Arguing with your partner is part of life—but having the skills to keep things from escalating can mean the difference between a devastating battle and a win-win. Here, a couples therapist, a philosopher, and three other fight club refs help increase the odds of not going to bed mad.

By Sarah J. Robbins
Updated March 16, 2017
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Fighting toy dinosaurs
Credit: Maiko Takechi Arquillos
Fighting toy dinosaurs
Credit: Maiko Takechi Arquillos

Actively Listen. Then Repeat.

Conflict activates the reptilian part of our brains, which makes us fight, flee, or freeze. But you can get out of that trap if you pause before reacting—and fully understand what your partner is communicating. Try to quiet whatever is going on in your head so you can truly hear your partner. Really listen, then say, “Let me see if I get what you’re saying. You feel [insert info here], correct?” Make sure your partner sees you trying to hear accurately. Then give him or her a chance to expand: “Can you tell me more about that?” Maybe you even say, “That makes sense.” Then it’s your turn to share how you see things. Even if your original stance is unchanged, this sort of exchange decelerates the energy and calms you both down so you can have a dialogue. — Helen LaKelly Hunt, PhD, cofounder (along with her husband, Harville Hendrix, PhD) of Imago Relationships International. She is based in McLean, Virginia.

State Your Needs Clearly.

You can’t expect your partner to read your mind, no matter how in love you might be or how “obvious” your complaint may seem. Subtlety is overrated—especially in the heat of the moment (or when you’re sleep deprived, stressed about a big deadline at work, or both)—and it only leads to more resentment. So don’t forget to say what you need! Whether it’s something concrete (“I need more help getting the kids out the door in the morning”) or emotional (“When you wipe the counter, it helps me feel listened to and cared for”), it’s up to you to give your partner a clue about how to make you happier. Not only will that make arguments more productive, but it can also help prevent certain fights altogether. —Lauren Smith Brody, author of The Fifth Trimester, a guide for new working mothers. She lives in New York City.

Acknowledge Your Different Arguing Styles.

I often work with couples who are newly together or about to get married, and we’ll talk about how their families of origin handled conflict. If one comes from a family of shouters and the other’s family philosophy was “We have our feelings in private,” then, when there’s a conflict, it could look like the more vocal partner is angrier. So you need to understand the differences between you. When I was growing up, my mom spoke her mind easily, while the rest of us needed some time to process. If in the heat of things we needed a minute, we’d put a hand up, crossing guard–style, and she’d wait. — Reverend Kerry Dueholm, a licensed professional counselor in Barrington, Illinois.

Examine Whether You’re Both Fighting About the Same Thing.

As you’re talking, ask yourself, “What mode am I operating in?” Are you making a logical argument? An emotional one? If I’m talking about a factual issue and you’re talking about your feelings, then we may not actually be communicating. Consider the example of an argument about whether you or I should take the car to the garage. If I’m saying that I have a meeting and that the garage is in the opposite direction, I’m making a logical argument. But if you feel like you generally have more responsibilities and needing to take on this one is unfair, then that is, for you, what the discussion is actually about. Tell me what’s really going on and that you’re always getting stuck with this stuff. Then there’s opportunity for compromise: I can say, “I can’t take the car in today, but I can take it tomorrow.” — Michael A. Gilbert, PhD, professor of philosophy at York University in Toronto and the author of Arguing With People.

Deliver a Really Good Apology.

Just saying “I’m sorry” doesn’t always cut it. The person is not only upset with what you did but worried that you’ll do it again. The normal human tendency is for the culprit to minimize the mistake, which pisses off the other person. So maximize it instead. Suppose you made plans for your family without asking your spouse. Acknowledge that: “It was really rude of me to assume you wanted to go.” Second, admit the real wrong. For example, “I’m sorry I disrespected your time like that.” If you don’t know exactly what the real wrong was, keep talking until you do. Finally, repair the mistake if possible or show sincerely that it won’t happen again. Simply saying something like “In the future, I’ll check with you” shows your partner you’re reaching for a solution. — Laurie Puhn, author of Fight Less, Love More, and a lawyer in Scarsdale, New York.