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How to argue the healthy way

Based out of Dallas, Texas, Mary McCoy is a writer and social worker for disenfranchised women and children. She's a single mom, lover of Texas barbecue, and a die-hard fan of yoga

Keep calm and carry on

Even though it's uncomfortable, conflict is a necessary component of all relationships. Find out how to manage conflict with your partner in a way that builds your relationship rather than undermining it.
Couple fighting in bed

We spoke with Dr. Tina Paone, the Clinical Director of the Counseling Center at Heritage in Montgomeryville, Pennsylvania, to hear her words of wisdom about fighting fair in a marriage or relationship.

The importance of arguing

"An argument is simply the debate of an issue, and it is completely normal," Dr. Paone said. "When you find yourself in an argument with your partner, you need to accept that you are arguing and that you are going to have disagreements."

Dr. Paone added that when arguments are used effectively, they are the means through which couples can come to a consensus about the issues they are facing. Arguing can be especially effective in building respect for each other's opinions and strengthening the relationship, as long as the conflict doesn't devolve into a win/lose battle.

An argument, therefore, becomes unhealthy when it's about winning rather than collaborating, and when the involved partners fail to respect each other's opinions.

Setting the ground rules

Of course, even the best relationships can struggle with unhealthy arguments when feelings turn tense. Dr. Paone suggested the following ground rules to help maintain a healthy pattern of conflict:

  1. Stay away from extremes. It's neither helpful nor healthy (although it can be very easy) to jump to statements like "you always..." or "I never..." First of all, there isn't a person on earth consistent enough to "always" or "never" do anything. Furthermore, these extreme statements easily escalate into name calling.
  2. No name calling. Speaking of which, there should never be name calling in arguments.
  3. Don't intentionally push buttons. Partners know each other's hot buttons, but this knowledge should be used wisely. Do not intentionally agitate your partner by using your knowledge against them.
  4. Use low voices and breathe. Don't yell at your partner. Instead, practice taking deep breaths and speaking in a calm voice. By leveling your voice and your breathing, you will level yourself.
  5. Don't bring in other parties. No matter what, don't involve others in the argument. Though you may think you're swaying the argument by doing so, you're hurting trust and breaking effective collaboration. Keep parents, children and friends out of it.
  6. Don't revisit other disagreements. Revisiting past disagreements will reduce the likelihood of resolving the current disagreement, and it will add to your emotional stress.
  7. Be careful with the written word. Always re-read text messages or e-mails prior to sending them when you're disagreeing via written messages.

Boundaries for a partner who fights dirty

Some women (and men) find themselves trying to abide by the ground rules, but their boyfriend or spouse continues to fight dirty. So what can a woman do then?

"When a partner wants to maintain unhealthy conflict, you need to ask where this unhealthy conflict is coming from," Dr. Paone said. "Determine if you and your partner want to continue the cycle of unhealthy conflict. There is no way to argue effectively with someone who wants to argue ineffectively. If things do not improve and your partner is unwilling to make the effort to change, seek counseling."

If all else fails, Dr. Paone advised that the partner who is disconcerted in this situation needs to consider whether or not they want to continue in the unhealthy relationship.

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