How to Fight Fair and Have Healthy Debates With Your Partner, According to Relationship Experts

Butting heads can make you a better couple—as long as you do it right.

How to Have Healthy Debates With Your Partner: speech bubbles
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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. Other times, you'll find yourselves fighting over things like chores, the kids, the in-laws, and other normal life things. The conversations may become heated or passionate, but as long as they stay respectful, these can be meaningful moments and good for the relationship because they teach you valuable communication skills. But healthy fighting is a skill you probably both need to work on in some capacity (we all do).

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 resolve conflicts—or agree to disagree—in a healthy, constructive way without actually hurting your partnership? Whether you're squabbling about the laundry or having an intense discussion about climate change, relationship experts share their top fair fighting rules so that butting heads can actually help you build a stronger bond.

01 of 17

Actively listen, then repeat it back to them.

"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," says Helen LaKelly Hunt, PhD, cofounder (along with her husband, Harville Hendrix, PhD) of Imago Relationships International and Imago Relationship Therapy. "Try to quiet whatever is going on in your head so you can truly hear your partner." And if you keep interrupting without letting your partner finish a sentence, it's a sign you're not listening.

"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," Hunt says. "Then give them 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."

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State your needs clearly.

The unchangeable truth: Your partner cannot read your mind—no matter how in love you are. "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!" says Lauren Smith Brody, author of The Fifth Trimester, a guide for new working mothers. "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."

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Acknowledge your different argument 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," says Reverend Kerry Dueholm, a licensed professional counselor with D2 Counseling. "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."

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Schedule the debate.

With all that's going on in our busy lives—from endless meetings, 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 says. "Don't spew it in the heat of the moment, but count to 10, and schedule it."

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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.

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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."

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Don't pull out the killer ammo.

Everyone knows the one thing they could bring up that would totally devastate their partner, whether it's a dark secret from their childhood or an embarrassing failure they still haven't gotten over. Show you love your partner even when you're angry by never, ever using that info as a weapon. "Going below the belt is so detrimental, it's very hard to come back from that," says Jennifer Kromberg, PsyD, a clinical psychologist in Torrance, Calif.

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Stick to the topic at hand.

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 prevent 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.

The same principle applies for smaller spats, too. "If every minor argument finds its way back to a bigger topic, it's important to note the unresolved anger," says Kromberg. "Say, 'Let's work out the laundry issue right now, but we need to come back to the other topic at a later time.'" If you just can't make headway on the bigger topic, consider seeing a marriage counselor.

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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," she says. "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."

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Make sure you're fighting about the same thing.

Sometimes, if you take a step back, you can realize you're going around in circles because you're not really talking about the same thing, at the heart of it. Michael A. Gilbert, PhD, professor of philosophy at York University in Toronto and the author of Arguing With People, suggests identifying what place you're coming from—logic, emotion? "If I'm talking about a factual issue and you're talking about your feelings, then we may not actually be communicating," he says. "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."

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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 any argument, 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."

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Never be emotionally manipulative.

Twisting the conversation around to play with your partner's emotions is an underhanded move, Kromberg says. "When you say something like, 'Oh, I guess I'm just a terrible person then, I don't know why you married me,' then your partner has to spend the time making you feel better. It closes the door to any opportunity to have a productive dialogue."

Avoid saying things like "I'm done," "Let's end this," or "I want a divorce" when you're in a fight. "Someone might say this because they want to grab their partner's attention," says Carrie Cole, MEd, LPC-S, certified Gottman Method master trainer, director of research for The Gottman Institute, and cofounder of the Center For Relationship Wellness. "But it makes their partner feel unsafe and insecure in the relationship." If those kinds of things get said often, then the partner either stops believing them, or feels that sharing feelings will "end" the relationship.

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Know when it's OK to go to bed angry.

You probably heard that "you should never go to bed angry," but experts say there are times when you might need to sleep on the issue. If you or your partner is exhausted—or one of you drank alcohol that escalated the fight—it's OK to say, "I love you, let's talk about it in the morning." By then, hopefully the intensity will have dissipated, and one of you might realize you were just tired or feeling sensitive. Just be sure to address it within 24 to 48 hours, before you get wrapped up in life again. Because if you just "move on" but aren't emotionally connected, the next argument that comes up will likely include this fight in it as well and be too overwhelming to deal with, Cole says.

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Take a timeout.

Kromberg suggests using the 10-minute rule. "If you're not getting anywhere in 10 minutes, you need to stop and take a time out," she says. Retreating to your own corners and cooling down can help you rethink the argument from both sides. But there are two caveats: You have to set up the rule in advance, not in the middle of a fight. And you both have to agree to come back to the discussion within a day, says Kromberg. "If you're not ready, you at least have to check in. Say, 'I understand we haven't finished discussing this, but I need a little more time.'"

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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 (calmer) 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 says. "It's a stroll to get some fresh air and to rationally and reasonably discuss the topic at hand."

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Don't withhold love after a debate.

White says it's good to 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 says. "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."

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Deliver a really good apology.

"Just saying 'I'm sorry' doesn't always cut it," says Laurie Puhn Feinstein, immigration attorney, communication and conflict resolution consultant and trainer, and author of Fight Less, Love More. "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."

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