How to Stop Bad Arguments Before They Start

You’re engaged, or married, or getting there, and you’re madly in love with each other; there’s only one problem, you’re fighting a lot. Rows are a part of every relationship. Living together with any other human being is bound to create some tension eventually. For some of us that’s a little more frequent than we’d like, and I think we’d all like to have less of them even if they are rare. Fortunately, there are concrete things you can do to change things for the better. For maximum effect, you and your partner need to both commit to less fighting, but there are things you can do unilaterally that should lower the amount of bad arguments you have.

Dispel The Housework Myth

Housework can be an insidious source of stress. While for most people these are small annoyances in isolation, undone housework has a habit of reminding you that it’s not done until it’s taken care of. You see the annoyance all the time and anything annoying becomes infuriating with enough time. As such, the division of housework can end up being one of the bigger flash points in a relationship. There are several dynamics at work that can make resolving the problem of housework troublesome.

The largest hurdle I keep encountering with early couples and even some old ones is the expectation that their spouse won’t be like their old room mates when it comes to cleaning up and helping out. You may have the idea that finally you have someone to share these chores with, that you won’t be the only one in the house that cares about how the house looks. Perhaps the script is flipped, perhaps you were the one that never cared about cleanliness and you’re looking forward to not being pestered about it. This is a dangerous fight causing myth. I have some shocking news for you, take out the relationship and guess what, you’re just room mates. Being in love with each other doesn’t fundamentally change the logistics of keeping a home. If you are the clean one, the one that always cared more than everyone else about the state of the living space, you will more than likely be that person inside your relationship, putting more value in the state of your home than your spouse. If you are the messy one, tired of being pestered about things that don’t matter to you, you usually won’t find that escape inside a relationship.

I find dispensing with this expectation alone can take a lot of stress off your mind. Expecting something out of your relationship that isn’t coming is a sure road to explosive arguing. Your spouse can likely improve in cleaning up after themselves, or maybe it’s you that needs to improve. Conversely, you may need to be the one to learn to let go a little or your spouse might be. Fundamentally neither of you are going to change here, don’t expect your significant other to fundamentally change either. Clean people tend to stay that way, and messy people also tend to stay their way. I’m not saying give up on a clean house, but you may have to dispense with the idea of equitable division of house labor. Ask for something in return for this however, this should be a negotiation. There are things other than housework that can help take the load off, bargain for those. You’re probably tired of hearing this, like a played out meme, but communication is key. Communicate that the state of the house upsets you, or that the pestering upsets you, and go from there and do it before it boils over.

When it comes to housework there’s another myth I keep running across that also seems to disappoint people and turn housework into a point of friction. There’s often an expectation, an anticipated joy, that there will be less housework to do if there’s someone to share it with. If you think about this critically for even a moment you can see the problem with this selfish equation. Yes, there is another person in the house to help keep things tidy. There’s also another person in the house, they come with their own messes. You’ll be doing well if the amount of things that need doing stays static per capita. Often this expectation also accompanies moving from rental to home living. Few people accurately correctly account for the sheer increase in things to do once they’re responsible for cleaning their own roof and mowing their own lawn and making other home repairs and improvements. Even if this burden is handled largely financially—you pay people to do it—it’s still more on the pile. Dispel this myth as well, the housework load isn’t going down with another person in your life.

Re-draw Your Defensive Perimeter

This one is tricky, but potentially the most rewarding. When we get angry we tend to lash out. For many, and especially new couples, our partner is located in the ‘outward’ area. In other words, they are in the area we deem to be outside ourselves and are available for attack and blame. You can stop a lot of arguments by taking your partner out of this area. Putting someone, anyone, inside your ‘in’ area can be difficult and requires a tremendous amount of built up trust.

I like to imagine trust as the income of a relationship. As you build trust, save it, invest it, and help it grow, you stop living from paycheck-to-paycheck in your relationship. If you outspend your trust income for long enough you end up homeless. So how do you build trust and what does it mean to spend it? I’ll use Emily as an example.

Emily is a homemaker, she takes care of our three children and keeps up the house while I tackle the easier task of making some money(That could be and probably will be its own post). Emily frequently arranges her day so that she finishes her errands and arrives home just as I get home from work. There’s a couple ways to interpret this behavior depending on your level of trust.

  • Emily wants to make sure she doesn’t miss her limited time with me and has a hard cutoff time on her errands, which would otherwise run into the evening, to do so.
  • Emily wants to make sure her car is in the driveway when I get home so it looks like she’s been home working all day.
  • Emily is trying to hide how much time she spends away from the home because she’s doing something she’s not supposed to.
  • Emily is poorly hiding an affair.

Believe it or not, Emily is spending a tiny amount of the trust bank every time I notice this behavior, usually when I get home a little early from work and she’s not there. It’s not being spent because I distrust her, it’s being spent because a positive reaction depends on how much trust exists. It should be noted that the truth of the situation doesn’t matter. The amount of trust I have in Emily determines whether or not I believe her answer in the first place. In other words, if Emily and I maintained a negative balance in the trust account our relationship could suffer over an innocent pattern of behavior. The converse is also true, a high trust nest egg could aid her in hiding a tryst. The former is why it is so rationally difficult to build trust in a person. Trust changes the truth and that can leave us vulnerable to manipulation and other terrible things. You can overcome this obstacle by considering the decisions you’ve already made—this is your life partner. You are already vulnerable to your partner financially and emotionally. Your partner will be helping you raise your children and form their ideas about you. Your partner will or does have demands about your living conditions; how the house is constructed, diet, and so on. You’ve already agreed to spend your lives with each other despite whatever quirks or requirements these areas have attached to them. If there is anyone in the world where having low trust is going to do more harm than good, it’s your partner.

So how do we build trust and fill that piggy bank? Well there’s some good news here, especially for the busy types. I find it’s the little behaviors that help the most in keeping the trust account topped off. Buy her chocolate for no reason, tell him you appreciate his contributions to the home, kiss, engage in playful touch, practice speaking the compliments that you think, and when you eventually do get in an argument…

Target the problem instead of the person!

Practice this. Fundamentally what you want to achieve here is diminishing the importance of assigning blame. When an argument comes up, remember that no amount of yelling is going to get the kitchen floor cleaner or put the toilet seat down. When you’re partner is packing their bags and walking out the door are you going to be saying to yourself, “at least I know it wasn’t my hair clogging the drain!”? Once you get to the point that you are focusing on the problem see if the ‘problem’ suddenly sounds silly. There might be something else making you angry and making you notice small things more—bringing work stress home is a frequent cause. Let your partner know if you ever realize this, let them know that you’re stressed and noticing small irritants more. Ironically, I find that a lot of these arguments start up over small things as an excuse to get the attention the angry partner feels they’re entitled to and not getting. Try to figure out if there’s something you can do, together, to get you in a better mood. If there’s a real problem, address it. Your partner is going to be more useful in helping you solve the problem than as a dejected emotional antagonist of your own making.

Over time, these behaviors will take your partner from someone outside of your defenses—a valid target—to someone helping you shoot from the walls. The frequency and intensity of your arguments will drop, and you’ll both be happier. The high trust environment you start creating will reinforce itself too. Taking the pressure off of your partner just a little will give them the emotional space to start reciprocating these changes, and they often will do so without prompting. You got together because you enjoyed each others company remember? Frequent arguments are often a cycle that appears later on, and cycles have this funny little property of being breakable by one participant.

Share A Calendar

This is another one of those communication things. I find it annoying how much the word communication is thrown around as if it were it’s own self-contained set of actions and recommendations. So here’s something specific that goes under that heading. Double booking days off is immensely irritating. A fight often ensues over which double booked event is more important, or which was made the longest ago, or who forgot what, or who only mentioned it while you were busy and distracted, and so on.

Do something with that smart device of yours other than being your bosses annoying leash to you. Create a calendar for the family. Check it before you commit to doing anything. Like all new habits you’re going to stumble on this one a few times before you get into the groove of using it, but commit to not double booking your free time today. Will you be watching the super bowl? Put it on the calendar, let your spouse know it’s on the calendar, and you’re not entertaining the in-laws unless they show up with foam fingers, appetizers, and a party mentality. On that note, if your guy is a football guy, don’t do something as seemingly passive aggressive as scheduling a visit from your parents during the super bowl, yeeesh. If you find you’re often oblivious to those things the calendar will help. If you aren’t doing this already please start today, just trust me on this.

Make Time For Dates

I find that making time for dates most frequently vanishes after having children and I’ll be writing this section from that point of view, but some couples struggle with this shortly after moving in together. In either case, do not sacrifice all of your alone time with your partner. In an earlier piece I mentioned building a circle of friends you could rely on to take on temporary burdens. Rely on your support networks to handle the excuse you’re always throwing out, you know the one, “I’d take you out if only I didn’t have responsibility X”. By the way, that’s just an excuse. I don’t know what hurdle you think is blocking off your time for entire months—once a month dates is what I’d shoot for at minimum—but it’s likely not actually consuming every single day for an entire month. Don’t write angry letters if you’re one of the few that are busy for entire months, I get it—working on an oil rig for instance—but those gigs generally also come with a week or more of downtime, make room for your partner.

For those of you who haven’t been on a date in a while, try to keep it simple. Emily and I struggled with this for a while after our second child and on our first date out in months we’d realized we’d forgotten what it even felt like. Something as simple as sitting down together at a chain restaurant can feel surreal in those circumstances so don’t clutter up or needlessly complicate the itinerary. Take a hike—literally—or one of my favorites, only plan the amount of time you will be gone and drive around town stopping literally anywhere that catches your fancy. Practice being free. Go to that knick-knack shop you used to love but just drive by now, revisit that old make-out spot, dive into that dive you’ve been meaning to try.

Catching a movie needs its own little section. I typically don’t recommend this if you’re only getting about a date a month and can’t get about 5 or more hours on your free-time clock. Counting logistics this is usually a 2.5 hour gamble you’re committing to. If you are going to go to a movie be clear about the circumstances under which you’ll walk out and practice that option with prejudice. Have a back-up plan. Emily and I will go mall crawling in the event of a disappointing film. Having a back-up plan pits the movie against alternatives and helps you recognize when it’s failing to be entertaining enough. Forget walking out on only the ‘bad’ movies, I walk out on the ones that aren’t strictly good or better. Those are precious hours! You may like movies a lot more than I do—that’s very likely actually—but most films these days, well…I get more enjoyment out of treating Emily to a Cinnabon in the mall food court.

So what’s any of this have to do with arguments? I’d say if you’re asking that question you’re definitely missing out on too many date nights, schedule more. A good night out can raise your mood above the petty squabbling threshold for days or even weeks. It’s a good time to connect and remind yourselves that you’re a couple and that you’re in this thing together in a context that’s positive, as opposed to the we’re-in-this-together that comes with dealing with a sick infant.

There are more ways to prevent bad arguments for sure, but I find these general behaviors to be the most generally applicable to the other couples I talk to. There’s a lot of devil in the details of other relationships, and some experiences are more universal. So whether you’re the one having argument problems, or you’re a couple that’s just afraid of ending up that way, or you know a couple that could use some help, I hope you’ve found this post useful. Remember as always, there’s a time for self help and a time for professional advice. Don’t use my blog as a substitute when professional help is called for.

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