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August 14, 2007 > How to argue productively

How to argue productively

The surprising secret to relationship satisfaction

By Anne Chan, M.S., M.F.T. and Peter Pearson, Ph.D.

See if you can figure out what's wrong with this picture: a couple falls in love, gets married, and lives happily ever after. They never or rarely fight or have conflicts, never get mad or upset at each other, never exchange angry words.

You might think that there is nothing wrong with this picture - after all, isn't it splendid if a couple can get along with ever having to fight? Some of you might even think that this is the ideal for all couples to strive for - to have such married bliss that fighting never, ever happens.

You may be surprised to know that not fighting can be just as damaging to the health of a relationship as too much fighting. As therapists, it is fairly common for us to encounter couples who seek help in their relationships and report that they never fight. These couples generally look fine on the surface - to out-siders, they may even appear to be the perfect couple. However, underneath the exterior is often a feeling of loneliness, isolation, recurring resentment, and/or anger.

Not ever fighting with your partner could be a problem if it means you avoid talking about difficult or touchy issues or if you avoid sharing about your dreams, hopes, needs, and desires. Not ever fighting with your partner could mean that you are afraid to be open, honest, and genuine with each other.

Conversely, airing out differences or disagreements can aid your relationship because it allows both of you to be candid about who you are and what your important concerns are. Having your partner really know you (and vice versa) is vital to the foundation of your relationship.

The process of working through a disagreement also has the critical benefit of increasing trust, love, intimacy, and respect in a relationship. Last but not least, learning to negotiate successfully with your partner is an essential skill that can only happen if you manage the fear of conflict.

Don't get us wrong - we are not advocating all-out fights, screaming matches, and physical altercations to maintain the health of your relationship! Instead, we are suggesting that the way you fight can be helpful in improving the communication in your relationship.

Here are several strategies for having a productive (not destructive) argument:

First and foremost, make it physically and emotionally safe for both of you to have an argument. This means NO physical or emotional abuse, no name calling, no threats, no put-downs. There is a clear line between abuse and an argument: abuse is destructive, demeaning, and damaging to you, your partner, and your relationship. Abusing your partner is not the same thing as having a discussion of differences.

Listen to your partner without defending or explaining yourself. This is exceedingly difficult, but the payoff is great if you do this successfully.

Don't automatically shut down, give in, and/or avoid your partner when tension is on the rise and an argument seems imminent. Take a chance to see what his or her concerns are. You might surprise both of you by uncovering key facets about each other.

Be curious, not furious. Ask about your partner's needs, thoughts, feelings, wants, hopes, and desires. Their answer may bring out a range of reactions in you, including surprise and fear. Whatever reaction you experience, persevere in being curious and finding out about these other sides of your partner.

If you are experiencing tension with your partner, don't just say "Yes, dear," to end the conflict. Ask yourself about your own needs and desires. Experiment with being open about what you want.

Be vulnerable with your partner - it is only when we are truly open to our partners that we can then connect with them. Pretending to be someone you are not will only create a false note in your relationship.

Respect your partner's vulnerabilities and human qualities - they are, after all, just human, and so are you. It helps neither of you to see each other in extreme terms. In fact how couples treat each other's vulnerabilities and insecurities is a great predictor of the quality of their relationship.

Ask questions when your partner is speaking - recap what he or she is saying so you can be sure you fully understand.

Don't use affection, sex and loving behavior to reward or punish. People understandably use such threats to get what they want. In the short term, this might work, but in the long term, these threats cut deep into the trust and respect in the relationship.

Bottom-line, how we argue can be as important to our relationships as how we pamper our partners. Ironically, part of the secret to having a successful relationship is knowing how to handle discord. Learning to argue productively is one of the key skills needed for living happily ever after.

Anne Chan is a licensed psychotherapist and career counselor in Union City. She can be reached at or (510) 744-1781. Dr. Peter Pearson and his wife, Dr. Ellyn Bader, are founders and directors of The Couples Institute in Menlo Park. They have been helping couples resolve issues and create strong, loving relationships since 1984. For free audio clips designed to help you improve your relationship, visit

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