Thriving Relationships//

9 Better Ways to Handle Relationship Disagreements, According to Experts

Start soft, don’t stonewall, and know when it’s actually OK to go to bed angry.

Martin Barraud/ Getty Images
Martin Barraud/ Getty Images

No relationship is without conflict, but there are ways to defuse disagreements before they spiral into something damaging, and strategies that prevent the same fights from surfacing over and over again. Using examples from their professional experience and their own lives, nine therapists from the renowned Gottman Institute (the masterminds behind Thrive’s Asking For a Friend column), relay their best advice for dealing.  

Be gentle

The way an issue is brought up determines how that conversation will go as well as how the relationship is likely to go. Many complaints are initiated in a manner that attacks or blames our partner. It’s important to be gentle when you bring up a complaint. We call it a Softened Startup. There are three main parts — talk about how you feel, about what situation, and what you need. An example would be: “I’m annoyed about the dishes in the living room. I would appreciate it if they would get picked up.”

—Carrie Cole, LMHC

Describe your feelings

The judgy thoughts and angry feelings we have during conflict are typically cover-ups for more vulnerable, softer feelings around our true needs. It might be a quick reaction to call your partner “selfish” or “a jerk” in the moment. But you both lose with these words. Have some compassion for yourself, and try to find words that describe the deeper more vulnerable feelings you’re having. “I’m glad to see you. I get lonely when you’re gone all day,” accurately describes you and doesn’t  attack your partner. Now you’re showing the genuine part of you that your partner can connect with.

—Jenny TeGrotenhuis, LMHC

Take a mulligan

In golf, when a player takes a lousy shot, they can take a mulligan — grab the errant ball, erase the mistake, and start fresh. This works wonderfully in the game of love, too. Yesterday when I arrived home, I heard a crabby voice come out of my mouth: “You forgot to take the garbage up —again!” So I stopped. I backed up, walked through the door a second time, and shouted cheerfully “I’m home, babe!” That repair got me out of the sand trap and back on the relationship green — before a conflict even began.

—Cheryl Fraser, Ph.D.

Avoid stonewalling

Stonewalling means withdrawing from the interaction while staying in the room. It means not giving cues you’re listening, but instead actively avoiding the conversation using uninterested body language. In most cases, when people stonewall, they are physiologically flooded. This means that they have a heart rate above 100 BPM and they have entered into an unhealthy attempt to calm themselves. You can avoid stonewalling by self-soothing. You can self-soothe by deep breathing, or asking for a brief time out to do something relaxing to get your heart rate down. Then return to the interaction in a calmer, more receptive state.

—Stacy Hubbard, LMFT

Know the myths

Before your next disagreement, arm yourself with the truths behind some popular relationship myths:

Myth: My partner should know what I feel.

Reality: We need to tell our partners how we feel.

Myth: I will not empathize with my partner’s position because it legitimizes it.

Reality: Empathy and agreement are two totally different concepts — empathize with your partner even if you don’t agree with them.

Myth: We shouldn’t go to bed angry.

Reality: Sometimes things are too heated to discuss — only talk once you are able to listen (take at least 20 minutes to cool down, but no more than 24 hours).

Myth: Couples who manage conflict well don’t work at it.

Reality: Reflect on how you managed the conflict and learn from it.

Myth: We are arguing about XYZ.

Reality: Your conflict may not really be about XYZ.

—Karen Bridbord, Ph.D.

Process your fights

Recently, I decided to ask my sister and brother-in-law to use the Gottman Aftermath of a Fight exercise to process a misunderstanding that occurred between us over the holidays. I use the tool in my relationship with my partner, and with the couples I treat, but I never had with members of my family and their spouses. I imagine a lot of people are leery of having that kind of discussion with a family member who is a therapist. Mine were no exception. To engage them, I said, “We just need to use a set of questions to understand each other’s feelings and points of view, while we remember everyone’s perspective has validity. If the discussion gets too tense, we’ll take a break. Then, if any of us feel we need to apologize to each other, we will. Finally, we will try to come up with a plan for next time.” It felt like waving a white flag, and saying, “I love you, I just want to talk this out in a way that is respectful all around because you are both very important to me.” They got the message. I said this so many times I found myself extra careful to approach the discussion gently but honestly. They heard me and did the same. We learned a lot, apologized to one another, and came up with some great plans for next year’s holidays. How we ask our partners, friends, and loved ones to process fights and regrettable incidents can make all the difference.

—Michael McNulty, Ph.D.

Be friends

Conflict management can be almost impossible if you don’t have a friendship with your partner. Being someone’s friend means you know every little nitty gritty detail about them, even the dark ugly spaces, and despite all that, you still love, appreciate, and adore them for who they really are. Friendship also means that you are looking out for each other’s best interests. Without friendship, it can be very difficult to hear another’s point of view when it is in stark contrast to your own. Do yourself a favor and strengthen your friendship.

—Laura Heck, LMFT

Don’t start

The absolute best way to manage conflict is to prevent it from happening. Be sure to fill up the Emotional Bank Account in your relationship so that disagreements don’t become arguments. Do this by expressing interest in and fondness for your partner and also by recognizing and acknowledging their bids for your attention. Go out of your way to notice the good in your partner and to recognize it out loud. Doing these things will position you to care less about the problems that inevitably creep into a relationship.

—Zach Brittle, LMHC

Assume similarity

The Gottman Method is influenced by the profound thinking of Anatol Rapoport, who founded the program at University of Toronto which ultimately became the Trudeau Centre for Peace and whose writings impacted Cold War peace negotiations. One of Rapoport’s key ideas is the Assumption of Similarity. If you experience a negative trait in your partner, look for that same tendency in yourself. If you identify an admirable quality in yourself, try also ascribing that attribute to your partner. Approach conflict determined to say, “Let’s fight like we love each other.” Assumptions of similarity will help you do just that.

—Jonathan Shippey, LMFT

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