The Healthiest Way to Fight with Your Spouse

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The Healthiest Way to Fight with Your Spouse

Stress researchers have proven that hostile relationships wreck our health. A report earlier this year found that women in bad marriages are especially at risk for depression and heart disease. But few researchers have focused on practical ways people can stay well during relationship rough patches. A new study of married couples, however, has found physiological evidence for one technique to diffuse tension: choosing the right fighting words.

Couples who used analytical language, such as "think," "understand," "because," or "reason," during heated arguments were able to keep important stress-related chemicals in check, according to research published in the latest issue of the journal Health Psychology. Cytokines are inflammatory chemicals that spike during periods of prolonged tension and can lower your immunity and lead to early frailty, Type 2 diabetes, arthritis, and some cancers. The authors noted a curious gender twist in their results. Husbands benefited from their wives' measured language, but a man's carefully chosen words had little effect on a woman's cytokine balance.

Researchers measured cytokines before and after discussions with 42 married heterosexual couples. In the first session, couples chatted about a neutral topic. In the second, an interviewer gathered a couple's history and then deliberately provoked a fight by asking them to hash out their hardest issues, saying to a husband and wife something like, "You hate the way her mother always comes over, and you feel like he controls all the money. Discuss," explains Jennifer Graham, lead author and assistant professor of bio-behavioral health at Penn State. Each person had equal time to talk during the recorded 30-minute sessions, and researchers used language software to count how many "cognitive" words each person used. During the first dispassionate discussion, such conflict-resolution-speak had no effect on the participants' cytokines, but in the second, more stressful session, those who used more analytical language showed smaller chemical increases.

The study is significant because it's one of the first to link language with biological markers and show what kinds of words help sparring couples rather than just recommending they "communicate more," explains James Pennebaker, chair of the department of psychology at the University of Texas-Austin, who has studied the role of language on relationships. Cognitive words are powerful because their use suggests people are working through a problem and trying to acknowledge a partner's perspective. This jibes with the common wisdom given by couples' therapists, who suggest that bickering duos tell each other, "What I understand you're saying is ..."

But why aren't husbands and wives helped equally by measured language? Pennebaker speculates that since participants are listening to each other's stories and trying to come to terms with them, a woman's articulation might help a man see complexities so that he feels less stressed. But since women generally spend more time than men analyzing relationships — and talking to others about them — they may have already sorted through the angles on their own. "He might be at square one, and she's saying, 'Duh! I knew this all along,' " offers Pennebaker. Thus, his cognitive contribution didn't create enough of an emotional response to disrupt her cytokine levels.

It's a disconcerting commentary on men's role in relationship talks, but her chemical nonreaction doesn't necessarily mean she's not taking him seriously. Many women place a high value on such discussions and might be more focused on the fact that one is taking place rather than the particular language used, explains Deborah Tannen, professor of linguistics at Georgetown and author of You Just Don't Understand: Women and Men in Conversation. In other words, she cares that he's in the chair tackling their problems; how many conflict-resolution words he uttered during a session wouldn't matter enough to alter her body chemistry.

Tannen says the study's findings are consistent with her research on gender and language. However, it's worth noting that she's wary about drawing too many conclusions about the importance of analytical vocabulary, since those words are used in all kinds of discourse. The study has other obvious limitations. The word counting didn't take into account context or tone, and the computer that kept track wouldn't know if participants had used such language in a not-so-helpful way, saying, for example, "The way I understand it, the reason you're a jerk is because you only think of yourself." Of course, choosing constructive words is no guarantee of actually arriving at a solution. You could say, "I think" or "I understand" all night long and never feel better about your relationship.

The takeaway? The study nicely pokes holes in the stereotype that women are prone to emotional irrationality; the language software counted that women, on average, used more of these cerebral words than men. It's also a reminder of the influence of a woman's words on a man. "Even when it seems like he is ignoring you, your words may be having an effect — at least on a chemical level," says Graham.

What are you really arguing about?
Common conflicts

The most common things couples argue about are money, sex, work, children and housework - roughly in that order.

Most rows start because of differences of opinion, but with patience and basic communication skills you should be able to negotiate a compromise.

f you find the same old issues come up over and over again, or as soon as one issue's resolved another crops up, then there's more going on than meets the eye. Below are some common reasons.

Unresolved issues
Sometimes people find they're fighting battles that have far more to do with the past than the present. Feelings of rejection or betrayal in childhood can create hot buttons that partners press without realising.

For example, a partner who's parent left suddenly in childhood may find themselves overreacting to a hastily arranged business trip. Or a partner who was always forced to do gardening as a punishment when a child may become irrationally angry when asked to mow the lawn.

Sensitive subjects
If there are taboo subjects in your relationship that always cause a storm, you need to mention them more often. If you don't, they can become time bombs.

Taboo subjects can include things such as a forgotten birthday or a time when you felt your partner wasn't there for you. Often it's something that represents a serious breach of trust such as an affair or a breaking of confidence. Burying old relationship problems is OK, but you have to make sure they're dead first.

Fighting for your deeper needs
Couples often use topics such as money, sex or housework to fight for their deeper needs within a relationship.

For example, an argument over who should pay for what may really be about where the responsibility lies and who's got the power in this situation. Rows about housework are often about unfilled needs for respect and worth. And arguing about how often to have sex is nearly always about feeling loved and cared for and deeper needs for connection and affection.

Hidden pay-offs
For some couples arguing actually plays a beneficial role, as it may be the only time they get to share their feelings. It can also add excitement to a relationship or be a way of getting attention.

Arguing can be worth the pain because of the joy of making up. And when you make up you get to reaffirm your love for each other.

Just remember: beneath the surface of an argument often lurks a much deeper issue, desperate to be let out and looked at - and you'll keep on arguing until you do. 

Know your conflict style
Stuck in a rut?

Many couples notice that their arguments seem to follow familiar patterns. They may always erupt from nowhere, for example, or gradually build up over a period of days.

As individuals, most of us will have developed a particular conflict style, learnt from years of watching how others manage their differences. Understanding your style can help you act differently and get out of 'argument ruts'.

Which style are you?
Here are some of the most common styles of arguing. Perhaps you'll recognise yourself in some of them.

The peacemaker - you don't like arguments and see it as your responsibility to cool things down and sort things out as soon as possible, even if this means ignoring your personal needs or not having your opinions heard.

The defensive attacker - you believe that the faster you act, the better. You're highly attuned to possible disagreements and will lay down the law or issue threats to prevent a full-scale battle. It often doesn't work, and even when it does you're left wondering if perhaps you went over the top.

The subtle striker - you're tactical and persistent in making your feelings known. You don't like full-on attacks, preferring to wait for your partner to notice something's wrong. You may use silence, nag, moan or just go on and on about it. You often get there eventually, but it's a slow and exhausting process.

The full-on foe - you've probably had to fight for your rights all your life and will always give as good as you get. Although you look tough, you're probably terrified of getting hurt and find every disagreement a painful experience. 

The shock-absorber - you're afraid of arguments and will do anything to avoid getting into one. Rather than defend your rights or attempt to put across your point of view, you sit quietly waiting for the storm to pass. But inside, anger and resentment may be building.

The negotiator - you genuinely want to find a peaceful solution to problems without anyone getting hurt. You listen calmly to your partner's viewpoint and are confident when sharing your own. You want the best possible outcome for your relationship and, in your experience, consideration and compromise are the best way to achieve this.

Obviously this last style is the one we're all aiming to adopt. Conflict is natural within a relationship to a certain degree, but it should be constructive not destructive.

Couples who don't argue
Some couples don't argue. They never have. The fear of conflict is so great for either one, or both, that they withdraw from anything that has even a vague whiff of confrontation.

To outsiders this might appear to be a perfect relationship, but danger can lurk beneath the calm surface. Differences tend to be repressed or ignored because there's no mechanism to handle disagreements.

The danger is that resentments will build until one person just leaves the relationship. Avoiding confrontation can actually cause the abandonment that's most feared.

How to avoid arguments
Your feelings

  1. Are you overreacting because you're tired and stressed?
  2. Could the anger you feel be at someone or something else?
  3. Are you hormonal at the moment and feeling unusually irritable or sensitive?
  4. Is your mood being affected by illness? 

Your partner's feelings

  1. Could your partner be overreacting because they're tired or stressed?
  2. Do you know that they're currently feeling angry about something else?
  3. Is your partner either struggling with health issues or being affected by hormonal changes? 

Your conscience

  1. Are you feeling defensive about what your partner has said or done because you feel guilty?
  2. Could you be feeling defensive because you want to avoid having to say you're sorry?
  3. Are you bearing a grudge against your partner for something you need to let go of?
  4. If you're going to raise an issue, are you sure this is the main thing that's bothering you? (See What are you really arguing about?)
  5. If you're going to raise an issue, are you sure it's worth risking a potential argument?
  6. If you're going to raise this issue, are you using the guidelines in Productive arguing?

Productive arguing
Differences of opinion are normal and healthy in adult relationships and learning to compromise is a skill required in many areas of life. You might want to print out this page and pin it to your notice board to remind you both whenever a disagreement arises.

Before trying this exercise it's worth having a look at the Guidelines for exercises.

  1. Stick to the issue in hand - don't bring up previous misdemeanors or other things you've been meaning to say.
  2. Don't argue over trivia - for example, arguing whether it was Monday or Tuesday that you forgot the milk. The issue is you forgot, not which day it was.
  3. Start sentences with "I" - for example, "I felt annoyed when you..." rather than "You annoyed me when..." And "I would like to go out more often," not "We should go out more often."
  4. Don't use absolutes - never say "never", "always", "should" or "shouldn't". They're irritating and often inaccurate. For example, "You never wash up" will almost certainly get a response of "What about when...?"
  5. Let your opinions stand on their own merits - don't be tempted to bring in other people's opinions.
  6. Try to stay sitting down, relax your muscles and don't forget to breathe - it's much easier to stay calm if you're not pacing around the room.
  7. Don't start throwing abuse around - calling your partner lazy, fat or paranoid isn't going to convince them to see your point of view.
  8. Be aware of your feelings and tell your partner these as well - saying "I'm scared you don't love me anymore" is likely to get a better response than "You don't act like you love me."
  9. Try not to block the conversation - don't interrupt, launch into a monologue or expect them to be a mind-reader.
  10. Agree to a code word for time out - if one or both of you feels you're getting overheated it's best to take some time away from each other to calm down before going back to the disagreement.

Remember, who wins the argument is irrelevant if your relationship loses something. Always try to confront the issue - not each other.

Ways to make peace
Abnormal behavior

It's important to accept that arguments are a normal part of relationships. We're all different and where there's difference, there will be disagreement. But when arguing seems to be a way of life and leaves you feeling exhausted, hurt or wondering if you want to stay in the relationship, it's time to call a truce and sort things out.

The first step towards doing this is to understand what you're really arguing about and get an insight into your conflict style. After you've looked at both these areas, you can use some of the techniques below to help you sort things out. Some can be done alone; others need your partner's cooperation.

Be self-aware
Self-awareness and self-responsibility are the first steps in sorting out and avoiding conflict. It's impossible to make your partner change, but if you change your behavior they'll almost certainly react differently.

  • Assume the best - unless you have evidence to the contrary, always give your partner the benefit of the doubt.
  • Check your conscience - are you arguing because there's something you're avoiding, such as apologizing, compromising or forgiving? Make sure you're not fighting to protect your pride. 
  • Think about whether you're being affected by something else - don't underestimate the power of external circumstances. Are you stressed, tired, hormonal or angry about something else?
  • Be adult - do you tend to slip into behaving like a child, sulking, blaming or being obstinate? Or do you become like a critical parent, condescending, criticizing or punishing? An adult is calm and focused, and listens and negotiates.
  • Own your feelings - your partner can't make you feel something. Your feelings are under your own control. If you're angry, say "I'm angry because...", not "You made me angry."

Improve communication
Good communication is vital to making peace. Often arguments go on and on, just because one or both parties feel they haven't been heard.

The tips below will improve your chances of being heard and help you show your partner that you're listening to them.

  • Listen - this is the most important part of good communication. Listen to your partner, without judging or making assumptions. See Talk and listen for more information.
  • Explore - ask questions to make sure you really understand what your partner is saying. Be willing to look at every angle.
  • Explain - this is the other side of exploring. Be ready to give as much information as your partner needs to understand your point of view. Don't expect them to read your mind.
  • Empathies - put yourself in your partner's shoes. Feel what they're feeling and let them know you've taken notice, eg "I understand that you're feeling upset."
  • Express - say what you mean and mean what you say. Be clear and to the point.
  • Laugh - this may seem a strange thing to put in an argument, but sensitive use of humour can be a powerful way to diffuse an argument. If there's a lighter side, use it.

Learning from arguments

Before trying this exercise it's worth having a look at the Guidelines for exercises.

Make a date in advance with your partner to do this exercise. Be sure that each of you has enough time to answer the questions individually before talking about it together.

If your partner's not keen, it's still worth doing yourself, as it can help you feel more confident about asking for what you need.

Before you start, you may want to read What are you really arguing about? and Ways to make peace.

The exercise
Write each of the following questions on a piece of paper, leaving plenty of space for your answers.

  • Was there anything else affecting me before the argument started (for example, stress, anxiety, anger at someone else, hormones, tiredness or illness)?
  • Were there any reasons I may have had for being defensive (guilt, avoiding saying sorry or forgiving)?
  • Was there anything else affecting my partner? (for example, were they tired, stressed, feeling worried or upset)?
  • What could I have said differently that would have helped to diffuse the row (for example, using less emotive language, changing your tone of voice)?
  •  What could I have done differently that would have helped to diffuse the row (timed it differently, listened more, not been so defensive, been more adult, not jumped to conclusions)?

Once you've answered all these questions, take some time to share your thoughts with your partner and talk about what you can do together to try to avoid arguing in the future.

Once you've got your ideas together, write them down under the heading:

  • In the future we both agree to..

Talk and listen

  • Before trying this exercise it's worth having a look at the Guidelines for exercises.
  • Make a date in advance to do this exercise. It will take an hour.
  •  Toss a coin to see who speaks first and agree who'll keep time.
  •  Make sure you're not going to be disturbed.
  • Agree what the two of you will do to relax after your hour is up.

Each partner gets 30 minutes to talk, while the other partner gives their undivided attention. After the hour is up, it's essential that you both walk away and do something else - don't analyze the conversation. In fact, agree not to talk about it for at least 48 hours.

If talking for a whole hour is difficult because of other time pressures or feels too long for a first time, cut the exercise to 20 minutes each.

If you find the exercise useful, set a regular date to do it, taking it in turns to talk first.

Rules for the talker

  • You have to take your full 30 minutes even if you run out of things to say. Any silences will give you a chance to reflect on what you've said and perhaps move on to deeper thoughts.
  • Talk about whatever's on your mind - but don't turn it into a whingeing session.
  • Try to talk only about your feelings and opinions by starting sentences with 'I'.
  • If you're the second person to speak, try not to respond to what your partner's just said. You must talk about your yourself. 

Rules for the listener

  • Try to listen with your whole self by giving your partner 100 per cent of your attention.
  • Show that you're listening with your body language: maintain eye contact, nod and don't cross your arms.
  • You can ask for clarification if you don't understand something, but not if you disagree. Don't share your opinions.
  • It may be hard to keep quiet for that long, but it's important to do so. 

Resolving issues

  • Before trying this exercise it's worth having a look at the Guidelines for exercises.
  • Make a date in advance to do this exercise. Allow yourselves an hour.
  • Make sure you're not going to be disturbed.
  • Write your answers on a separate piece of paper using the headings below, (leave space for you to fill in your answers) .
  • Use one sheet of paper per issue. 

The exercise
The issue between us is...

(Write down the issue)

Partner one
It is bothering me because...
I'm partly responsible because I...
To resolve this we could... (list as many options as you can think of)

Partner two
It is bothering me because...
I'm partly responsible because I...
To resolve this we could... (again, list as many options as you can think of)

Now take some time to discuss and consider the options available. Make sure the solutions are practical and positive.

Both of you
We have agreed to...
The change(s) I am going to make are...
The change(s) my partner is going to make are...
We will sit down and talk about how the changes are going on... (set a date)

Do you need counselling?
When's the right time?

One thing's for sure: counsellors rarely hear the complaint "It's too early for our relationship!" More often, what they hear is: "We've tried everything - counseling is our last resort."

Far too many couples leave counselling until it's too late. By the time of their first appointment, years of bitterness and resentment have built up and the fear of being hurt blocks out any chance of change.

If you're experiencing any of the following, now is the time to consider counseling

  • When you talk to your partner, it feels as though you're hitting a brick wall.
  • Your conversations just go round and round in never-ending circles.
  • After you've talked, you feel frustrated and confused.
  • You can't talk for more than a few minutes without it turning into a shouting match.
  • You're afraid that if you bring up a certain subject, things will get even worse.
  • There's nothing left to say. 

Together or alone?
Ideally, you should go to counselling together: it's hard to build a team if only half the players are there. Often, if one person makes the decision to give counselling a try, the partner will decide to go too.

If your partner flatly refuses to join you, there are lots of things counselling can help you sort out on your own. There may be changes you can make alone that will have a positive impact on your relationship. Some people also prefer to have counselling on their own at first to work out their feelings before seeing another counsellor as a couple.

What will happen?
All counsellors have their own styles and ways of working. You can choose to see a counsellor face-to-face or speak via telephone or email. Some counsellors also offer creative arts and therapeutic exercises in addition to talking.

Whichever approach you choose, broadly speaking all counsellors will help you to work through the following three steps:

  1. Exploring your story - the nature of the problems and what impact they're having on you and your relationship. The history of how the problems arose and what changes you'd like to see.
  2. Understanding your story - why you're struggling with these problems and the things that may be preventing you from overcoming them.
  3. Rewriting your story - finding the strengths and resources to resolve your difficulties, or at least make them more bearable. 

How does counselling work?
First and foremost, counselling works by giving you the chance to be heard. Your counsellor will give you all the time you need to talk, sob, shout or just think. It's an opportunity to look at the problem in a different way with someone who'll respect and encourage your opinions and decisions.

For many couples, the solution is right under their noses - it just takes someone objective to see what it is. It's like the saying "You can't see the wood for the trees" - counsellors are trained wood-spotters!

It's hard to measure if counselling is effective, but it's an industry that's rapidly growing as more and more people discover the benefits for themselves. If you haven't considered relationship counselling before, please don't leave it until it's too late.

Finding a counsellor
There are a number of places you can go for couples' counselling; which one you choose may depend on how much you can afford. Always make sure your counsellor is fully qualified.

Illustration from Clyde Mendes column at  MetroSexual LA


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Comment on this post

Term Papers 02/16/2010 11:56

I have been visiting various blogs for my term paper research. I have found your blog to be quite useful. Keep updating your blog with valuable information... Regards

Dr. Karen Sherman 12/28/2009 23:44

What a wonderfully comprehensive article. These are all really good points!

As a relationship expert (, I would like to add that couples need to know that conflicts are bound to happen. But here's the good news: there are skills they can learn
so that they can handle them better. When they do, their partnerships fare much better. I offer a free teleseminar, "The 7 Tools to Manage Conflict Communication in Your Relationship." To hear it,
go to: