All couples fight. Married couples fight, engaged couples fight, and those who are new to dating fight—it's simply a reality of being a human and being in a romantic partnership. And while arguing from time to time is perfectly healthy, experts share that there are some mistakes that couples make when navigating arguments.
According to Anne Appel, a licensed clinical professional counselor and couples and family therapist in Chicago, Illinois, all couples argue, oftentimes over things like money, chores, sex, and children. “I tell my clients there’s such a thing as a healthy level of conflict,” she says. “But it has to be respectful and productive, ultimately bringing the couple closer together, not hostile and aggressive, which can lead to hurt feelings and greater emotional distance.”
Ahead, three relationship experts share the biggest mistakes couples make when arguing—along with their pro strategies for coming out of a fight unscathed and maybe even a little better off for it.
Meet the Expert
- Anne Appel is a licensed clinical professional counselor and couples and family therapist in Chicago, Illinois.
- Janet Freindlich is a licensed clinical professional counselor and mental health therapist at RWJBarnabas Health in Neptune, New Jersey.
- Dara McDowell, MS, MFT, is a marriage and family therapist based in Washington, D.C.
“Name-calling is disrespectful and never acceptable and generally occurs when a partner is so flooded with emotions they’re unable to control what comes out of their mouth,” says Appel. “What they say is designed to wound the other person, but they’re the one who is actually hurting.”
Name-calling takes the conversation down a level of civility, agrees Janet Freindlich, a licensed clinical professional counselor and mental health therapist at RWJBarnabas Health in Neptune, New Jersey. “It often adds unwanted negative energy to a discussion and raises the emotional temperature,” she says.
“The best way to resolve this is to understand why you do this,” says Dara McDowell, MS, MFT, a marriage and family therapist based in Washington, D.C. “Name-calling is often connected to experiences from childhood, either from witnessing name-calling, being called names or using name-calling to attract more attention. Try to notice when you begin name-calling, then make connections to situations where this feeling is familiar and refrain from doing so. Take extra steps such as recognizing name-calling as unhelpful and use different words to get your point across.”
Interrupting Your Partner
Everyone wants and deserves to be heard yet interrupting is disrespectful and doesn’t help with the communication process. “We all want to make our point, but constantly interrupting your spouse will lead to one of two things,” shares Appel. “Someone shutting down or the conversation escalating into a bigger blowup.” This is when gaining some tools in active listening are crucial. “Yes, it can be difficult to listen when your partner is saying things that may be hard to hear, but communication is only effective if the intended message is received,” says Appel. “It’s important to listen to what your partner is saying, repeat it back, and ask any clarifying questions to be sure you fully understand what your partner is saying.”
Freindlich recommends taking notes before and during a discussion. “Doing so cuts down on impulsive language, talking over each other, blurting things out and interrupting the other person. Write down a question so you can remember it when your spouse is done speaking. Sometimes a he/she interrupts because they’re afraid they will forget to say something later, but interrupting your partner is not helpful.”
Using Disrespectful Body Language
Throwing your hands in the air, eye-rolling, crossing your arms or frowning and scowling when you’re arguing can amplify the tone and temperature of any conflict. It can also block the message you’re trying to send. “If negative body language is presenting, it means the person is not in a good space to listen and it may be worth calling a timeout to go off and identify your triggers separately, and then to come back and continue discussing issues when everyone is into a better place,” says Appel. “Sitting in two chairs directly across from each other with both feet flat on the ground and hands resting gently on the tops of your thighs is the ideal communication position.”
Sometimes when arguing, couples get lost in the conversation and don’t even realize they’re coming across as negative or physically aggressive. It’s okay to point things out that bother you, says Freindlich, but using more sensitive phrasing like, “It looks like you’re frustrated when you roll your eyes at me - is that how you feel?” will get you in a better space.
“Eye-rolling and throwing hands in the air are often used to regain relational control and attention,” adds McDowell. “Notice and recognize when you are using these gestures and replace them with a feeling word such as sad, angry, or anxious.”
Attacking Your Partner's Character
Focusing on your partner and not the situation is called deflecting, which is an attempt to shift focus and avoid dealing with negative consequences, shares McDowell. “You may use this as a mechanism to avoid feelings of guilt or shame. When arguing with your partner, try to use ‘I’ statements to communicate your emotions and focus only on the situation.”
“This comes back to effective communication,” agrees Appel. “In conflict, it’s extremely important to stick to communication basics, like ‘I feel ___when you___ because you ___.’ You’ll be more likely to get what you want if you approach it this way, rather than if you verbally attack your partner and put them on the defensive.” Appel also suggests partners remedy an attack by saying five positive things. “The suggested 5:1 ratio shows how damaging criticism is, especially in a conflict,” she says.
Getting defensive isn’t fair to anyone - not to you, your partner, and most importantly, your relationship, shares Appel. “If this happens, spend some time reflecting and asking yourself if there was a time in your life when you felt similar to the way you did when you became defensive. Being ‘triggered’ means there’s an outsized reaction to what is occurring at the moment, but there may also be a historical component to address which, in that case, may need to involve a therapist,” she says.
It’s hard not to be defensive when someone is upset with you. “Slow the conversation down, then repeat what was heard to ensure you actually understood what was said,” adds McDowell. “Validate what was said and empathize with your partner, putting yourself in his/her shoes and thinking how he/she may feel in this particular situation. Doing this will increase intimacy and emotional connection.”
Stonewalling is when one or both partners shut down when feeling overwhelmed during conflict. “Rather than facing the issue, the person tunes out, acts busy or says they don’t want to talk anymore,” says Appel. “When you notice you or your partner are checking out, it’s best to stop communicating and take a twenty minute break to calm your nerves enough to return to the conversation with a more clear perspective and greater ability to problem solve. It can also be helpful if you already have a cue or word in place you’ve agreed upon to communicate when you’re feeling overwhelmed.”
Sometimes people are just not ready to verbalize their feelings and pushing your partner to respond is not a good idea. “Saying something like, ‘Can we talk about this in a day or two’ when you’ve had time to process your feelings or ‘let me know when you want to talk further about this’ is a much better approach,” says Frindlich.
Avoiding Eye Contact
When people are uncomfortable, they can become avoidant. Appel suggests asking your partner to look at you when you speak but asking in a way that’s loving. “Saying something like, ‘I know this is difficult and makes you feel unnerved, but it helps me feel cared for, loved, and heard if you look at me when I speak to you.’”
Avoiding eye contact can be interpreted as disinterest, anger, or fear while maintaining a relaxed eye contact will increase interaction, intimacy, and cooperation, adds Freindlich.
Using Exaggerated Language
“I remind couples to be mindful of using language like ‘always’ and ‘never’ because they simply aren’t accurate,” says Appel. “It’s usually an exaggeration and puts the other partner on the defensive, which is not helpful for resolution. I advise my clients to pick one specific instance they can talk through and use active listening skills to ‘unlearn’ exaggerated tendencies. A simple exercise to practice active listening is to take turns saying, ‘I Feel____’ and having the other person repeat it back.”
Using exaggerated words discounts the time or times when your partner did do something right or was respectful and considerate,” adds Freindlich.
Bringing Up Past Issues
Bringing up the past and piling on one thing after the other is known as “gunny sacking”, where the tension is rising and resentment from the past on matters that haven’t been worked out come through,” shares Appel. “It generally means they were either unresolved, traumatic, or both. If people are unwilling or unable to attend therapy, I would recommend they read some self-help books together. I’m a big fan of Getting the Love You Want by Helen Hunt and Harville Hendrix which includes exercises to strengthen your relationship. There are also online workshops and workbooks that can be purchased on Amazon that couples can go through together.”
You may feel that referencing the past and the hurt it caused would bring a better result but often it does not, adds McDowell. “In many cases, it’s not the past that needs to be brought up but the familiar feeling you may have in the current situation. In other words, if the past situation made you feel insecure and you feel the same way in this current situation, it’s not the situation that needs to be brought up but the feeling. Recognize the familiar feeling and convey your needs to your partner.”
If someone speaks forcefully, they’re escalating and if someone is escalating, they’re on their way to losing control. “At that point, a person is not able to have any sort of effective communication and there needs to be a timeout,” warns Appel. “Both parties need to separate and come back once they’re both completely calm and then address things with cooler heads.” Freindlich suggests going for a walk with your partner and discussing things outdoors. “Sometimes it’s easier to speak when you’re moving,” she says. “Keep your voice low – there’s no need to yell – your partner will hear you better if you’re not screaming.”
Tone is a major factor when communicating with your partner, agrees McDowell. “When you speak loudly or yell, you often feel passionate about what you’re saying, yet it often doesn’t land on the other person in the way you intended. When you’re trying to prove a point, it’s better to use a soft tone,” she says.
Refusing to Take Responsibility
It’s important to take responsibility when you’ve played a part in any aspect of a conflict, advises Freindlich. “Owning up to mistakes will make it clear to your partner you’re willing to accept your part in the altercation. Remember taking responsibility for a mistake or misstep is a strength, not a weakness.”
“Refusing to take responsibility can be a response to trauma, such as rejection, betrayal, blame, or abuse and you continue to see yourself as the victim in the situation,” notes McDowell. “Noticing and recognizing why you do this is important.”
Using Blame Language
“Blaming is considered self-protection, a way of discharging pain and feeling in control,” says McDowell. “Trying to find out where you’ve gone wrong and empathizing with your partner and taking responsibility, even if it is just a small part of the issue, will be helpful. Saying, ‘I can imagine how you feel’ and then filling in how you think your spouse feels or how you might feel if you were in their shoes is a great place to start.”
Swearing or Using Aggressive Language
“If cursing is a reoccurring issue, it tells me either the person doesn’t have the skill set or proper communication for conflict resolution or that they’re extremely flooded and need to go take some time to calm down before coming back to the conversation,” shares Appel. “In this case, it’s important for the person affected by the cursing to make it clear how much the swearing bothers them and stress the importance of not swearing. When partners are working together to solve conflicts, part of the idealized outcome is to feel more loved.”
Swear words are often used to intensify a situation or as a coping mechanism. “Arguments are stressful and using a swear word can make someone feel superior, more resilient and sometimes less stressed,” says McDowell. “They can be highly offensive or abusive to your partner. When communicating, refrain from using them and replace the swear word with other language. Also, deescalating the situation can help with decreasing the use of swear words.”
Agrees Freindlich, “Swearing makes someone sound like they’re losing control of their emotions and emotional disequilibrium, or the appearance of, can make a spouse feel unsafe. Watch your words when you’re arguing with your spouse, try to use more gentler language.”
Getting the Timing Wrong
If you find yourself fighting more when you’re tired, hungry or have been drinking, it’s best to make an appointment to have the conversation at a later date. “This way, the partner who needs to talk about it knows it’s going to be addressed, just not now,” says Appel. Once scheduled, make sure you’re not famished, exhausted or feeling under the weather prior to the conversation.
Focusing on Your Differences
It’s important, in a healthy partnership, for each person to have their differences. “If people were the same, you wouldn’t be a good match,” shares Appel. “There’s a therapy called Imago Couples Therapy that includes the idea that people are either turtles or tigers in conflict. A tiger is considered the aggressor and the turtle is the one who instinctively draws into their shell. If you had a partnership with two tigers, they would kill each other, and if you had one with two turtles nobody would ever talk to each other and the relationship would die on the vine. A turtle and a tiger are actually the optimal match.”
“Focus on the end goal not what makes you different or the same, adds Freindlich. “Remain positive and zero in on the things you agree on.”
Arguing About Too Many Things at Once
If your conversation jumps from the dirty laundry in the hamper to sex in the bedroom, the resulting arguments will never be productive. “I suggest creating a conversation agenda, putting things in order of importance, and sticking to one topic at a time,” says Appel.
Agrees Freindlich, “Avoid meandering onto other topics or old, unresolved conflicts. Topics are generally complicated and have layers so it’s quite natural for one topic to bleed into another. Try to remain focused on the initial challenge.” The mind is not designed to focus on multiple things at once during an effective conversation, shares McDowell. “It’s better to discuss one issue, express your feelings, and allow your partner to validate and empathize with you and vice versa.”
Not Listening to What Your Partner Is Saying
A lot of couples don’t listen to their partners the way they listen to others, says Appel. “Our spouse is usually the closest person to us emotionally, and therefore the one we’re most likely to do battle with. I tell my clients to talk and listen to their partners like they would to a close friend as we’re often far more understanding and empathetic to our friends than we are our own partners.”
Oftentimes couples are listening just enough to form an opinion about the topic, but not enough to fully hear and understand what their partner is trying to convey. “Take notes and then repeat back what you heard from your partner so he/she knows you’re listening. You can begin your sentence with ‘I heard you say’ and repeat exactly what you heard,” says McDowell.
Bad-Mouthing Your Partner's Family
It’s easy to bring other family members into a fight (“Your father was verbally abusive to your mother and that’s where you get it from!”) but if you involve your spouse’s family in a criticizing way, you’re not only disparaging your partner but also his/her family. “Angry people tell their spouses things they would never say during times of rationality and then it becomes a game of ‘one upping’ that is very wounding. Even if the statement is factually true, family is a boundary that generally should not be crossed or used during a conflict,” shares Appel. Once things have cooled off, it’s important for the person who was wounded to inform their partner of how hurt they feel.
“Fighting is never the time to psychoanalyze your partner or to bring family into the argument,” adds Freindlich. “Although you may have a point, this is not the moment to reveal your insights.”
Criticizing Your Partner Often
It can be difficult not to criticize your partner when you’re feeling angry - resolving issues requires vulnerable sharing which can ultimately increase intimacy and the connection within your relationship. “Sharing parts of ourselves that we view as a ‘weakness’ or revealing things that make us feel insecure or anxious isn’t easy,” says Appel. “But it’s having difficult, uncomfortable conversations around criticism that can lead to resolution.”
Criticizing can also be a way for your partner to show power and control a situation. “Express to your partner how you feel in the moment,” suggests McDowell. “When naming the emotion, you can articulate how your partner can also meet your needs and decrease the criticism.”
Continuing to Fight Without a Resolution
When couples say they just can’t stop fighting, Appel asks them to offer up an example - not to solve the present issue, but to figure out what’s really going on beneath the conflict. “A couple could have a million different fights but, in many cases, they're really having the same battle over and over again,” she says. “But until you get to the underlying issue, you’ll keep arguing. I suggest scheduling times to have ‘meetings’ to discuss topics that are challenging and sticking to the rule of discussing only during those specific times. That way, the continual conflict does not take over your life.” Put a limit on the discussion time, adds Freindlich. “Say, ‘Let’s talk for thirty minutes and see what we can learn in that time.’”