How to Fight Constructively
by Kat Richter

Lego woman looking at a raised toilet seat and fuming.

Let's say your partner leaves the toilet seat up all the time. Like seriously: all the time, even when your grandmother comes to visit or you're hosting a fancy dinner party for your co-workers. You love him - you really do - but every time you step into the bathroom, it's all you can do to keep from screaming.

Fortunately, you're not alone. Disagreements - be it over toilet seats, groceries or sex – are an inevitable part of every relationship. That said there are some types of confrontation that are more effective than others. Smashing the toilet seat with a sledgehammer, for example, isn't going to solve your problems because violent behavior, no matter what the cause, is never an acceptable method of getting your point across. Name calling is also a big no-no. Drunken brawls are to be avoided at all costs and public displays are best left to reality television, not your relationship.

So what can you do? Well, we can't train your boyfriend for you but we have put together a list of constructive methods for resolving your disagreements.

Understand First

Quakers have a saying that goes, "Seek first to understand, then to be understood." In other words, you should give your partner the chance to explain how he or she is feeling about an issue before trying to get your point across.

It sounds simple but when was the last time you found yourself trying to empathize with your opponent in a fight? Probably never. In the case of our hypothetical toilet seat debacle, it may be that your partner doesn't even realize his bathroom habits are grinding on your nerves. Maybe he thinks he's still living in a frat house, or maybe he just forgets.

To get the ball rolling, ask your partner to help you understand why he or she does things a certain way. You may be surprised by what you find. (And even if you think they're full of crap, you've at least laid the groundwork for a civil conversation.)

Listen

Seriously. Take the time to actually listen to what your partner is saying. Part of the reason the recent presidential debates went so off topic is because neither candidate was actually listening to their opponent; they were too busy smiling at the cameras, rolling their eyes, taking notes and formulating their response.

Now of course you've got to stay on your toes if you want to become the next President of the United States but you're not running for office here. In fact, you're not evening having a debate. You're having a conversation. So stop trying to outthink your partner just for the sake of "winning" and listen to what he or she has to say. Ask questions if you're confused and encourage your partner to clarify his or her remarks with specific examples.

Location, Location, Location

If you know you've got serious business to discuss, pick an appropriate time and place. Don't do it at work or in the car or on the way to a friend's house for dinner. And don't do it in front of anyone else. Even if you're fed up with your partner's behavior, you need to respect them enough to maintain their privacy and avoid humiliating them in public.

Turn the radio off, silence your cell phone and be prepared to give to your undivided attention to your partner. Limiting potential distractions will help both of you to have a more effective conversation about whatever it is that's bothering you.

Consider your timing as well. Does your partner have a huge test the next morning or a presentation to give at work? Is he or she heading to a job interview? If so, you might want to hold off for a day or two. We're not suggesting that you continue sweeping your problems under the rug simply to avoid upsetting your partner but you should be sensitive to their needs and plan accordingly.

Keep it Clean

No matter how well you plan and how understanding you try to be, arguments can still get out of hand. If this happens, try to keep your cool. Avoid hurtful, accusatory language (unless of course you'd like to spend the foreseeable future sleeping on the couch) and resist the urge to raise your voice.

Try to focus on how your partner's behavior is making you feel. Instead of accusing them, use "I feel…" statements to try to neutralize the conversation but if all else fails, just walk away. Do not try to control your partner or let them try to control you. Take some time to cool off and revisit the conversation later.

Man Up

As with all sticky situations in your relationship, you need to bring your best self to the table. What does this mean? Well, if you're gearing up for a fight, try to remember that you love your partner despite their annoying habits, and if you're tired or overwhelmed or even just too hungry to think straight, let your partner know that you're not yourself right now. Go for a walk to clear your head and try to give yourself some time alone before lashing out at your partner.

If all else fails and you find that you're still unable to convince your partner of your point of view, stop and ask yourself: is it more important to be right or to be happy? Hopefully, you've picked happy because you shouldn't actually be trying to convince your partner of anything. You should be trying to work towards a solution that makes things better for both of you.

Homework

  • Get physical. If you're feeling angry, go for a jog or hit the gym. Exercise can help you release your pent up energy so that you're able to speak to your partner with a more level-headed point of view.
  • Write it down. If you're afraid to confront your partner about his or her behavior, consider writing a note instead. Wait 24 hours before sending it to them to make sure your language is direct but still respectful.
  • If your fights are consistently unproductive, sit down with your partner and try to figure out why. Come up with a plan for how to air your grievances in a civil, constructive manner.
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