Healthy Debate Is Good for Your Relationship, as Long as You Do It Right—Here's How
Butting heads (healthily) can make you a better couple.
No matter how much you have in common, you and your partner will never have the exact same thoughts, feelings, or values. And that's a great thing. Think about how boring it would be never to be challenged or never to learn from the person you're building your life alongside.
In some cases, you may have a healthy debate over politics, current events, or other situations where you don't share an opinion. The conversations may become heated or passionate, but as long as they stay respectful, debates can be meaningful and good for the relationship because they teach you valuable communication skills.
Challenging each other intellectually and communicating openly provides oxygen to your couplehood, says Tray Kearney, a certified life and relationship coach. "Trying to have healthy debates helps you identify with how your partner communicates, and how and when you should react or end the conversation," Kearney explains. "It gives you awareness of how the other person deals with being able to agree to disagree and how soon and if the debate goes left. It shows a level of self-control as well as an ability to handle a difference of opinion without it leading to an argument."
So how can you agree to disagree in a healthy, constructive way—without actually going to bed angry? Here, relationship experts spill their best advice for fighting fair, and why occasionally butting heads can actually be beneficial to building a stronger bond.
Schedule the debate.
With all that’s going on in our pandemic lives—from endless Zooms, parenting obligations, household duties, and work demands—your need for a healthy debate is essential. However, timing is everything, since no one wants to discuss healthcare policies right before a stressful meeting with their boss or as they're nodding off to sleep. And you don’t want the debate to be born out of a knee-jerk reaction you have to something they said or did (or didn’t say or do). Talk to your partner about a good time that works for you to bring some items to the table to banter about calmly and openly, suggests Tammy Shaklee, an LGBTQ+ relationship expert and matchmaker and the founder of H4M offline matchmaking service. “It can release stress, pressure, and give relief to simply ask to schedule a time when you can speak your feelings, use your voice, and have time to prepare your thoughts,” she continues. “Don’t spew it in the heat of the moment, but count to 10, and schedule it.”
Always remember you’re both on the same side.
Debating can bring much-needed excitement and intellectual stimulation to a partnership, but it's critical to keep in mind that you and your partner are ultimately on the same side, says Nicole Moore a body language and relationship expert and life coach. “If you find yourself getting too heated during the debate and notice that you're attacking your partner or trying to diminish them in order to ‘win,’ step back and take a breath,” she says.
A smart way to snap yourself out of it is to look at your mate: Lock eyes with them directly and remind yourself this is your lifelong teammate, not your opponent. Even if you vary in your opinions on one particular subject, overall, you’re in this thing together. “Walk away from the debate and take a minute to gain composure if you notice that you've moved from healthy debate to all-out attack,” adds Moore.
Check your ego at the door.
We’ve all witnessed debates before, from presidential head-to-heads to classroom projects that required a certain firm disposition. Some people came across as arrogant or self-focused during heated dialogue, rather than keeping their attention on the subject at hand. You don’t want to come across as selfish during your couple’s debates, which means you need to let go of having the last word or being right, says relationship expert and author Monica Berg.
“Remember that everyone has a different conflict style, and no one style is better. My verbal [game] is strong, but my husband’s mental [game] is just as good in a debate,” Berg says. “The key is to agree on a style that you’re both comfortable with, ideally with a proactive conversation long before you’re in the heat of a debate.”
Stick to the topic—never dive into personal issues.
It's critical when engaging in healthy debate with your partner to stick to the topic at hand. Avoid letting any intensity, or even irritation, kindled during the debate spill out into other areas of your relationship, Moore says. For example, if you’re talking about politics, you shouldn’t attack your partner’s intelligence or value system. And it’s not the time to bring up the fact that he or she loads the dishwasher the wrong way, or hasn’t picked up after themselves in a week.
To avoid your discussion from impacting your intimacy, Moore recommends setting ground rules like:
- Stick to one topic.
- Don't attack each other personally.
- Remember that the relationship winning is more important than either of you "winning" the debate.
Focus on what you’re learning about your partner.
You may not align with their exact reasoning, and you may not be supportive of their conclusion, but through debate, you have the opportunity to gain insight into your partner. Particularly for couples who have been together for many years, it can be a chance to learn about your mate for the first time in a long time. By discussing topics you may not have actively brought up before, you can listen and better understand how your partner feels and vice-versa says Megwyn White, a certified clinical sexologist, intimacy coach, and the director of education at Satisfyer. “This all could lead to further growth and development in your relationship, which could reduce long-term stress. The beauty of being able to find resolution within an argument is that it allows you to see how your individual needs and polarities can ultimately intersect as potential and growth to deepen intimacy and invite you to a more holistic perspective of reality,” she says.
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Be patient and give your partner the floor uninterrupted.
Whether during a work meeting or venting to a friend, doesn’t it annoy you when someone speaks over you or begins talking about themselves? During a debate, it’s important to allow your partner the courtesy to complete their thoughts. Kearney explains that this ensures they feel heard, valued, and appreciated. And when it’s your turn, don’t jump into your side of the disagreement. Instead, engage and follow-up. “Ask them why they feel the way they feel before you give your point of view. Show interest in their opinion and point of view,” she says. “Enhance the conversation by first acknowledging that you understand and respect their point of view.”
Walk and talk.
If you’ve walked through cobblestone streets in Europe or done a loop around your neighborhood cul-de-sac, you’ve likely been captivated by the older couples going for evening strolls. While it may seem old-fashioned, Shaklee says it could be their way of literally stepping away from their routine to gain a new perspective. During your partner debates, it’s worth considering getting out of the house. “Link arm in arm, or hand in hand, and walk and talk. It’s not for exercise or getting in your steps,” she adds, “It’s a stroll to get some fresh air and to rationally and reasonably discuss the topic at hand.”
Don’t withhold love after the debate.
White says that’s why you should invite physical touch in the form of hugging, kissing, caressing, or even having sex. “It’s a wonderful cherry on top for all the work and effort you both put into finding a resolution. It’s a great way to deepen your intimacy and provide an added boost to the trust you have with each other,” she continues. “Allow it to be organic and genuine, and as you connect, you can remind your lover of how much you appreciate how the partnership helps you both evolve and grow.”