Q: How do my partner and I stop fighting so often?

My clients--and friends--ask me repeatedly for advice about preventing heated and ugly arguments. The truth is if you love or live with someone, you are bound to have disagreements. In fact, these differences in point of view, problem-solving, and interpretations build the strong teamwork in your relationship. Couples who describe themselves as happy also say that their different styles of managing stress and problems have made them more flexible and resourceful. 

So, the goals are not to avoid disagreement but to manage them without being unkind or out of control and to move toward solutions as quickly as possible. Here is a quick review to help you take charge of your reactions and benefit from your differences. The first five steps address what you need to do to prepare your mind before you and your partner deal with your differences.

1. Accept and be grateful for many of your different viewpoints and styles. Perhaps without knowing it, you might have fallen in love with your partner because of your differences. For instance, some of the couples you know might make you think, "What do they see in each other?  They're so different." But it is exactly these differences that drew them to each other. Luckily for us, sometimes we gravitate toward people who complement us.

2. Work together. Imagine you and your partner are two different pieces of Swiss cheese. In your mind stack the two pieces together and notice how you longer see through the holes. As in the movie "Jerry McGuire," you two "complete" each other--and therefore form a stronger partnership.

3. Vow not to criticize. Criticism, sarcasm, and swearing at your partner poison good will and acceptance. In your mind, flip the roles so that you are on the receiving end of the negativity. Really "play that movie" in your head. How does it feel? Not very good probably.
4. Forget about winning. You will never stop having heated arguments if there has to be a winner. If there is a winner, there is a loser. Intimate relationships are no place for vengeance or victory dances. The solution to the hot topic has to work for both of you. Temporary triumphs can backfire when your partner resents your tactics, power, and disregard for his/her needs.  When you give up having to win, you automatically calm down and reduce your emotional reactivity. 

5. Forget about having to be right. Similarly, it's too easy to fall into the mind trap of having to be right. We all want to be validated, but aiming to be seen as the right, smart one in the relationship will also backfire. If you hate feeling "wrong," then imagine what it must feel like for your partner to be always found to be "wrong." Love is allergic to self-righteousness. 

Besides, the concept of rightness is a rigid way to look at the world. This viewpoint actually weakens you and, paradoxically, makes you the wrong one! Most problems in life have multiple solutions and ways of interpreting them. If only life were so easy that every situation had only two choices--right or wrong.  But if you reflect on past issues that nagged at you, you probably will discover that problems--and therefore solutions--are multi-faceted. A mature and wiser way to deal with your disagreements is to assume that you can both be right! Adopting a "both can be right" attitude increases your ability to calm down.

6. Take turns describing to each other how you see the problem. Listen to your partner without making any comments. Stick to the facts as you talk about the situation. Be aware of taking out judgments and evaluations.  Sometimes, running that movie in your head about the situation will help you stay with the facts.

7. Each person explains why the situation "pushes your buttons." Heated arguments come from heated topics. Ask yourself: Why does this topic "get to me?"  Explain your best understanding to your partner.  Perhaps the situation reminds you of how you felt when your mother criticized you. Or, maybe there is something about the problem that ignites your feelings about being left out and ignored. There are no perfect families. Most often, the issues that mother us relate to early life experiences or trauma. If you are the listener, you are just to listen.

If you cannot identity your feelings or understand your "hot buttons," tell your partner that you are confused and would like to do some reflecting. At this point, I strongly recommend that you do some exercises that will help get you in touch with your physical and emotional reactions. For example, you can write out your thoughts or talk out your thoughts with your partner. A powerful tool is to recall the moment that the difference escalated, recreate it in your mind, and pay attention to how you feel physically and emotionally. What words would you use to describe your reactions?  Where on your body are you feeling a response?  The goal is to become more mindful of yourself. Communicate what you've learned about your "hot buttons" to your partner.

8. Validate and understand your partner's point of view. Don't make your partner "wrong" by challenging how he/she feels. Hot potato topics usually get hot because they have tripped off fundamental feelings such as fear of abandonment and needs for belonging and acceptance. In your own words, explain your understanding of your partner's view. Check with your partner to make sure you "get it." One of the techniques I've mentioned in my other articles is to pretend to be your partner and present his or her side. Really get into it. Speak in the first person. It's amazing how well and how quickly you can grasp the meaning and importance of the issue from your partner's viewpoint.

9. Each person contributes at least two solutions. After you have taken turns describing the situation, now you can each move forward toward developing solutions. While your partner is speaking, you are to listen. Brainstorm by speaking out loud.  Interestingly, couples who do this step say that they "just ended up coming up with solutions that addressed the needs of their partner." Talk about the pros and cons of each solution-without making either one wrong. Keep in mind that you are a team mates-not competitors.

10. Evaluate the choices. Talk about the various options. "Try them on" in your minds. Play "Devil's Advocate," for example. Usually, by this time, you both have calmed down and have become less emotionally reactive. Hopefully, if you have been able to objectify the problem, you will feel as though the problem is "outside" yourself. One of my clients said that she knew that she and her husband were making progress when the problem "seemed to be sitting on the coffee table and not residing inside each of them."
Don't assume that you have to stay with the solution you both devised. If you are not in crisis or need an immediate decision, live with the solution for a few days without acting on it. Pretend that the disagreement is over and that the problem is solved. What feelings are you experiencing? What doubts do you have? Now discuss your reactions with each other and see what develops. Recall that many solutions may exist.

Finally, remember to stay calm, stay kind, stay open-minded.

Dr. LeslieBeth Wish, ED.D., MSS is a noted psychologist and lic. clinical social worker, specializing in relationships.  For her book about women and love, she welcomes women to take her 17-20 minute online research survey at www.lovevictory.com. Also on her website, if you donate $5 to Habitat for Humanity-Sarasota, Florida, you can receive a download of her relationship advice cartoon book for women, "The Love Adventures of Almost Smart Cookie."