Listen, no one likes arguing. If you’ve ever been in a relationship, you’re probably familiar with that sinking feeling in your stomach or the heat rising to your face as you realize a conversation with your partner is starting to spiral into an argument. It’s the worst.
But while getting into a conflict is never fun, it doesn’t have to be terrible—or even difficult.
Here’s a tried-and-true trick straight from the couples’ therapist’s couch: To make it easier to get through arguments when they happen, talk about how you want to fight before you actually fight.
The pre-conflict conversation.
Every couple will inevitably run into disagreements and conflicts from time to time, and yet many people prefer to just wing it when they get there. And then once the conflict is settled, oftentimes they try to avoid talking about it at all costs for fear of “dredging up the past.”
But the truth is, having conversations about your approach to fighting as a couple can help make sure that future fights go much more smoothly. This is a tip from Elizabeth Earnshaw, LMFT, a licensed couples’ therapist and founder of A Better Life Therapy. She recommends that couples sit down and have a conversation about exactly how they want to deal with disagreements in their relationship.
“Couples that decide in advance how they would like to deal with disagreements end up being more transparent with each other in the long run because they know exactly what to do in order to enter into a difficult conversation,” she explains.
The point is to set up a protocol or game plan of sorts that the two of you can reliably use every time a conflict comes up. “You might want to include how to start the conversation, when, and what to do if it becomes too escalated,” Earnshaw suggests.
You might also bring up unhelpful dynamics that have come up during past arguments, such as if one person tends to get passive-aggressive or if someone tends to shut down and storm off in the middle of tough conversations. Talk about how these “fight styles” make you feel and what might be more helpful ways of handling those intense moments that will lead you two to reconnection instead of pushing you further apart in the middle of a fight.
The key to making this work is to have the conversation before an actual conflict happens. This way, you can talk about your approach to dealing with disagreements in general rather than getting caught up in talking about the actual details of a particular disagreement. It’s much easier to talk about your conflict strategy when your heads are clear and your focus is on keeping your relationship healthy, rather than trying to talk about this when you’re in the heat of an argument and tempers may be flaring.
As Earnshaw points out, this is all about planning ahead—so that you have a game plan already established that you can follow like a road map in the middle of an argument. In the long run, having this pre-conflict conversation will help prevent the conversation from going off the rails and escalating into a full-blown fight.