Whenever reporters capture feel-good stories of couples who have celebrated 50 years of marriage (or more), the always ask the same question: “What is the key to a long, happy marriage?” And nearly every time, the happy couple offers the same age-old wisdom, like not going to bed angry, working out differences, knowing how to pick battles, and knowing when to let things go. But the belief that it’s healthy to argue seems counter-intuitive. I blame it on all those Jerry Springer shows. I still can’t understand why people are OK with airing their marital troubles and infidelity in front of millions of people. The potential for stardom? Why would anyone be willing to tell the world their most embarrassing secrets for 15 minutes of fame? Why be labeled forever as that person on that talk-show who cheated on their spouse and got a chair thrown at them? It really doesn’t sink in for me.
But back to the theory here: Arguing can be healthy, and a recent study we conducted offers support. In fact, just like candy hearts, the sweetly appealing demeanor of people who never argue may belie a belly full of unsavory, pent-up emotions. We analyzed data from over 22, 000 people who took our Interpersonal Communication Skills Test, and compared individuals based on how frequently they argue. Not surprisingly, people who argued more frequently (a few times a day or week) had more deficient communication skills. However, of the five groups we assessed, those who argue a few times a year displayed the healthiest communication habits – even more so than people who never get into arguments:
What makes a relationship work is the willingness to confront and openly hash out issues – even if it turns into a full-blown argument. I’m not saying that the solution is to yell at each other until you both pass out and forget what happened. It means allowing the other person to have their say, listening objectively without interrupting, criticizing the behavior and not the person, and continuously working toward compromise. Easier said than done, I know. But while this may be uncomfortable for many couples, it’s not as unpleasantly uncomfortable as bottling up your frustrations until you explode. And pent-up emotions always, always, always find their way out eventually – like yelling at your husband for not picking up his socks when what you’re really angry at is the fact that he works too much and doesn’t help around the house. And here’s a stat from our study that really drives the point home: When we asked each group how they would rate the quality of their romantic relationship, 60% of those who argue a few times a year rated their relationship as Good or Excellent, 9% as Satisfactory, and 31% as Poor or Very poor. Of the group that never argues, 56% rated their relationship as Good or Excellent, 10% as Satisfactory, and 34% as Poor or Very poor. These differences may seem minor, but they speak volumes about the benefits of arguing in relationships.
So while I’m not condoning that you pick a fight with your partner on Valentine’s, I can offer some tips on how to fight fair, should you forget to pick up a gift – or your socks:
- Stay focused and solve one problem at a time. Bringing up multiple issues at once is a mistake. This tactic can result in an overwhelmingly long, exhausting fight. It’s also possible that while all of these issues will be revealed, none of them will get resolved.
- Find common ground. Begin by pointing out things that you can agree on. Even if you have opposing points of view, there will likely be a few items you see eye-to-eye on. This tactic builds a bridge between you and your partner and creates a working atmosphere that focuses on a shared goal.
- When arguing, do not attack your partner’s character. Instead, discuss specific behaviors and how you feel about them. While character traits are difficult to change, specific behaviors can be modified. For example, instead of saying, “You are such a lousy father”, say, “I disagree with the way you reprimanded our kids because yelling scares them.” Or, instead of saying, “You never spend any time with me anymore,” say, “I miss spending time with you.”
- Take a break. When you get too furious, take a time-out of at least 30 minutes. Set a specific time, not too far in the future, to continue. This will help cool down tempers and gives both parties time to reflect on what has already been discussed.
- Accept that some issues just can’t be solved in one argument. If you encounter a complex issue (such as infidelity or a power struggle), make sure that you both understand that the topic will have to be addressed again and again. If there doesn’t seem to be any progress being made or if you feel like you’re going in circles, consult a professional who can help guide you through your issue.
Happy Valentine’s Day!