Rules Of Engagement

Couples therapy; Rachel Phillips; Blog; arguments; Nottingham;

How To Have A Constructive Argument

During my years of working for Relate, the relationship counselling organisation, there were always predictable spikes in demand for our services. These happened as regular as clockwork in September and January. So what created these peaks in the need for couples to seek help? They occurred directly after the summer holidays when most people with children would take their main vacation and the Christmas break. Sadly it seems that spending time together and the expectation of enjoyment create the perfect storm for a troubled relationship to tip over into crisis.

When your relationship has become a series of pointless arguments strung together with resentful silences or avoidance what can you do to turn things around? The first positive step is to agree to some simple rules of engagement in order to reach a constructive outcome when you argue. Here are some suggestions to help you to achieve this:


  • Who needs to be there in order to resolve this conflict? This may sound obvious but some couples will engage other people to communicate with their partner during an argument and all that happens is that messages get twisted and meanings get lost in translation. Some people also have preparatory disagreements with their partners in their heads when the other person isn’t there and can be completely wound up by the imagined scenario before their partner has even come through the door. Make sure that all the key players are in the same room before the argument begins.
  • Who doesn’t need to be there? Children, friends and extended family are often subjected to witnessing or being drawn into a couple’s disagreements. This is rarely helpful in resolving the issue and for children in particular it can be frightening and destabilising. Don’t bring others into this situation, keep it between the two of you.
  • Is there anyone else who could be helpful in getting things sorted out? If so be clear on how they could help and ask for their assistance.


  • Is there enough time to discuss the whole subject? If not, arrange a time to talk when other commitments are not demanding your attention.
  • Try to avoid starting something just as you are going out, going to bed etc
  • Don’t try to sort things out when one or both of you is very emotional, it won’t work, take some time to calm down and come back to it later. This also applies to tiredness. No one can think clearly when they are tired.
  • When do you argue least? In what circumstances does that happen? What is different about that situation? Can you bring some of those factors into your conflicts to help ease the tension?


  • Where is the safest place for this discussion to happen? For some people they find that privacy is best, others need outside constraints such as being in a public place to ensure things don’t get out of hand.
  • If your whole home has become a battleground, choosing one room in which to argue can free up other areas to relax and relate differently to each other as a couple. The bedroom is an especially problematic place to argue as it can disrupt both your sexual relationship and your sleep.


  • What is it you are actually arguing about? Stick to one issue at a time and avoid bringing up every little grievance from the past. All this will do is prolong the conflict and hurt your relationship in the long run.
  • What do you want to achieve from this discussion? Be clear about your own goals and listen carefully to what your partner wants. You may be surprised by how much you share.


  • Why are you having this argument? Is it really worth the effort? If not, just let it go. Save your energy for really important issues.


  • Use non-harsh start-upsavoid engagements with each other that start with “you always…” or “that’s so typical of you”, “you’re just like your father” and other such timeless classics! A harsh start-up is a conversation that begins with a sentence that is harsh, sarcastic or critical. In research carried out by Dr. John Gottman it was found that 96% of interactions that start this way will end negatively. Instead, try approaching your partner softly and with respect. For instance, if the issue is that you don’t spend time together try saying “when you are away I really miss our times together” instead of “you never want to be with me anymore, you don’t even try to put me first!”.
  • Hearing is not the same as agreeing. You might not agree with what is being said but it won’t do you any harm to hear it.
  • Recognise the need to lower the emotional temperature as heightened levels of emotion reduce our ability to think clearly. Use time out, breathing techniques or other relaxation methods to ensure you are cognitively engaged to resolve this argument.
  • Make safety plans – agree that the angry person will go to an agreed place until calmer and the person/people they were angry with will not follow them and continue the argument. This will prevent the situation escalating to a damaging level.
  • Remind yourself of ways of putting things have worked better in the past – or remember what it was that someone else said that got a better response from the person.
  • Notice how the person responds to others, and if they respond better, what was it that brought that about? Would you want to try something similar?
  • Remember how people you admire handle difficult situations. How do they do that? Could you do the same?

These are just some basic tips to help you communicate more effectively in your relationship. Dr Gottman’s research shows that successful couples are not the ones who never argue, they are the ones who have learnt to argue in a constructive way. Couples with long, happy relationships are also the ones who have at least five positive interactions for every one negative interaction. Life is too short to be spent in miserable bickering so make some changes and enjoy the time you spend together in the future.

NB: If one or both of you does not wish to resolve issues and uses arguments to score points, you need to consult a relationship counsellor in order to work on the relationship and assess whether you want to stay together.

If the relationship is abusive emotionally, physically, sexually or financially please seek help individually. None of these tips are going to change the dynamic of the relationship enough for you to be safe.

This article is written about couple relationships but if you are in a polyamorous relationship or other non-traditional arrangement, you can adapt the advice to fit your situation as long as all parties are equal and consensual.



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