The No. 1 Rule Most Couples Ignore While Arguing

Photo by Alexey Kuzma / Stocksy

A relationship expert and psychotherapist, Stan Tatkin, PsyD, MFT, helps couples overcome real-world challenges with science-backed advice and exercises like how to read your partner's facial expressions. In this excerpt from his new book, We Do: Saying Yes to a Relationship of Depth, True Connection, and Enduring Love, Tatkin lets us in on the golden rule when it comes to arguments with your partner.

How couples fight is just as important as how they love, and it's one of the most predictive factors for a successful relationship. All couples have conflict and will cause each other distress from time to time. There are two partners with different brains, two different personalities, many different moods, and many different thought patterns: What could possibly go wrong? Anything and everything. Many couples I see think that because they're in love, they should never fight. And when they do, especially when they have that first major blow-up, they're concerned there's something wrong, even unrepairable, with their relationship. While this is true in some cases, more often it's because couples don't know how to communicate without inflicting harm.

Since conflict and distress are the norm, it's essential that you learn to fight well and repair quickly. You're far more likely to get what you want and prevent what you don't. Arguments typically begin because you're fighting for something. It's possible to learn to fight well so you can handle any conflict that comes up in your relationship. Remember, you're a two-person psychological system, so you move in tandem as in a three-legged race—and, if not, you lose. This applies to all aspects as you live life together, including fighting.

The No. 1 rule in arguing.

You're more likely to be heard when you take care of yourself and your partner at the same time. Taking care of your partner includes responding accurately to your partner's signals. Take care of only yourself and you get nothing. Take care of only your partner and you abandon your own needs and desires.

Often, taking care of your partner is what's most difficult. You have to know how your partner thinks and feels about specific matters. You have to put yourself in their shoes before doing anything at all and prove to them verbally that you fully understand what they want, need, worry about, and are afraid of. If you don't lead with this knowledge, your partner will assume that they have to do that for themselves. When that happens, not only is valuable time wasted for both of you, but your partner is already heading toward a fight-or-flight response. They will think they have to defend their interests since you obviously aren't looking out for them.

The first rule of taking care of both you and your partner at the same time is to lead with relief. We all know it's better to think first before speaking or acting, but in the heat of the moment, the primitives—those areas of the brain that recognize lightning fast anything that seems threatening, including words, facial expressions, gestures, etc.—are mostly running the show. So lead with relief when talking about something stressful or distressing. This will disarm your partner's primitives and assure them that you're disarmed before doing anything else. Not doing so will result in your partner remaining in suspense as to whether you're a friend or a foe. Remember, we're animals, and when threatened, our brains tilt toward war. I see partners get into trouble immediately when they fail to lead with relief and instead present their view, their needs, and their fears only. That forces the other person to be on guard and think of their interests only. That's a situation that leads to squaring off, and once there, you're both in an adversarial position that's difficult to break free from.

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When in distress, keep it short and do it quickly.

It's vital that during distress the two of you move as quickly as possible toward mutual relief. Don't dilly-dally. That means you both will work as fast as you can to make matters right and good for both of you.

At the start of a conflict, remain face to face and eye to eye. We're visual animals. We receive and process crucial information when we pay attention to this region of the body. But what does this mean in terms of real life and how we relate to our partner in moments of tension? It means we need to face our partner directly. Our eyes see the world in high definition through the fovea, which is part of the macula. The fovea is the size of a pin. We're legally blind through the area outside of the fovea, meaning our vision is clearest when looking dead ahead—to the side, not so much. Because of our eyes' rapid movements, we're not aware of this limitation.

We should also never fight by email, text, or phone. Again, because we're visual animals, vision is the most important co-regulator of our nervous system. Sound comes in second. Touch can be the greatest influencer in calming us down, but it alone can also do the opposite.

Take care of one issue at a time.

When in conflict with each other, don't get sidetracked. Stick to one thing, and one thing only. Never move on to another topic or issue before taking the current issue off the table completely. So if your partner brings up a complaint about anything, your job is to take care of yourself and your partner at the same time by leading with relief and doing whatever is necessary to disarm and relieve your partner. If your partner is relieved and signals completion, then and only then can you explain your side of it, your intentions—whatever you feel like doing, as long as it isn't undoing the relief you just created.

Based on excerpts from We Do: Saying Yes to a Relationship of Depth, True Connection, and Enduring Love by Stan Tatkin, PsyD, MFT, with the permission of Sounds True. Copyright © 2018.

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