Arguments are a tricky thing. The collective excitement when emotions run high can cause us to lash out and attack the one we love unconsciously and say things we really don’t mean.
When this happens, an argument can quickly turn from a productive discussion– albeit an often heated one– to a toxic battle of who can cause the most pain with words.
This is damaging not just for the obvious reason that both people are saying hurtful things to one another but also because it conditions each person to suppress their opinions and beliefs.
Arguing for the right reasons is healthy and helps a relationship grow. So, when one or both partners start to feel like they can’t express themselves openly and without criticism, the relationship is in real trouble.
The aim of argument, or of discussion, should not be victory, but progress.
– Joseph Joubert
Here’s how to prevent arguments with your partner from turning toxic:
Create boundaries and standards to hold each other to
It can be helpful to create boundaries and standards which you and your partner agree on before ever arguing in the first place (or, you know, when you’re taking a break from wanting to cut each other’s heads off).
This is something my wife and I do and it works well to keep things under control when they might have otherwise flown off the rails so to speak.
For example, make a rule that neither person will ever insult the other, say something specific that is very hurtful, fly off topic before resolving the current one, yell, or do a particular action which one or more people might be prone to when they get angry.
Each person commits verbally and stepping over that line then becomes a great offense, with nothing more needed to control the situation but the guilt a loving partner feels when they can see clearly– because of those boundaries set– that they’ve stepped over the line.
The most common and well-tested of all anger-related tips is, well…stop.
Whatever you’re saying, whatever you’re about to say, however you’re feeling about the argument, as soon as you notice yourself start to get riled up then take a step back and breathe.
Nothing ever good comes from acting from a place of fury and rage, so even if you have to abruptly disengage with the conversation for a moment and walk out, do it. Once you’re cooled off, pick things up again with a level head.
Of course, this is a simple tip but it’s easier said than done in practice. However, by using a practice like mindfulness you can develop greater self-awareness which will allow you to catch yourself more often.
Do it debate style
A useful tip for controlling arguments and keeping them civil before they ever have a chance of turning toxic is to do it debate style.
By that, I mean work arguments like a political debate where one person is allowed to make a statement uninterrupted and then the other is allowed to make an uninterrupted rebuttal.
No matter what, neither person interrupts the other until they’re done speaking. Think of it as a prearranged agreement, like setting boundaries and standards in the earlier step.
But there’s more to it than that. Both people need to commit that, when arguing or discussing anything of importance, each person will be listened to and their opinions and feelings respected. It doesn’t do much good if both people are rolling their eyes at the other person while they speak.
Ultimately, each person wants to be heard, you included, so by making sure you each have that opportunity you give the argument the chance to resolve peacefully.
Think before you can speak…if you can help it
This last tip is a bit full of itself but I’m going to give it anyway because it’s helpful when you can accomplish it.
If all else fails, your boundaries crack, the debate turns into a rumble, then things get heated, and conscious thought starts to go out the window.
That’s why I think it’s funny when people suggest you think before you speak. It’s just unrealistic…most of the time.
It’s still worth mentioning for that point just before things start to get heated. Sometimes, sometimes, you’re able to catch what you’re about to say– usually because you’ve said it before– and that can stop an entire argument from erupting. So, keep it in mind if nothing else.
Whatever you use to prevent arguments from turning toxic, remember that the person in the other corner is someone you love and do everything in your power to continue loving and appreciating them. If you can do that and keep it top-of-mind, however you solve the problem, you’ll do fine.