but they are very real!

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