You can feel when an argument is coming. Tensions rise, eye-rolls ensue, and voices elevate. Conflict is common in a relationship, but there’s a difference between a tiff that can result in positive change and a spat that ends in the division of assets.
Researchers at the Gottman Relationship Institute have identified five of the most common, destructive patterns in arguments. Couples that fall into these patterns are far more likely to break up than those who bicker in more constructive ways, but if you find yourself in these heated exchanges, all hope is not lost.
If you want to save your relationship, a key step is being able to identify these types of interactions, and learn not only how to avoid them but to learn and grow from them.
The victim and the aggressor
This is the situation in which one person plays the hard-done-by victim while the other is combative and aggressive.
Typical exchange: "You're always so mean to me! I don't know what I've done to deserve this!"
"Well, if you weren't so pathetic, maybe this wouldn't happen!"
How to avoid it: "Everyone resents being told they're something they're not," Dr. Cecilia D'Felice, couples expert for dating website Match.com, told the Daily Mail. "But if you're being put into the role of aggressor, it's important to remember both of you have a choice."
"When the victim says, 'It has nothing to do with me—it's always you who decides,' and the aggressor yells, 'Well, that's because you won't take any responsibility!' the victim should instead try, 'I don't want to be the one who always makes the decisions. Can we find a compromise so we're both involved?'"
If you play the victim, Dr. D'Felice suggests saying you feel attacked to force the aggressor to come to terms with his or her behavior.
When you feel under attack, you become defensive, protecting yourself from criticism by refusing to take any responsibility for the issue.
Typical exchange: "You never spend time with the children!"
"I always look after them when you go out with your friends. If anyone is a bad parent, it's you!"
How to avoid it: Defensiveness is a natural response when we feel attacked, but arguments will go nowhere unless you can break the cycle. Dr. D'Felice said this sort of argument can be avoided by thinking seriously about what you want to get out of the discussion before you start it.
In the above exchange, one parent wants the other to spend more time with the kids. Instead of saying, "You never spend time with the children," he or she should try saying, "Why don't you take the kids to the pool on the weekend? They're always talking about how much fun it was last time."
This is the situation in which one person, typically the man, refuses to discuss a subject, choosing to leave rather than have an argument.
Typical exchange: "Well what do you think? Say something!"
Stonewaller: "There's nothing to say. I'm going out."
How to avoid it: While it can be tempting to provoke the stonewaller until they explode, Dr. D'Felice said that is the wrong way to deal with the situation. Instead, try saying in a calm voice: "When you go into your shell, we can't talk about what we're both feeling."
If you're the stonewaller, you need to see that arguments can be constructive. Agree to listen to your partner's feelings without interrupting, and then share yours.
Arguments that descend into hurtful personal comments often mean a relationship is at breaking point, because name-calling is fueled by resentment.
Typical exchange: "I hate how selfish you are. You only ever think of yourself"
"Well, you're a nagging old cow. I wish you'd just shut up and give me some peace."
How to avoid it: The only way to escape this toxic cycle is to stop resorting to verbal abuse. Take a deep breath, and express your complaint without any criticism attached. Instead of saying, "You're so lazy; you never help with the housework," say, "I'm feeling really overwhelmed. Can you help me with the housework?"
If you're arguing in this way, your relationship is in crisis. You have no respect for each other and only speak to express your contempt for your partner.
Typical exchange: "There's no point even talking to you because I know what you're going to say."
"Good. I don't want to talk to you either."
How to avoid it: The only way this behavior can change is if you're both still committed to making the relationship work. If you are both invested in the partnership, you need to sit down and calmly and openly discuss your feelings.
Listen to your partner without interrupting and insist they do the same for you.
"Arguments can be like a storm and clear the air," Dr. D'Felice said. "A good argument should be enjoyable and move you both to where you want to be."
This post was written by the editors of Now to Love. For more, check out our sister site Now To Love.