These healthy communication tips can help your love grow.
Arguing with your significant other isn't necessarily unhealthy. There isn't an approved list of fights that are "normal" to have, or specific topics you should be concerned about disagreeing with your partner on (because let’s be real, you’re never going to agree on everything). In fact, what you're actually fighting over is less important than how the two of you resolve conflict. Fighting early in a relationship doesn't mean you and your significant other are doomed, but there are some important decisions to make together in the first few months of dating to ensure you’re both on the same page.
I spoke to two experts about the kinds of fights you should work through at the beginning of your relationship, how to have productive arguments, and signs your conflict style may not be as healthy as it could be. Arguing early in a relationship isn't always a red flag, but it is important to take these four steps before you reach the three-month mark. The sooner you learn how to talk through the big stuff, the better off you’ll be when tough topics inevitably come up.
If you're struggling to communicate effectively with your new partner, don't panic. Conflict is never easy, especially with someone who makes you feel all warm and fuzzy just by glancing your way. Here is everything you need to know to get through the first fights of your relationship — plus, strategies for working through new conflicts as your relationship continues to progress.
Meredith Shirey, a couples therapist and the founder of a private counseling practice in New York City, explains that early in a relationship, you are more likely to overlook big conflict indicators. Whether it's a disagreement about culture, family, time management, or affection, when you're feeling connected to your partner and positive about the relationship, you tend to minimize the importance of these potential differences. Are you a big planner, but your partner would rather live spontaneously? Do you hate PDA while your partner loves it? "As you’re getting to know your partner, you’re going to be more flexible and accommodating," says Shirey. Even if you put up with these differences initially, there’s a chance that they’ll eventually catch up to you, potentially breeding resentment. It's not until later on in the relationship that you'll see a rise in conflict and really notice those differences.
But the more difficult the conversation, the more important it is to have. "If there’s a point of contention, if something is bothering you, how likely are you to let your partner know that that’s an issue for you?" asks Shirey. "If you say not very likely, why is that? Do an internal check: 'Is it because I’m fearful of my partner’s response or I’m afraid they’re going to be defensive or invalidate me in some way?'" How you handle these more complex issues is a huge indicator of whether or not your relationship will last. Deep breaths… you can do this.
"Healthy arguments involve self-aware and self-reflective individuals who listen to understand. These conversations require vulnerability and ask us to bravely share our hurt, fears, and insecurities with another," says Pharaon. It's OK to have conflict, but ultimately, it’s more productive to discuss with your partner, rather than argue. In order to share your side more effectively, she suggests thinking about the message you're trying to communicate before you speak.
"Take ownership of what it is you want and need, and stay away from blaming the other person. The healthiest couples make the other person’s experience and feelings just as important as their own," Pharaon says. Approach the conversation from a place of curiosity rather than accusation. You like this person and want to be with them, so making them feel seen and heard is a big indicator that you care about their perspective. If your partner is responsive and makes you feel validated, that's a good sign your relationship will last. She notes an important quote from Shonda Rhimes' Year of Yes: "The more difficult the conversation, the greater the freedom." You’re building trust right off the bat.
Additionally, the sooner you can talk to your partner about a problem, the better. "People who can address things sooner and have a more peaceful way of talking about it tend to have better outcomes in their relationship," says Shirey. It can feel easier to avoid talking about conflict, especially when you're worried about fighting in the early stages of the relationship, but Shirey says that avoidant behavior might actually be indicative of an unhealthy dynamic.
Both Shirey and Pharaon mention John Gottman's studies about relationship success or failure. Gottman's research shows that the four greatest predictors your relationship won't last are contempt, criticism, defensiveness, and stonewalling. These are all examples of how not to approach an argument.
"Contempt means saying something with the intention of being disparaging of your partner’s character," explains Shirey. She says that contempt means communicating a sense of superiority. It can be expressed through any kind of name-calling, eye-rolling, or the use of sarcasm that’s not playful, but meant to hit a nerve. (Think passive-aggressive comments to your partner during an otherwise fun date.) "If contempt is prevalent, you can almost guarantee that those couples aren’t going to make it, unless they do a giant overhaul of their communication very quickly," says Shirey.
Shirey describes criticism as a lighter version of contempt — a complaint about who your partner is as a person (which is just going to offend them). Criticism is easier to bounce back from than contempt, but it still needs to be addressed. "One person will make a critical comment and the other person will respond with a defensive reaction," says Shirey. "You see that snowball escalation where there are slamming doors, raised voices, and eventually getting to stonewalling, where you retreat from the relationship. You’re so emotionally overwhelmed that you have to put some distance there."
If you feel like everything is an unproductive fight — if you're always raising your voice, calling each other names, or feeling forced to walk away — pause and think about whether this is a good relationship to stay in. "How you manage conflict says so much about the dynamic in the relationship," says Shirey. "It’s not relevant how much you’re fighting, but how you’re fighting." Even when the conversations get heated, you should feel like they’re ultimately bettering your relationship. If not, this might not be the person for you.
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