Many people try their best to avoid conflict, but relationship researchers say every conflict presents an opportunity to improve a relationship. The key is to learn to fight constructively. Marriage researcher John Gottman has built an entire career out of studying how couples interact. In one important study, Dr. Gottman and his colleagues observed newly married couples while they were having an argument. The researchers found that analyzing just the first three minutes of the couple’s fight could predict their risk for divorce over the next six years. That means the most important moment between you and your partner during a conflict are those first few minutes. By focusing on your behavior during that time, it likely will change the dynamics of your relationship for the better.
Here’s some general advice from the research about how to start a constructive argument with the person you love:
Identify the complaint, not the criticism. If you’re upset about housework, don’t start the fight by criticizing your partner with, “You never help me.” Focus on the complaint and what will make it better. “It’s so tough when I work late on Thursdays to come home to dishes and unbathed kids. Do you think you could find a way to help more on those nights?”
Avoid “you” phrases. Phrases like “You always” and “You never” are almost always followed by criticism and blame. Instead, use sentences that start with “I” or “We,” which will help you identify problems and solutions, rather than putting blame on someone else.
Be aware of body language. No eye-rolling, which is a sign of contempt. Look at your partner when you speak. No folded arms or crossed legs to show you are open to their feelings and input. Sit or stand at the same level as your partner – one person should not be looking down or looking up during an argument.
Learn to de-escalate. When the argument starts getting heated, take it upon yourself to calm things down. For example, use the phrase “What if we…” or “I know this is hard…” or “I hear what you’re saying…” or “What do you think?”
–Tara Parker-Pope, “How to Have a Better Relationship,” New York Times, October 13, 2017