While a good shouting match can be cathartic and lead to greater communication once in a while, marriage and family counselor John Gottman found that 69 percent of marriage conflicts are never solved.
Couples fight about money, housework, how they spend their free time, intimacy—the list goes on—but for most couples, there’s one specific topic that keeps coming up over and over again. “Couples have the same fight because they haven’t learned the communication skills necessary to respond differently to each other,” explains relationship expert Sheryl Paul, M.D. “The fights aren’t about the story; they’re about partners becoming triggered and getting caught in a pattern.”
So, what can you do to break that pattern? Here’s your action plan.
Learn to de-escalate.
Paul’s No. 1 suggestion is to learn the art of de-escalation. “When couples learn how to de-escalate—which means they disengage as soon as they’re in a reactive or defensive stance with each other and reengage when they’re hearts are open—they can talk from a vulnerable place about what’s really being triggered, which is usually some form of fear and doesn’t include blame,” she explains.
Resist the urge to always be right.
While being right or “winning” an argument feels good, being happy is usually better. So if you find yourself stuck in a pattern of constantly wanting to win, stop. “The most destructive way to deal with conflict is to continue to argue when you’re both triggered with the hope that you’ll convince the other person that they’re wrong and you’re right!” she says. “Continuing to engage when triggered rarely, if ever, leads to a positive outcome.”
Yes, there is a way to “fight right.”
Just because you get into it with your partner once in a while doesn’t mean there’s anything fundamentally wrong with your relationship. But when these fights become too frequent and nothing gets solved, this pattern can become toxic. Danielle Dowling, a doctor of psychology and life coach, suggests getting your fight off on the right foot (yes, there really is such a thing).
“If you start an argument with coldness or accusations, the interaction will likely end with that—and likely to an elevated degree,” she explains. “Start the conversation in a positive, gentle way that communicates a sincere desire for mutual communication and a shared resolution. Some helpful ways to do this are to remember to take responsibility for yourself and your actions, to express any complaints without blaming or shaming your partner, and to communicate from your personal perspective instead of accusing your partner. Words like ‘I feel’ are more effective than ‘you always.'”