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The 3 Rules of Healthy Arguments

June 21, 2017

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again…healthy relationships are part of self care.  When we learn how to foster relationships that thrive,  we feel happier, more joyful, and more content.  When we can communicate openly, honestly and lovingly with our friends and family, we open the door for deep connection. We can be […]

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I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again…healthy relationships are part of self care.  When we learn how to foster relationships that thrive,  we feel happier, more joyful, and more content.  When we can communicate openly, honestly and lovingly with our friends and family, we open the door for deep connection. We can be vulnerable, imperfect, authentic, and still belong.  It’s pretty wonderful.
The reality is, though relationships have the potential to bring us tremendous joy, they can be tremendously difficult at times.  Given that a relationship forms when two completely imperfect people making some sort of commitment to each other, it makes sense, right?    
So how can we keep our relationships as healthy as possible when conflict arises?  Is there a way to handle arguments so they don’t leave us (or someone we love) feeling completely wrecked?
It just so happens that there is.  And your Self Care Bestie just happens to be a psychotherapist who helps people resolve conflict all the time.  It’s kind of my jam, actually.  Here are the three main rules to follow when you find yourself in the throes of an argument:
Know why you’re upset.  This is seriously 3/4 of the battle, Besties.  Often people think they know what is upsetting them in an argument, but many times, there is more to the story.  And honestly, many times, they turn out to be wrong.  
For example, a wife might express anger at her husband because he asked to reschedule their date night from this weekend to next due to a conflict he just found out about.  The wife is frustrated and yells at her husband that they can just forget about date night.  She goes to her room and starts crying.  Why?  She’s not crying because she’s angry.  She’s crying because she’s thinking:  This is the second time he’s done this in the last few months.  Date night obviously isn’t as important to him as it is to me.  I would never treat him this way.  He’s choosing something else over me…again.  It hurts so much that I’m not his top priority.

Now that she’s had some time to think about it, it seems the wife is actually feeling significantly hurt because she feels she is not important to her husband.  Anger often rears up because it’s protective.  It’s easier to say “I’m angry” than “I’m hurt.”  Feeling hurt is way, way more vulnerable.  But 90%  of anger is actually hurt in disguise.  And when we know what it is we’re actually feeling and why, we can communicate in a much healthier way.  
I recommend using a thought record for this.  The next time you find yourself arguing (or bitterly resenting someone in your thoughts), go ahead dig a little deeper.  Fill out a thought record and see if you can determine they why behind the what you are feeling. I use them with clients all the time to help them become objective observers of what they are feeling rather than letting themselves become flooded by their emotions.  Trust me, we are way more effective communicators when we are objective. 
Know your goal.  There are typically three things people want when they are arguing with someone.  One is to accomplish your objective, be it to get your way in the matter, or to change the other person’s future behavior, or perhaps get them to agree with you. The second thing people want is to maintain their self respect.  No one wants to feel ashamed after an argument, be it because you totally lost your temper, or because you let someone berate you.  And finally, people typically want to maintain the relationship.  We don’t want every argument we have to end in severing ties completely with people we love.  
Ideally, we would be able to have all three of these things happen for us every time we disagree with someone.  But the truth is, you can reasonably expect to get 2 out of the 3.  There must be a degree of compromise after all, unless you truly don’t mind if the person you are arguing with never talks to you again.  In which case, you would still only be getting 2 out of 3.
Before you have a difficult conversation (or during it, if you can remember), ask yourself which 2 are most important to you.  When you go forward knowing that you aren’t always going to get everything your way 100% of the time, you are much more likely to handle conflict in a way that both parties are ok with.  
Know your limits.  If we’re being honest, we all have our limits.  We all have triggers, things that people say or do that can take us from 0 to 120 in two seconds or less.  Mine is when someone tells me to “calm down.”  I can’t even.  I’d much rather someone say, “You seem upset.  What can I do to help?”  But nobody’s perfect.  Nor does everyone have a social work degree.  I get that.
 So when we are feeling flooded by emotion, like we might just lose it, the best thing we can do is walk away before we say or do something we might later regret.  You can tell the person you are arguing with that you need some space but you want to finish the conversation later.  Try not to just storm off angrily, as this sends the message that you don’t want to hear what they are saying and/or you don’t care about the conversation (or them) enough to resolve things.  
Arguing is no fun.  I think we can all agree on that.  But arguments don’t have to ruin us or our relationships either.  If you have any additional ways to have healthier arguments, feel free to leave them in the comments.  I’d love to hear from you!

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