Avoid argument traps

Arguments are bound to happen in your intimate relationships. To build and maintain close connections, it’s essential you’re able to work through your differences in a respectful manner. Falling into destructive conflict patterns can have serious impacts on the stability of your relationship. The good news is you can argue well if you know the most common (and harmful) argument traps—and how to avoid them—so you can handle conflict in a positive way.

Trap #1: Criticism

Your criticism attacks your partner’s character. Saying things such as, “You always forget things; you must be dumb” or “You always want things your way; you’re pretty selfish” are hurtful. Verbal attacks or blaming your loved one will only result in his or her defensiveness.

Strategy: Gentleness. It’s possible for you to share your feelings without blaming or devaluing the other person. Show your partner you value her or him even when you disagree. Try to shift your focus away from finding fault with your partner’s personality or character too. Instead, focus on what you need from your partner.

Trap #2: Defensiveness

Defensiveness often follows criticism. When you feel you’re the victim or being treated unfairly, defensiveness is a common reaction. You might say, “This is all your fault” or “You act like I can never do anything right, and it’s unfair!” If you deny responsibility, make excuses, or try to read your partner’s mind, it only steers your conversation off track.

Strategy: Accountability. When you feel yourself getting defensive, strive to keep an open mind and listen to your partner. Accept responsibility for your role in the situation or miscommunication. Even if you don’t agree with what he or she says, validating—or showing you understand—how your loved one feels is key to keeping things on track.

Trap #3: Contempt

If you act or speak as if you’re superior to your partner, you’re likely to convey contempt. Words or actions that show contempt for your partner could be interpreted as disrespectful. If you’re sarcastic, resort to name-calling, roll your eyes, or mock your partner, you’re acting with contempt.

Strategy: Respect. Even though you disagree, you still can find common ground if you respect each other. It’s also important to believe in your partner’s positive intentions. Strong relationships are built upon respect and appreciation.

Trap #4: Stonewalling or withdrawal

If you ignore your loved one or resort to the silent treatment, it can escalate an argument. If you walk away or stop engaging without explaining you need a break from the conversation, you’re stonewalling. Your partner might feel abandoned if you leave in a way that suggests disapproval, distance, or smugness.

Strategy: Engagement. If you find you’re starting to “shut down” or feel overwhelmed during conflict, it’s important to let your partner know. If you need a break, gently ask for it and commit to come back to the conversation. During the break, try to calm down and avoid responding with anger.

Trap #5: Grudges

If you can’t reach common ground, you might notice you’re treating your partner poorly until things are mended. If you hold a grudge or show resentment, it can wear down trust and goodwill in your relationship.

Strategy: Repair. Try to rebound from the argument. Commit to talking about things at a later time, clear the air when you do, and be kind afterwards. The quicker you can “get back to good,” the better you’ll both feel about your relationship and ability to weather arguments.

Handle conflict with kindness

When your emotions take control during conflict, it can be easy to fall into argument traps. But if you let those traps take over during a disagreement, it can have negative consequences for your relationship. Try to address conflict with kindness and respect, so you’re happier. It will help your relationship last longer too.


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References

Carrere, S., & Gottman, J. M. (1999). Predicting divorce among newlyweds from the first three minutes of a marital conflict discussion. Family Process, 38(3), 293–301. doi:10.1111/j.1545-5300.1999.00293.x

Gottman, J. M., Coan, J., Carrere, S., & Swanson, C. (1998). Predicting marital happiness and stability from newlywed interactions. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 60(1), 5–22. doi:10.2307/353438

Gottman, J. M., & Levenson, R. W. (1999). What predicts change in marital interaction over time? A study of alternative models. Family Process, 38(2), 143–158. doi:10.1111/j.1545-5300.1999.00143.x

Holman, T. B., & Jarvis, M. O. (2003). Hostile, volatile, avoiding, and validating couple-conflict types: An investigation of Gottman's couple-conflict types. Personal Relationships, 10(2), 267–282. doi:10.1111/1475-6811.00049