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How to Argue with Your Spouse

Date: December 1, 2014      Publication: Bottom Line Personal      Source: Laurie  Puhn      Print:

You can argue and still have a happy marriage—if your arguments lead to solutions rather than lingering bitterness. Four ways to encourage this…

Alter argument patterns. Many couples have fallen into argument patterns that lead to more anger instead of a peaceful resolution. Maybe she criticizes, he gets defensive, she dredges up an old disagreement, he insults her, then she storms off—again and again.

Making even a minor change near the outset of an argument could prevent this pattern from recurring, improving the odds of a positive outcome.

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Example: As soon as an argument begins, stop and say, “Let’s sit down at the kitchen table and talk this through.” Sitting is a particularly useful suggestion because it helps the brain remain calm and rational during arguments rather than shifting into panic-driven fight-or-flight mode.

Ask neutral questions when you feel wronged by your spouse. Married people sometimes see nefarious intent in their spouses’ missteps where none truly exists.

When you feel you have been wronged, ask calm, nonaccusatory questions that encourage your spouse to explain his/her actions. Imagine that you’re a dispassionate detective trying to get to the bottom of the situation, not the ­aggrieved party.

Example: Your spouse is an hour late for dinner. Rather than explode in anger about how he takes your time for granted, calmly say, “What happened? You’re an hour later than we had planned,” or “I tried calling you on your cell, but there was no answer.” There might be an innocent explanation. Perhaps your partner lost track of time…or perhaps there was a lot of traffic and his phone battery was dead.

Stop arguing about pointless stuff. Don’t argue about what your adult children should do or over facts that you easily can check. These are pointless arguments. Your adult children probably aren’t going to do what you want them to do anyway, so it makes no difference if you and your spouse disagree over what that should be. And if a fact can be looked up, just agree to look it up when you can, rather than let the disagreement become a full-blown argument. Alternatively, you could turn the disagreement into a lighthearted low-stakes bet—”I bet you a dollar that I’ve got this one right!”

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Team up to find a solution. People are more likely to live up to the terms of an agreement when they feel that they had a role in crafting it. Thus the best way to prevent a problem from recurring in a marriage isn’t thinking up a solution—it’s sitting down with your spouse to think up a solution together.

Example: Don’t tell your spouse, “Keep a cell-phone charger in your car so you can call the next time you’re going to be late.” Ask your spouse, “What could be done to avoid this happening again?” If your spouse doesn’t think up the car-charger solution, raise it yourself in the form of a question—”How about we keep cell-phone chargers in our cars?”

Source: Laurie Puhn, JD, a couples mediator in private practice in New York City. She previously served on the board of the Harvard Mediation Program. She is author of Fight Less, Love More: 5-Minute Conversations to Change Your Relationship without Blowing Up or Giving In (Rodale), which is the basis for the virtual online Fight Less, Love More course for couples that you can take from your home. LauriePuhn.com

  • Michael

    Instead of: “How about we keep cell-phone chargers in our cars?”, you just go out and purchase them and present it as a gift?
    Most of the arguments I have with my wife are due solely to miscommunication. What she says and what she means are two different things. Sometimes it is a challenge to do what she is requesting.
    On the subject of being late: my wife was an hour late for our wedding. She is late for just about everything and does not care who she inconveniences because of it. Example: She tells me we have to leave for an appointment at 8am. At 8:10 she will just be getting out of bed. As a person who is punctual to the extreme, this was very hard for me to get used to and sometimes I still get slightly upset, but most of the time I find other chores to do while I wait for her.