Making Marital Disagreements Productive

Back to Marital & Family

"You interrupted me again!"

"Well, you don't listen. What do you expect?"

Too often, couples in the midst of a disagreement react impulsively and let arguments build to a hurtful and destructive level. Couples who have learned to disagree successfully slow themselves down by calling a truce that both partners honor when tensions are high. They also avoid bringing up past hurts that are used as a weapon against the other person. Then, they make sure that they get together to discuss the issue after angry and negative feelings subside. 

Three Stages of Successful Disagreement

  • First, successful couples say what's bothering them using "I feel . . ." messages about specific behaviors. Healthy couples say things like: "I feel upset when you walkout and slam the door when I'm talking to you!" Not: "You're such a jerk. You never want to talk about what's important to me!"With each opportunity, healthy couples make comments like: "I really appreciate it when you call me when you're going to be late." Not: "Why didn't you call me? Now dinner is ruined. All you care about is yourself!" And, in healthy relationships, each partner listens to the other person's feelings without commenting, defending, or disagreeing.
  • Second, successful couples discuss the details of their disagreement. It's important that feelings about specific issues are discussed until each partner understands the other person's concerns and viewpoint. A common mistake during ineffective disagreement is denying the other person's feelings. Avoid statements such as "You don't feel . . . " If appropriate, admit that you might be wrong, or might have done wrong, in the behavior you're discussing. You'll both feel less defensive.
  • Third, in successful disagreement, couples negotiate until they reach an agreement that is satisfactory to both. Sometimes all they can agree on is that they disagree. They then try to reach a compromise in which neither will completely win, but neither will completely lose. Healthy negotiation includes give and take from both partners. It's not helpful for one person to say: "You're the one who wants the house clean. You clean it."Comments of that nature, only lead to unhappiness and resentment that negatively colors the relationship in the long run. A spirit of cooperation helps couples work together in solving problems.