By Kembet Bolton

Conflict is inevitable in relationships.  Couples argue about all sort of issues ranging from finance to little stuff like who sleeps on what side of the bed. Conflict is not necessarily a bad thing. Every couple is going to argue. What matters is how you fight, and how those negative interactions balance out with positive interactions.

A clinical psychologist Deborah Grody says, married couples who don’t have any conflict are often the ones which end in divorce. “Relationships that can’t be saved are relationships where the flame has completely gone out, or it wasn’t there in the first place,” she says. When one or both partners are indifferent toward their relationship, they don’t care enough to even fight, according to Grody.

One of the biggest conflict issues that distinguish couples who stay together versus couples who divorce is an escalation tendency. One partner is critical; the other responds more critically. Something goes from a calm, rational discussion to a shouting match.

Couples should just be careful that conflict does not escalate and become increasingly negative, hostile, and nasty.

While there might be some gain in a little argument here and there and sorting things out, frequent heated and hurtful conflict is certainly not healthy or sustainable, either. You can have conflicts with your partner in a constructive way, and it may actually bring you closer together, according to a 2012 paper published by the Society for Personality and Social Psychology. Researchers found that expressing anger to a romantic partner caused the short-term discomfort of anger, but also incited honest conversations that benefited the relationship in the long run.

So how can couples argue without putting a strain on their relationships.

Here are a few suggestions.

Schedule a time for conflict

Sounds weird, right?  Despite having even the most open lines of communication, conflicts are still bound to happen. And when they do, it’s helpful to choose a time to talk through problems, “If you start to have a fight, you can say something like, ‘Let’s pick it up this evening, or can we talk about this another time, when we both have time to sit and discuss things”?

Setting aside time to work out, disagreements allows both partners the space to regroup and prepare, Grody explains. They can think about the best way to communicate their feelings in a calmer, more rational way, so as to avoid the instinct of being defensive or accusatory. “Most of the time, things are said on impulse in the heat of anger,” says Grody. “But the words stay with us.”

Call a timeout if you or your partner needs one

During an argument, it’s common for one or both partners to enter “fight, flight or freeze” mode, according to Ostrander. Humans enter one of these modes when they think they may be in danger, says Noam Ostrander, an associate professor of social work at DePaul University. “Fight or flight” refers to when stress hormones activate to give people more energy to either fight the stressor or run from the situation. And “freeze” mode occurs when a person simply does not react at all, in hopes that the stressor loses interest in the fight.

It is highly unlikely to be able to solve problems when a couple is in this precarious zone, as each person is focused on reacting to the perceived threat they feel from their partner. It can also be very frustrating if only one person is in the “fight, flight or freeze” mode, while the other is trying to resolve the issue. This is the moment to call for a timeout.

It is important for the person asking for the timeout to frame it in a way that doesn’t make your partner feel like you’re simply walking away. Perhaps one could say, okay, I want to have this conversation, but I need like 10 minutes to calm down. I love you; I’m not going anywhere. This will give the partner time to calm down too even when they are not the one that initiated the timeout, and when they return to have that discussion, each partner will be more rationale.

Make requests instead of criticism

According to the internationally renowned relationship researcher and best-selling author, John Gottman, there is a world of difference between a complaint and criticism.  While a complaint focuses on your partner’s specific action or behaviour that upsets you, criticism is more global and a form of negativity which attacks your partner’s character or personality instead of the particular issue that upsets you. This kind of behaviour is counterproductive and predicts a relationship failure.

Most times, people do not get what they want because of how they are asking for it. For instance, if you are upset that your husband left a mess around the house, you could simply say something like I’m not feeling great. I’m stressed about the way the house looks. Would you mind picking some stuff up?” Instead of “you always leave a mess around the house, I am not a paid help or I am tired of cleaning after you. The former is more direct and respectful than putting your loved one down for his or her failure to meet your need. It’s also more likely to result in your partner completing the task.

Listen, and ask your partner for clarification

It is important to be aware of what your partner is saying during arguments, in order to comprehend what they’re actually trying to get across fully. When the time comes to sit down and talk about solving conflicts, Grody says the most important thing couples can do is to listen — without interrupting.

If your loved one says he or she doesn’t feel heard, for example, you should listen until your partner is finished speaking, then, ask for clarification if there is something you don’t quite understand. Of course, this can be more challenging than it seems but will be worth the while if couples can make a deliberate effort to practice this. Making sure you’re holding eye contact and positioning your body toward your partner when he or she is speaking is one way to show that you are listening.

Learn the right way to apologize to your partner

Just as people have different love languages, Ostrander says we have different apology languages, too. It’s not enough to recognize that you’ve hurt your loved one and you owe them an apology: You have to know them enough to tailor your apology to their needs, according to Ostrander.

“Some people want big gestures and some people want, ‘I’m really sorry I hurt your feelings, and I will take steps not to do that again,’” says Ostrander. “The process is figuring out what’s meaningful for your partner.”

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