We’ve all met them – the serene couple who never argue, giggle over their silly mistakes, and seem to look on in horror as their other coupled-up friends bicker and bluster their way through relationships. Likewise, most of us know a couple whose fiery rows and on again off again status make Spencer and Heidi look positively tame by comparison. But who has it right? Do your smugly calm friends actually have the perfect relationship – or are they really doing all their arguing at home? Or perhaps your fighting friends secretly love the passion of arguing.
While it’s strangely comforting to meet couples who argue more, I always wonder what’s keeping these couples together. Am I missing something by not flinging plates at my other half while screaming about the lack of washing-up liquid, or is it better that the angriest I get is muttering under my breath about who fed the cat last? I know advocates for both types of arguing – those yellers and screamers insist they know real passion, and the calmer bickerers who believe their shouting sisters are bonkers. But while there’s something to be said for both styles of relationship (and, indeed, for those couples who really don’t ever argue at all) – is there a true yardstick by which you can measure your own relationship? And could your arguing be damaging your prospects for long-term happiness?
According to Dubai-based psychologist Amy Bailey, arguing with your other half doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be hearing the sounds of divorce papers hitting the doormat anytime soon.
“Arguments can be a good way to clear the air and prevent tension building up between a couple,” she explains. “However, the arguments you have need to be constructive, and not critical of each other. They need to occur sparingly, as frequent arguments are not healthy to a relationship. It is okay to disagree about things – and of course we are all entitled to our own opinion – but we need to be careful in managing these disagreements to ensure they do not get out of hand and escalate to the point that hurtful things may be said.”
This is easier said than done, perhaps, but allowing bickering and differences of opinion to grow into a more serious argument and cause lingering resentment, could have a lasting impact on your relationship. And, even though most of us do enjoy being right when we argue, surely we’d kick ourselves if we allowed an argument over something silly to signal the end of an otherwise fantastic relationship.
Unless you’re channelling Mother Theresa, or you’re so laid back you’re horizontal, the chances are you’ll argue with your other half at some point in your lives. And, since we all appreciate that a little spat isn’t necessarily negative, the only aspect of arguing you need to figure out is how to do it well. But, since most couples resort to the occasional verbal disagreement, the unfortunate truth is that, just like in other relationship areas, couples tend to fall into distinct routines when they argue.
Bailey explains: “The roles we adopt within arguments tend to reflect our general coping style, and therefore arguments can usually play out in a similar fashion. People who are more avoidant of emotions will tend to be more passive within an argument and will feel more uncomfortable in the situation, while more emotionally expressive partners will take a more vocal and active role within the argument.” Which goes some way to explaining why those friends of yours who love to dissect every aspect of their relationship also are more confident confronting things they are opposed to.
But even if you’re not naturally inclined towards confrontation, your arguing style doesn’t have to be set in stone, says Bailey. “It is always possible to change the way we argue but this will take work and insight,” she explains. “We need to understand the role we take within an argument, and why. Then, we can be consciously aware of this during an argument in order to avoid slipping into old ways of interacting.”
So, what does your arguing style say about you? And how can you change a negative cycle to improve your relationship? Specialist independent counsellor Beth Salmon, who has been helping couples with their relationship difficulties for years, decodes the classic arguments styles that couples fall into, and reveals just how you can begin to resolve them…
“He just doesn’t seem to hear anything I say”
What is it? Ever started a serious discussion with your other half, only to find they’re not listening to a word you say? If it happens regularly, and you find your partner is unwilling to engage with you, you’re being ‘stonewalled’. This behaviour is what specialist independent relationship counsellor Beth Salmon refers to as ‘passive aggressive’. She explains “This is one of the trickiest things for a therapist to deal with. The person (who is stonewalling) acts all innocent, and it is very frustrating, so most of the work here is getting them to see that saying nothing is an aggressive action in itself.”
How to deal with it? In this scenario, the main battle is getting the person who is ‘stonewalling’ to accept that not participating in the discussion at all is part of the problem, and makes it hard for the partner who is being ignored.
“One partner just blanks and unless they can recognise that they have a responsibility to listen and think about what their partner is saying, that will remain a problem,” Salmon says. Once your partner has accepted that they need to participate in solving problems, you can begin to work on them properly.
Celeb stonewallers: Think Mr. Big from SATC.
“Why don’t we ever get things out into the open?”
What is it? If you’re unsure about what bickering is, chances are you’re one of the lucky people who manage to steer clear of it most of the time. When looking at the extent to which you bicker (and if it is indeed bickering), you need to consider that there is a difference between fighting and debating (good news for those of us who consider heated discussions about the washing-up an essential part of daily life).
“Fighting is when people aren’t listening to one another,” explains Salmon. “It goes along with physiological conditions – you stir up hormones in the brain, such as cortisol and adrenaline, you make yourself unable to think, you raise your voice and then the game is up – nothing good is going to happen until you put a stop to that.”
How to deal with it: According to Salmon, some of us deal far better with arguing than others. So while either you, or your other half, might find the odd bit of bickering helpful, the other one may find it difficult or traumatic to deal with. “If you have grown up in a large family where your mother and father would shout, but make up and be kissing by midnight, you can handle it better,” Salmon says. “If you come from a family where no one ever talked about anything, but there were atmospheres – then you probably can’t handle raised voices. The thing about daily bickering is that it should be recognised as something that can escalate, saps your energy and steals time when you could be doing more interesting things.”
Celeb bickerers: Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt in Mr & Mrs Smith.
“We have terrible rows, but they’re over in minutes”
What is it? Explosive pairings have made headlines for as long as there have been newspapers, and most of us have at least one friend who has been part of a break-up then make-up couple. But if you’re in a relationship like this, is the reality that you’re both just brimming over with passion, or could your constant arguing be a serious issue?
“The problem with fighting is that people lose their sense of proportion,” Salmon warns. “It becomes more important to win the argument than it is to solve the problems at hand,” she continues. If you notice that your arguments are centred on what the other person did or didn’t do, or you involve other people in them (e.g. my friends agree you are unreasonable), it’s time to think about the underlying causes of the disagreements.
How to deal with it: Rather than trying to score points or be the ‘winner’ by hammering your point home (we’ve all done it), Salmon advises trying to look past the behaviour itself to find out how it makes you (and your partner) feel. “Arguments often expose insecurities in the complaining partner that may be hard to voice,” she says. “Someone saying ‘I don’t like it when you stay out late’ could actually be translated as ‘I want you to come home with me, because I miss you. I do trust you but I am at home and I am lonely’. It can be much harder to express insecurities like that, and it is easier to be a nag.” Try looking for common patterns that occur when you argue – perhaps one of you has issues they haven’t addressed, or recurring insecurities they need to talk about.
Celeb fighters: How many times did Heidi and Spencer make up and break up?
“Everything he does just drives me crazy”
What is it? If you find that your nearest and dearest likes to point out the fact that you leave the bathroom light on, wear your hair with a strange parting, put your socks on in an irritating manner, and generally can’t get anything right – the good news is, it’s nothing to do with you (hoorah!). Overly critical people tend to have come from a family where criticism was acceptable, or they just have a very different family background from you.
How to deal with it: Understanding is key in this situation. Whether it’s you or your partner who tend to criticise, it can make for a tense and frustrating relationship. To solve the problem, you and your other half need to be prepared to look at your backgrounds to see what has made you the person you are in relationships. “As a child we have no choice about the way we are raised. We have to understand that the other person may have had a totally different family culture, and as a result there deals with their emotions in a completely different set of ways. Once you realise that, you don’t have to keep repeating those same patterns. That just leaves you with a habit to break,” says Salmon.
Celeb nitpickers: Did you ever find yourself feeling sorry for Peter Andre, when wife Katie found fault with things he did?
“I can’t express my anger, i just keep it inside”
What is it? If you’ve ever sat through dinner with a couple who are determined to maintain a stony silence – or worse, if you’ve actually been that couple – you’ll know that not talking about things can be just as bad as arguing about them. If you recognise that there is something fundamentally wrong in your relationship, and you’re not discussing it, it could be because you’re afraid of arguing, explains Salmon.“Refusing to discuss problems is about being unhappy. A lot of people are afraid of arguing because they think it will fracture the relationship terminally.” She continues, “This is also to do with a fear of rejection.”
How to deal with it: You might be surprised to hear it, but if you’re afraid of arguing, it could be that you need to work on your own self confidence, rather than putting all of your energy into fixing your relationship. “Unless you are content in yourself, it is very hard to be in a relationship,” Salmon explains, “Because you look to that relationship to do the work you should be doing yourself – to smooth out all of the lumps and bumps of life. The individual has to be responsible for their own emotional and physical wellbeing.” Salmon explains that if your partner is also unwilling to talk about your problems, it could be that he is feeling the same way.
Celeb ignorers: Could Sandra Bullock and Jesse James have salvaged their relationship if he had been open about his insecurities?
The dos and don’ts of arguing with your other half
● DO stick to the issue at hand, rather than bringing up old arguments
● DO think about the effect your behaviour is having on your partner
● DO make time to talk about any issues you have
● DO acknowledge when there is a problem in your relationship – ignoring things won’t help
● DON’T let your relationship be the only thing in your life that gives you confidence – you need to feel happy and secure for yourself
● DON’T try to score points or focus on ‘winning’. Your relationship is more important than short-term victory
● DON’T involve other people in your rows. What your mother, best friend or sister think of your disagreement is largely irrelevant
● DON’T stay in any relationship where arguments become abusive (either emotionally or physically).