Horace spoke of harmony in discord, and in every relationship discord comes sooner or later. Arguments, however, do not necessarily have to be a red flag. As Jay Heinrichs explains in Thank You for Arguing, the essential difference between an argument and a fight is that the former, handled with skill, gets people to do what you want. “You fight to win; you argue to achieve agreement,” he points out.
“Perhaps it would be a good idea to start by defining what an argument is. Most people equate ‘argument’ with ‘hostile conflict,’ at least verbally. If we start from that perception, then it is not good for couples to reach a conflict that causes discomfort and almost always ends with minor wounds. But in a couple’s daily life, friction, misunderstandings, disagreements of various kinds are normal... they lead to a certain level of discomfort and translate into an argument,” explains psychiatrist and psychotherapist Ana Isabel Sanz, founder of the Ipsias Psychiatric Institute in Madrid, Spain, who points out that a healthy debate should lead to a negotiated solution regarding a point of disagreement.
Finding the balance
Although, as we mentioned, fights are implicit in relationships, everybody knows one couple who barely argues. Of course, they make sure to brag about it constantly, as if the absence of arguments were irrefutable proof that their relationship is perfect. But what if in reality they are not communicating? “Uncomfortable conversations should not be avoided to steer clear of conflict, because that keeps us from being honest with ourselves and with our needs. In fact, communicating and being vulnerable and open, as well as listening to our partner when they do so, will strengthen our bonds and foster generally healthier relationships,” says psychologist Natalia Pastor.
Sanz believes that these couples avoid facing the changes in their intimate relationship, as well as their own changes as individuals. “They are trying to sweep certain fundamental facts about their life process and their interaction under the rug, where they supposedly will stop interfering with their life. By acting like this, the imbalances of the common project pile up, until a situation — not necessarily serious — breaks that idyllic, fake balance, and blows everything up,” she warns.
So, is it healthy for couples to argue?
Psychologist Mamen Jiménez points out that it is not only healthy; it is inevitable. “A couple is made up of two people with their learning stories, their values, their ideas. The relationship itself, being something shared between two people, will expose us to decision-making in a lot of areas, big and small. People don’t usually agree on everything. The point is to understand that it is one thing to argue, in terms of dialogue and negotiation (this is the key), and to do it in a respectful and responsible manner, and it is something very different to face these disagreements with manipulation, without empathy and without care. That is damaging and not healthy at all,” she explains.
“Contrary to popular belief, arguing or having conflicts as a couple is not a sign of a bad relationship or a bad omen. In fact, far from deteriorating the relationship, team resolution (with good communication, respect, affection and care) strengthens it — and it makes sense: if we jointly face a problem, if I see you as effective in solving problems, if I see that you are involved and that the priority is to be as well as possible (not you and me, but us), that will make us gain intimacy, trust and mutual admiration. The relationship will be stronger! What damages a relationship is a poor approach to these conflicts, not their existence,” she adds.
Arguing is indeed inevitable, but there are certain guidelines to keep in mind to do it in a healthy way, because arguing is an art that involves certain approaches and skills in order to launch a constructive dialogue. Sanz explains that arguments are constructive when both people can stick to the real issue without straying to other unresolved points of conflict. “Finding the right time and place to have a conversation without rushing, without interruptions or interference from others, is also a factor that helps make an argument truly productive. Finally, manners are very relevant. Using appropriate language and tone, as well as non-verbal signals that clarify the intentions of each intervention, are the foundations of respect, and fundamental tools to avoid misunderstandings.”
“A very popular idea is that of makeup sex. This will be great if it is the icing on the cake of a glorious process in which we actually took care of the conflict, in which we negotiated and introduced changes. It will be less wonderful, however, if it is used as a substitute for that negotiation, for that effective communication: in that case, everything will remain the same, because all we did is avoid conflict. It is a resource with very short-term benefits,” says Jiménez.
Sanz points out that the idea of makeup sex centers on an erroneous social belief. “The reality of the vast majority of couples is that when they argue without resolving the underlying conflicts, they distance themselves from each other, because it is very difficult to be with someone on an intimate level when we are left with pain and with the feeling of not having made progress in resolving a problem after arguing. Usually, one or the other — or both — does not feel like receiving caresses or kisses from the person they just argued with. It generates dissonance on a mental level and an emotional response that usually acts as an invisible wall,” she says.
What happens to many couples, she continues, is that they use sex to fix the problems they have outside the bedroom. “This creates a false sense of peace, because they think that after having good sex, their problem has been fixed. This almost always revolves around the avoidance of the problems that cause the arguments, which remain on hold,” she warns.
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