My partner and I spent the first few years of our relationship learning how to argue with each other. We had opposite preferences for fighting: Where I liked to yell and slam doors, he preferred to take time to think before hashing things out. In the beginning, I would get really upset when he drew away from me and he would be hurt for days if I yelled. It just wasn’t working for either of us.
While we’re by no means awesome at fighting now (and when is fighting ever awesome, anyway?) we’re definitely a lot better than we used to be. I realized this the other day, when we had our first fight in a while. I felt him pulling away from me and immediately felt the panic rising in my belly as the distance between us increased. But rather than fall into that panic, I verbalized it. I told him that it scared me to feel that space between us. He listened, and came back to me, both emotionally and physically when he pulled me over for a hug.
Did it solve the thing we were fighting about? No. Did I cry through much of the next day? Yup. But I didn’t feel that gut-wrenching devastation that used to accompany our fights. And that’s because we managed to stay close and connected throughout the process, rather than pulling away or saying hurtful things.
And it got me thinking: What are some other ways that couples can stay close and connected, even when arguing? Here are eight studies and expert advice on how to do just that.
According to a 2018 study from University of Colorado, Boulder, researchers, touching your partner will actually sync up your brainwaves and relieve pain. The study also found that the more empathy a partner felt for their partner in pain, the more their brain waves synced. And while this study looked at relieving physical pain, it’s safe to infer that synced brain waves could result in feeling more connected with your partner.
It reminds me of a friend of mine, who told me that he and his wife always hold hands when they argue. (Which might be the cutest thing I heard all of last year.)
"When we're flooded, our heart rate is above 100 and we are in fight/flight," Dr. Wyatt Fisher, a psychologist who works with single and couples, tells Bustle. "This causes the blood flow to go to our core, making it more difficult to focus, which is why we often say hurtful things we don't mean or remember during fights. Therefore, the first step to being caring in an argument is to de-flood first. Usually, this takes at least 20 minutes while doing something soothing, like taking a nap, going for a jog, listening to nice music, etc."
Active listening is key! That’s a statement backed up by experience — and by science. A 2010 study from University of Michigan researchers and published in the Journal of Marriage and Family found that couples who used “constructive behaviors” like active listening, saying nice things to each other, and discussing a problem during their first year of marriage were more likely to be married 16 years later than couples who engaged in “destructive behaviors” like yelling and slamming doors.
It looks like my partner had the right approach from the beginning! Ugh, I hate it when that happens.
4Take Out "You," "Never," And "Always"
"When upset, we tend to say phrases like 'you always' or 'you never,' which feels extremely attacking to your partner and will make them want to defend themselves," Dr. Fisher says. "Instead, only use 'I' statements, such as 'I feel lonely because we aren't spending much time together' compared to 'You never spend time with me.'"
A 2003 study published in the Journal of Homosexuality found that gay couples were more likely to use humor and affection when arguing than to use hostile arguing tactics. Keeping things a little silly when you’re arguing is a great way to not take yourselves too seriously and stay connected through the fight.
"Vulnerability often happens when we say we’re sorry (if in fact we have said or done something that was clearly wrong); when we begin to acknowledge that our partner has feelings too and maybe they are also feeling sad, hurt, or scared; and maybe when we add a bit of self-deprecating humor," Dr. Gary Brown, a relationship expert in Los Angeles who has been helping singles and couples for over 25 years, tells Bustle. "Laughing at ourselves during an argument can help to defuse our anger. When we do these things, we take the focus off of blaming our partner."
6Decide How Important It Is To Be "Right"
"At some point in the fight, it might be good for both of you to come to point where you ask yourselves: 'What is more important to me right now? Do I want to be 'right' or do I want to be close to you?'” Dr. Brown says. "This gets a bit tricky because you may in fact be right on the facts, but unless it is an immediate health or safety issue, how much do you really need to push this?"
7“Name It And Tame It”
Psychologist Lisa Firestone, Ph.D., writes in Psychology Today that she encourages couples to “name it and tame it” when they’re in an argument. That means verbally acknowledging your feelings in order to help get them under control. That’s what I did with my partner the other day: I noticed the feelings I was having, expressed them verbally, and it brought us both back to each other.
8Express Your Tender Underbelly
"Identify and express the tender underbelly underneath your anger," Dr. Fisher says. "Anger is almost always a secondary emotion and underneath it is something tender, such as hurt, sad, lonely, insecure, rejected, etc. When you discuss your tender feelings instead of anger it will encourage your partner to be more understanding and empathic in response."
Dr. Brown agrees. "The only way you can really be close is when vulnerability overcomes anger," Dr. Brown says. "Remember: Anger is actually a defense against feeling vulnerable. We go to anger when we feel that we can’t take the risk of being vulnerable, such as when we feel threatened or sad. Only after the anger can we feel close. Being vulnerable requires courage. It is our courage to take it down a few notches and to be more open, that allows us to feel close to each other."
No one likes fighting. But it really is possible to fight better and these study- and expert-backed suggestions are a great place to start.