This Will Transform the Way You and Your Partner Argue
Kathy Anderson, MS, LAMFT
There’s a lot of advice out there on how to fight better with your partner. From, “Use I statements,” to “Don’t go to bed angry,” to “Pick your battles,” I’m sure you’ve heard it all. I want to teach you one strategy that you probably haven’t heard from very many places. Keep reading to transform the way you and your partner fight – for the better.
The Setting Matters
What are the top three settings in which you tend to argue? If any of them include while in the car, while multitasking, or over text, then you’re in good company with hundreds of thousands of other couples. The one thing that these settings all have in common is that they all lack face-to-face interaction between partners, even if they are in the same room.
There are three main issues with not being face-to-face when arguing:
It could be hazardous. What’s so risky about not fighting face-to-face? Let’s go back to the most common setting that couples argue in: the car. Nearly every couple I have ever met has had an argument in the car while sitting next to each other. Here’s the real risk: you cannot fully focus on driving when you are fighting in the car. Your split attention compromises your reaction time, and the riled up emotional state during an argument puts your brain into a more primitive functioning state. This leads to narrowed vision, heightened impulsivity, and lowered ability to plan and gauge cause and effect. In short, fighting in the car can lead to a serious accident – please don’t do it. This also applies to other activities, such as cooking or working on a project. The other risk associated with not fighting face-to-face happens on a brain level but surfaces on a relational level. Fighting with each other while side-by-side – whether on the couch or in the car – puts you both at each other’s visual periphery. The constant visual or motion referencing to your periphery can actually activate a threat response in your nervous system. This is a hard-wired biological survival mechanism in mammals that increases the chance that you perceive your partner as a threat. Another reason not to argue side-by-side. As a side note, if you have a habit of walking away from your partner when you argue, this could also trigger a sense of abandonment, especially if you do not specify when you will return.
You’re missing a LOT of information about your partner when you’re not facing them in an argument. You can’t see their facial expression or body language, which leaves your interpretation of their word choice and tone up to what you already know: your history. That doesn’t bode well for either of you because what is in history isn’t what is happening right now. Your interpretation of what’s going on will be skewed. Furthermore, you might not be able to see how you are affecting your partner, which decreases the likelihood that you’ll be relational or repair hurt feelings quickly.
You cannot mutually regulate each other’s heightened emotional states if you’re not facing each other. Without mutual regulation, your argument is FAR more likely to escalate and get out of hand. Couples who do not face each other when they argue do not have a setting where they can mutually regulate each other. Two people regulating their emotions independently is a lot harder of a task than two people regulating together, which is why arguments get out of hand so often.
So What’s the Secret?
Argue face-to-face. Facing each other in arguments will lend you the opportunity to see how you’re impacting each other in-the-moment. This way, you can repair hurt feelings as soon as the rupture happens, and you can see how your partner responds to your approach and adjust to be more relieving and non-threatening. Facing each other promotes a sense of care for each other in the midst of conflict resolution instead of using your partner as a trash bin to throw your angst at.
When couples argue while facing each other, they are interacting within a setting of mutual and reciprocal nervous system energy. This setting offers the chance to work as a team to de-escalate together at the same time. Seeing each other’s faces promotes pro-relational behavior. Eye contact in of itself acts as a portal into each other’s nervous systems, and touch can have a massive down-regulating effect. When facing each other, couples co-create a setting of mutual, interactive regulation and decrease the chances of activating neurobiological threat systems.
If you want to change the way that you fight, start fighting face-to-face. As of right now, you might be escalating arguments based on accidentally activating biological threat systems. You may also be missing a ton of information, and you and your partner are likely not working as a team to soothe each other in the midst of conflict. Facing each other during arguments can help with all of these areas, effectively minimizing the intensity and duration of your conflicts. The next time you and your partner have a fight, try fighting face-to-face, and see how much of an impact this has on the nature of your conflict.