Everyone knows how emotionally taxing a fight with a loved one can be. But new research shows just how bad arguing is for our physical health: A 20-year study from the University of California, Berkeley, has begun to pinpoint some of the negative, long-term health effects of arguing. Researchers found that while “outbursts of anger predict cardiovascular problems… shutting down emotionally or ‘stonewalling’ during conflict raises the risk of musculoskeletal ailments such as a bad back or stiff muscles.” These findings come just a couple years after a Dutch study concluded that frequent arguing can lead to premature death.
Lisa Firestone Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist, author, and the Director of Research and Education for the Glendon Association. She studies suicide and violence as well as couples and family relations. Firestone is the co-author (with Robert Firestone and Joyce Catlett) of Conquer Your Critical Inner Voice, Creating a Life of Meaning and Compassion, and Sex and Love in Intimate Relationships.
Editor: Talha Khalid
Even though it may feel like arguing is just a part of life, the way we react to conflict and choose to communicate during these stressful moments is actually a matter of life and death.
Fortunately, there are a few very important, highly effective practices you can implement to not feel overwhelmed when a conflict arises. All of these practices involve getting to know ourselves and our partner better. When we understand the specific patterns and behaviors that cause us to fly off the handle or completely shut down, we can learn to pause and take more control over our actions and reactions. We can avoid building cases against our partner and start living more mindfully to remove some of the drama and intensity from our arguments and communication. Here are five key tips for arguing the right way:
1. Be mindful.
Practicing mindfulness helps in almost any situation in which we feel emotionally triggered. Mindfulness teaches us to slow down in the moment. Although this is most challenging in instances when we’re provoked, it’s essential that we take pause and avoid reacting out of conditioned responses. Take a deep breath (or take a walk or count to 10) to calm down, so you can pay attention to what’s going on inside you. When we name the feelings we’re having, we help tame them. Rather than lashing out or ruminating on our thoughts, we notice that we feel angry or hurt without judgment or justification.
Once we’re in a calmer state, we can choose our responses based on the outcome we desire. As Dr. Pat Love puts it, we can feel the feeling but do the right thing. In addition, practicing patience and compassion toward ourselves helps us do the same with our partner. When we’re operating from a mindful place, we’re better able to tune in to our partner and see the situation from his or her unique perspective.
2. Be open to being wrong.
In every relationship, it’s mutually beneficial to be open to the possibility that our perception isn’t necessarily right or wrong—just different. For example, if your partner didn’t call you while he or she was away on a short business trip, you may feel hurt. You might start to tell yourself stories about why he or she didn’t call. You start to listen to a negative inner dialogue or “critical inner voice” about what’s going on. “She’s tired of you! She’s happy to get away.” By the time your partner comes home, you may be ready for a fight. However, your partner’s experience is likely very different from yours.
When you attack your partner for what you’ve imagined, he or she will most likely retaliate, accusing you of being ridiculous, too sensitive, or needy. Unfortunately, a confrontation in which neither person is willing to hear out and empathize with the other tends to have a snowball effect. If instead you own your reactions and present your feelings without blame or righteousness, your partner is more likely to be able to take in your experience and empathize with your feelings. You can then be open to hearing their experience and seeing how it looks from their perspective.
3. Consider why you’re triggered.
When something triggers us emotionally, our brains are flooded with cortisol, making us more likely to lash out. When we take a mindful approach to our responses, we reflect on the sensations, images, feelings, and thoughts we had in the moment in which we were triggered. For example, if you were extremely pained by your partner’s lack of communication during his or her trip, there may be more to that feeling than just the hurt or disappointment you felt when he or she failed to call you.
Our emotions are heightened when we’re triggered, often because an event from our present provokes feelings from our past. If you felt abandoned or forgotten early in your life, you may have a tendency to react strongly to any perceived rejection in the present. The same goes for your partner. If he or she had to deal with a parent or caretaker who was erratic or temperamental, he or she may grow up feeling defensive. He or she may react negatively to feedback when there’s a lot of emotion involved.
When we understand our triggers, and reflect on the early roots of our strong emotional reactions, we have a clearer perspective on our interactions and react more appropriately in our current lives.
4. Listen to your partner.
It's so important to really get to know ourselves and our partner on a deeper level. We can start by understanding what triggers our feelings and be more sensitive during our communication. To do this, we have to stop making a case and look at our partner as the person he or she really is. That means hearing our partner out when he or she has something to say. It means not putting words into our partner’s mouth or assuming we know what he or she thinks.
When we think we're able to read minds, we tend to pile a lot of our own projections onto what we perceive to be reality. We may assume certain behaviors carry certain meanings that are way off. For instance, you may attribute your partner not calling you to a lack of caring. You may assume you don’t mean much to him or her or imagine that he or she is losing interest. You may think he or she has met someone else. Without realizing it, we often project our worst fears onto our loved ones, and then react to them as if we know exactly what’s going on in their heads.
Instead of making assumptions, we should approach our loved ones face-to-face and ask them to share their experience. As we listen, we have to remember that our partner is a separate person with a sovereign mind, so it’s likely that his or her perception of the situation won’t match ours. Instead of focusing on any flaws in the communication, we can look for the kernels of truth in what our partner says to us. This doesn’t mean we have to agree with everything, but it does benefit us to try and imagine why our partner perceived an event in a certain way. When we stay calm and open-minded, we create a safe space for our partner to be able to open up and be honest about his or her experience.
5. Keep calm and tell your story.
When we really listen, communicating both curiosity and empathy, the other person tends to soften and feel more open to us. We can then tell our story, making sure to own our experience by describing it without laying blame. Instead of saying, “You didn’t even reach out to me once. You made me feel like I don’t even matter. You don’t seem to care about me,” say, “When I didn’t hear from you, I noticed myself feeling less confident. I don’t know how you felt, but I was disappointed not to connect.” Pay attention to what you communicate, not just in the words you say, but in your body language and tone. Saying, “it’s no big deal,” while giving the cold shoulder is sending the message that it is in fact a big deal.
By being more open and direct, we’re not putting words into the other person’s mouth or provoking them to be on the defense. We’re simply telling our truth and expressing what we want without blaming, complaining, or being victimized. This act of vulnerability is much more likely to elicit a warm, compassionate, and loving response. By taking each of these steps, our partner is more likely to soften, reciprocate, and respond to us in a calm and mindful way. And when one of us has an off moment, the other can help by responding with sensitivity, patience, and honesty. By finding this new way of “arguing,” we give our partner and ourselves a great gift, improving the quality (and even the quantity) of the days of our lives together.