Relationship Conflict Is Inevitable, But You Can Learn to Argue Better

Avoid this one element when starting an argument

By Peter M. Vishton, PhDWilliam & Mary
Edited by Kate Findley and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, The Great Courses Daily

Do you find yourself having the same arguments over and over again with your partner, with no real resolution? Thankfully, Professor Vishton has a simple solution for steering the argument in a more productive direction, to bring you closer together as a couple rather than driving you apart.

Couple arguing on sofa
Research says that if you want to maintain a lasting romantic relationship, learn to argue without being sarcastic, overly critical, or dismissive of your partner. Photo By Syda Productions / Shutterstock

What to Avoid in an Argument

If you’re in a long-term relationship, conflict will inevitably arise. However, if you learn to argue more effectively, you will ultimately increase your chances of maintaining a healthy relationship.

“Now, all couples argue,” Professor Vishton said. “OK, I’ve talked with a few people who’ve been married for decades who claim that they’ve never argued. I’m not sure if I believe them, actually. Regardless, no one’s been following them around with a camera to confirm that data one way or the other. Almost all romantic partners argue, even romantic partners who are extremely happy in their relationship.”

That said, starting an argument with blame and harsh criticism is rarely effective. Imagine one partner starts by expressing something like, “You don’t want to spend time with the family. You’d rather spend all your time working.” 

How Partners Get Triggered

Several things will happen if the argument begins this way. First, the blood pressure, heart rate, and skin conductance levels of the recipient of the criticism will rise. Their cognitive function will decline as their fight or flight system is activated.

Due to the results of his research, American psychological researcher and clinician John Gottman notably suggested that simply rolling your eyes during an argument will increase the chances of your relationship dissolving. He has since become famous for being able to predict—with greater than 90% accuracy—which marriages will last and which will end in divorce. 

In addition to eye-rolling, many other conflict-related behaviors seem to lead to a downward spiral of negativity in a close relationship. The most important tip that Gottman’s research has ever yielded is the following: If you want to maintain a lasting romantic relationship, learn to argue without being sarcastic, overly critical, or dismissive of your partner.

Learn to Argue with Grace

Gottman and his colleagues have repeatedly found that marital arguments that involve a gentle start-up lead to better outcomes. An argument with a gentle start-up specifically avoids assigning blame. 

Thus, instead of saying, “You don’t want to spend time with your family,” Gottman’s research suggests that the discussion begin with something like, “I feel unhappy that you don’t spend more time with the family. I wish we could find a way for you to spend more time with us, even though I understand that might involve taking some time away from work.”

The same information and desires are conveyed but without the blame. Now, if the recipient still rolls the eyes or is generally dismissive, the problem is likely to still persist but less likely to lead to divorce.

More important, if arguments and discussions begin with a more peaceful approach, Gottman has found that they tend to become more productive. The arguments become less upsetting and become more directed to problem-solving than venting frustrations.

It’s important to understand, though, that arguments don’t exist in a vacuum. It’s often the case that the aggressive start to an argument happens because the partner has been dismissive of the discussion in the past.

Thus, just because one argument starts aggressively doesn’t mean that a marriage is doomed to divorce. Gottman’s research group might only assess one argument, but the patterns that emerge from many arguments are the inherent problem. 

Make Your Relationship Last

“The key tip here is to learn to argue better—to not be afraid of or defensive about arguments and disagreements in general,” Professor Vishton said. “Being a better listener can lead to much better problem-solving.”

It’s not the arguing that is bad per se, but arguing that leads to the activation of aggression systems, such as the amygdala, is the problem. If you’re on the receiving end of the criticism, you can make a point of suppressing a fiery outward expression of anger—even if you’re feeling some anger at the time. If you shout, “But I need to spend that time at work!”, you may activate a defensive response.

If instead you say, as calmly as possible, “But I need to spend that time at work,” you can move forward with the discussion without activating your partner’s amygdala. It might feel odd to do this, the first few times—to suppress the angry response that you’re feeling—but evidence shows that it will safeguard against eroding the attachment that’s so important to lasting love.

“If you want your love to last, it’s not enough to just start arguments gently and suppress your inclination to roll your eyes,” Professor Vishton said. “The bigger tip here is to make yourself available on a regular basis for discussions about things that are the concerns and needs of your partner.”

Image of Professor Peter Vishton

Peter M. Vishton is an Associate Professor of Psychology at William & Mary. He earned his PhD in Psychology and Cognitive Science from Cornell University. Before joining the faculty of William & Mary, he taught at Northwestern University and served as the program director for developmental and learning sciences at the National Science Foundation.

This article was edited by Kate Findley, Writer for The Great Courses Daily, and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Proofreader and Copy Editor for The Great Courses Daily.
About Kate Findley 450 Articles
Kate is a writer, novelist, and blogger living in Los Angeles. She has been writing for The Great Courses since 2017. It incorporates her two favorite things: writing and learning.