Quite often in my counseling practice, I tell my clients to do something that sounds counterintuitive. I tell couples to start arguments. However, I tell them to start an argument over something fun, such as which ice cream flavor is best. I have them do these practice arguments using strategies we discuss in marriage counseling. After discussing what a healthy argument looks like, I give them a mission of finding something fun to argue about so they can practice.
Why Do I Tell Couples to Start Arguments?
When you’re under stress, you don’t often have the capacity to think the same way you do when you’re relaxed. Your higher level thinking goes right out the window. Have you even been under a lot of stress and yelled at your kids or spouse, then regretted your behavior afterwards. This is an example of what I’m talking about. You may have every intention of controlling your emotions and words, but you will likely fall back on old behaviors when you’re in an emotional situation. To handle yourself the way you want when in these situations, you have to practice the skills when you’re calm.
You also have to practice a lot so the new behavior becomes second nature. This is why I tell couples to start arguments with each other. But first, we work out how they want the arguments to go so they they are productive. We start by discussing how each person can safely bring up a contentious matter without upsetting the other person. We ask each person, “if your spouse wants to bring something up with you, how exactly should they say it?”. “Is there a time of day or a location that seems more appropriate?” We also talk about what their response should be to let the other know they get it and will cooperate with the “practice” argument.
The next step might be to use active listening to make sure the rest of the argument goes well. Once we lay out the guidelines for a “good” argument, I suggest that couples find an opportunity to try it out right away. This usually means one of them has to create an “argument” over something simple, or even fun. So they might start an argument over which restaurant to go to. If you start an argument with your partner shortly after you’ve discussed how to have a healthy argument, they are more likely to work with you in practicing the new skills.
It’s important to practice new skills before you really need them. For example, if you get a new car, it’s a good idea to learn how to use the jack properly before you really need it. Practice what you want to do when the stakes are low. Then practice some more. Have fun with it at first by arguing over something kind of silly. Then try it with something that’s a little more serious but not urgent. Soon, you’ll be able to use these same skills when things could otherwise get emotional.
When you practice having a good argument with your partner, you become comfortable with that routine and will develop more comfort and trust when bringing up more serious issues. You should find your arguments are more like discussions than actual arguments.
Gary Watson is a Solution Focused Therapist in Grand Rapids Michigan. He provides counseling for couples, teenagers, and adults. He can help with anxiety, depression, stress, college and work stress, relationship problems, and more. For more information, please visit the website at www.turnaboutcounseling.com.