You may have fallen deeply in love with your partner. Still, there may be times when you just don’t like your partner. In fact, during heated arguments, your reactive brain may be trying to convince you that the person standing in front of you is your enemy.
Before you go there, recognize that communication glitches often result in harmonious relationships becoming hostile. Conflict, in particular, can stir up feelings of anger and hurt, leading to accusations of mistrust or disloyalty. Couples report that the inability to fight fairly is one of the primary reasons for seeking relationship counseling.
Below are three relationship mistakes to avoid that may crop up during arguments. These pitfalls, if not remedied, can lead to increased friction and emotional distancing.
Relationship Mistake #1: Allowing your argument to become a runaway train.
Perhaps you’ve noticed that when you and your partner clash, the more you both defend and the louder you become, the less likely either of you is being heard. This is because your communication via tone, body language, word choice, or all three, has become threatening. Once our brains perceive threat of any kind, the fight or flight part of our sympathetic nervous system kicks in and our ability to understand and reason goes offline. As a result, you might say ridiculous or outrageous statements during a fight with your partner that you regret afterward, such as:
- By the way, your favorite boxer shorts with the teddy bears on them are a real turn-off!
- You know, when you open your mouth like that, you steal all my air.
- Stop being so cuddly!
- You do realize, don’t you, that you exploit my finances?
- Okay, I’m done here. My ex treats me better than this.
THE FIX: Go ahead and take a break. But try soothing your partner first.
Pausing the conversation buys you much-needed time to calm down and reset your nervous system. Getting up to make coffee, stretch, or simply changing seats can help quiet your warring brain and get your discussion back on a friendly track.
Keep in mind that some partners loathe taking breaks, as they want to get closure and taking time out interrupts the process. Also, some individuals feel dropped or left behind when their primary person exits the room, and this can undermine feelings of safety.
So before hitting the pause button, see if you can take the edge off at the first sign your partner is ramping up. Perhaps you notice that they purse their lips when they start to wind up, or you notice the rise and fall of their chest as they breathe more rapidly. This is your chance to shift your role from foe to ally.
Capture this moment and help your partner chill. Common calmers include slowing down the pace of conversation, looking at your partner with kind eyes, injecting humor in what feels like a dire situation, and giving your partner a gentle touch on the knee or hand.
Next time you’re both in a loving place, discuss which behaviors help you shift from a place of upset to a place of understanding. Then apply as needed.
Relationship Mistake #2: Taking the position that only one opinion matters, yours.
Once engrossed in a disagreement where much is at stake, partners will often argue their point with the goal of winning their partner over. You may keep disagreeing in order to be proven right. Unfortunately, in doing so, you close off to any option but the one you are invested in. And when your partner chimes in with a different opinion, you may see them as being uncooperative or difficult.
Having a serious discussion with your partner is not about personal gain. When a partner wins by dominating or overpowering their partner, the relationship loses.
THE FIX: You can fix this one-sidedness by going for a win-win with your partner.
In a disagreement, most individuals want their position to be heard. It is also mutually beneficial to hear out your partner and try to understand their frame of reference. Why? Because this is the person you fell in love with and this is the person you chose. By adopting a stance of mutuality, conflicts can be approached as a team and become much easier to solve.
When a partner wins by dominating or overpowering their partner, the relationship loses.
For example, if you find yourselves talking at each other instead of with each other, stop. Consider practicing the following:
- Take a moment to summarize your positions before resuming the conversation. You will gain a sense that “my companion gets me.”
- Write down the main points your partner is conveying—this buys time to reset, aids listening, and disrupts escalation.
- Strategize and advocate for the other person’s viewpoint, which gives you a new perspective on the problem at hand and promotes empathy.
Some individuals benefit from adding structure to their serious conversations. The talking stick is a tool used in many Native American cultures during council meetings. The stick (or stylus pen or wand) can be specially chosen by you and your partner and used solely for aiding communication.
A talking stick comes from the evidence that better resolution occurs when every party has an opportunity to express their opinion. The person with the talking stick in hand is the only person allowed to speak. Once you have briefly expressed your opinion, the stick is passed to your partner, going back and forth until resolution is reached. Partners who talk excessively or tend to go on tangents find this practice keeps them on point. Many couples discover that the talking stick practice promotes fairness in their relationship.
Relationship Mistake #3: Letting negative misperceptions go uncorrected.
Silence can be deadly. During verbal exchanges, our brains tend to fill in blanks with negative thoughts. For example, when you tell your partner that they look nice, and the compliment is not returned, you brain likely interprets this silence as “I must not be attractive, because he is not complimenting me as well.”
In my work as a couples counselor, this often happens during counseling sessions. Partner A may say “I am a burden to you.” Instead of responding, partner B keeps quiet. Crickets. Without a correction, partner A’s fear of being a burden is confirmed. Their talk may continue, but a hurtful element remains.
When I ask the quiet partner, “Is it true that your partner is a burden?”, I often hear that no, it is not true, but partner B wasn’t sure how to respond and wanted to avoid a potentially explosive topic.
THE FIX: If your brain is telling you that your partner thinks ill of you in some way, check it out before assuming your viewpoint is true. If your partner tells you something that isn’t accurate, correct it immediately through eye-to-eye, face-to-face conversation so that your partner can take it in and believe you.
Depending on how you were raised, one of your biggest relationship fears may be that your partner will leave you. Another common relationship fear is that your partner isn’t really interested in you as a person, and that you don’t really matter. These kinds of insecurities from our past often resurface in our adult relationships and play a crucial role in relationship mistakes to avoid down the line. When these insecurities do resurface, providing reassurance such as saying “You’re not a burden—I like being with you” or “I want to hear more about that hike you took” is the kind of dialogue that promotes a secure, harmonious relationship.
Getting to agreement with your partner can be complex and challenging. No couple gets it right 100 percent of the time. And there may still be times when you feel that you don’t like your partner. But if you can take a few minutes to use these three communication strategies to understand what relationship mistakes to avoid, you and your partner will spend less time fixing and more time listening, learning about, and attuning to both your viewpoints.
Want more about relationships? Read: “The One Question You Should Ask in Your Relationship.”