When it comes to confrontations, many of us are programmed to think of them as a win-or-lose situation. As a result, we often avoid conflict to help keep the peace. But that can take a toll on our health: A University of Michigan study found that couples who usually held their tongues during conflict had a greater risk of death. That’s because suppressing emotions can increase the production of damaging stress hormones, explain experts.
In fact, arguments are often a sign of a healthy relationship. In reality, free expression of an honest disagreement is a sign of mutual trust and respect. And they often strengthen your bond: Some of the more common benefits of healthy conflict are gaining insight into the relationship, establishing new patterns of behavior, focusing on issues that require attention and becoming aware of others’ needs and goals.
But that doesn’t mean you can pick a fight with your spouse in the name of love or longevity. The key is first learning how to argue constructively -- without automatically dissolving into tears and reaching for a box of tissues. To engage in a healthy discussion, here are my guidelines to have a constructive disagreement:
1. Pick a time and place
Something on your mind? Don’t ambush your husband when he’s tired, hungry, unprepared or distracted. Instead, request to have the discussion later, like after dinner -- when both of you can devote your full attention to the conversation.
2. Keep the pulse on your emotions
Strong feelings interfere with your ability to rationally process and discuss the issue at hand. If you find your voice rising and anger bubbling, take a break to let them simmer down. Then revisit the issue when you’re able to approach it rationally.
3. Take note of your non-verbal messages
During the conversation, use appropriate eye contact to signal that you’re listening and trying to understand. Make a conscious effort to avoid negative facial expressions or eye rolling.
4. Be direct
Before the discussion, determine what’s troubling you and what you need from the other person so you can communicate it. And stick to the issue at hand. Attacking the other person or his personality isn’t constructive; it just leads to hurt feelings.
5. Focus on the present issue
Avoid bringing up past problems or throwing out multiple grievances at once. If you’re upset that your husband bought a new flat-screen without advance notice, for instance, don’t be tempted to call him irresponsible and accuse him of never taking out the trash. He’ll just feel attacked.
6. Own your feelings with “I” statements
Beginning sentences with “you” automatically puts the other person on the defensive. Rather than say, “You’re so irresponsible,” for instance, say “I feel upset that you don’t consult me before big decisions. We should be a team.”
7. Identify and manage goals
Conflict is often goal-driven, so determine what you need and where there’s common ground. (“Let’s focus on growing our family vacation fund.”)
8. Know when to agree to disagree
There are some conflicts, especially those related to morals, values or personal beliefs, that can’t be fixed by listening more or challenging less. Sometimes you have to drop the issue.
Conflicts and disagreements shouldn’t be stressful, dysfunctional or detrimental. You shouldn’t burst into tears and reach for the tissues during an argument. With understanding of why conflict occurs and how to find an agreeable solution, confrontation can serve as a building block for a healthy relationship.