Everyone argues sometimes – yes, even on holiday together – and few of us have done so without ever losing our temper or saying things we regret.
You might think it's better, therefore, to avoid arguing altogether. Not so. John Gottman, professor emeritus at the University of Washington, refers to this as "stonewalling" and warns it's one of four strategies (along with criticising, showing contempt, and acting defensively) that can effectively predict the ending of a relationship.
Keeping communication lines open even when you disagree – perhaps especially when you disagree – is vital if you want to enjoy a fulfilling, lasting relationship.
When Joseph Grenny, co-author of Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High, asked 1000 adults about their relationship, he found those who argued (effectively) were 10 times more likely to have a happy relationship than those who avoided dealing with disagreements, while 80 per cent of respondents added that poor communication was one reason their previous relationships had failed.
The question, then, is not whether to argue, but how. Here are some suggestions:
Ensure your opening comment contains something (sincerely) affirming about your partner. According to Gottman, this is important not only when you disagree, but in everyday conversations as well.
For relationships truly to thrive, he recommends that comments indicating respect and showing gratitude for your partner's positive qualities should outnumber negative comments by a ratio of five to one.
Acknowledge your role in maintaining the discord and creating your own distress
No one can make another person feel upset: it's entirely up to each of us how we react to what happens. Furthermore, chronic disputes are almost never attributable to the actions of only one person.
Think about and acknowledge your role in maintaining your distress and the ongoing differences between you.
Keep to the issues
Focus on the issue of disagreement rather than personal qualities, and avoid descending to name-calling or insulting. Whenever you feel unclear about something your partner says, ask for clarification – and listen.
Avoid interrupting. If you feel unable to control yourself, ask for a break – 20 to 30 minutes is enough; longer is fine if you think it necessary. Take a walk, practice yoga or deep breathing – anything that releases your tension. If this happens often, consider discussing sensitive issues in a public place such as a park or outdoor restaurant. We're less likely to allow emotion to swamp us if we're in view of others.
John Platt at the University of Chicago writes the way to find the best solution to a problem isn't simply to defend your solution, but to think through all possible approaches and determine why none of them works as well as yours. This more scientific approach is, by the way, likely to help you refine and improve your own solution.
Expect to compromise
No one has explained this more clearly than French essayist and moralist Joseph Joubert, when he wrote, "the aim of argument, or of discussion, should not be victory, but progress".