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If you feel like you’re trapped in a sitcom where you and your girlfriend perpetually play the nagging couple, be it small squabbles or histrionic blowups, don’t worry: It happens to everyone.
“Healthy couples tend to discuss problems or disagreements head-on from a logical place and don’t ‘argue’ often,” says relationship expert Tracy Thomas, Ph.D.
Then again, if you’re fueding all the time, you both probably need to do some individual work to see what’s causing those disagreements—particularly if it’s your (or her) insecurities. “Constant arguments tend to happen when we’re looking for our partners to meet unmet needs within ourselves,” Thomas says. The healthier and happier you are alone, without the validation of a relationship, the stronger that’ll make your relationship.
In the meantime, while you’re working on you, here are some tips for navigating hot waters with your girlfriend. Employ these and you’ll have more rational, helpful resolutions, and (hopefully) fewer disputes.
“I always encourage people to lead with their adult selves,” Thomas says. “A child throws a tantrum as soon as they’re angry. An adult will wait until the time and place is right for conversation.” So, no, you shouldn’t have a volcanic meltdown in the middle of a restaurant, in your friend’s tiny apartment, and/or at any work function. Use common sense and try to get a hold of your emotions so the tension, disappointment, and upset stays locked down.
Bottom line: An argument should happen in private. You might not want to wait to hash things out, but both your actions, responses, and reactions are going to be different when you’ve got a dozen pairs of eyeballs staring at your every move and word.
We’re all guilty of the blame game, but holster your accusatory finger and reel in the charges. “Phrases that trigger defensiveness—like ‘What’s wrong with you?’ or ‘Why would you do that?’ or ‘How did you think that would be a good idea?’—set your partner up to defend him- or herself, and create a battle of you vs. them,” Thomas says. All this does is drive a wedge between you two.
“Often, people make accusations to throw negative feelings on someone else when it’s much better to explain how you feel and why,” Thomas explains.
She’s going to have issues, upsets, and priorities that seem monumental to her, but ludicrous to you. (She refuses to drive on highways alone, say, or needs you to talk on the phone with her at least twice a day.) News flash, champ: Everyone’s got quirks.
“If she brings up something she’s unhappy with, seek to understand and respond with empathy even if you don’t get it,” Thomas says. “Saying things like ‘I don’t understand what the big deal is’ or ‘You’re overreacting’ will make her feel isolated.”
Hear her out and ask her to explain why things are important. Phrases like “Help me understand why this upsets you” are a good way to start a conversation, even if she’s upset.
Be specific about what’s bothering you. “‘Always,’ ‘never,’ and absolutes like that are not only an exaggeration of the truth, but also remove focus from the actual thing you’re discussing and frame it as something your partner is doing wrong,” Thomas says.
Furthermore, watch your tone and volume. No one responds well to being yelled at or a snide attitude. And if she’s the one yelling, ask her to speak softly so you can both stay calm. (Oh, and here’s a hard-won pro tip: Don’t—we repeat, do not—tell her to “calm down.”)
“Most problems come from one thing: Our expectations of others to meet one of our ‘needs’ which are actually ‘wants,'” Thomas says. To make sure you stop having the same recurring argument, both of you need to know what you expect from the other. You also need to be realistic.
“When we don’t get heard, we dig our feet in and argue to win,” says Sharon Rivkin, a marital and family therapist and author of Breaking the Argument Cycle. “One of the most effective things you can say during a standoff is, ‘I want to hear what you have to say.’ That lets her know she’s respected and you truly value what she has to say—that you don’t just want to talk in circles and be right for the sake of being right.”
If you’re both red in the face, stomping around, and squaring off, table the argument ASAP and come back to it after a break. Giving yourselves a 30-minute window allows tensions to cool and your brain to sort things more logically. Think about how you feel, where she’s coming from, and how you want to frame your response.
If you fired off a low blow (no woman wants to hear she’s like her mother…or worse, your ex), apologize immediately. “Say: ‘Sorry, I shouldn’t have said that. I didn’t mean it. Let me rephrase it…,'” Rivkin says. Calling it out immediately is much more effective than apologizing later on.
“Rephrasing it in the heat of the moment will show her you really are sorry—and aren’t just saying it afterward to smooth things over.”
Humor can lighten a mood or light the fuse for an atomic explosion, especially if she takes it as you being dismissive. Timing is everything. So, wait until after you’ve both settled down and come to some sort of resolution before cracking a light joke (no sarcasm). Smile and fan yourself off as you say, ‘Wow, that really worked me up.’
Feel like you’re pressing the replay button each time you argue? “Once you get on the fighting track, your brain kicks in and starts repeating itself,” says Rivkin. So say something new to mix it up and surprise her. Say something like, ‘You obviously feel strongly about this,’ or ‘I want to hear your opinion, even if we disagree,’ or ‘Let’s come to some kind of understanding.’
You’ll validate her feelings, but only if you say it in a genuine way. Mocking her will only amp up the anger.