How To Start A Fight

The right way.

A lot of people don’t think to0 much about how to enter a potentially difficult conversation with a significant other. But there are some definite ways to improve the odds of a better outcome. You could probably come up with a pretty good list of what doesn’t work. You could probably also come up with some basic improvements, like try to be nice, try not to be too emotional, etc. Here are some less obvious ways to do it better, some backed by research.

As a warm up, let’s jump off from the idea of being nicer or gentler. John Gottman’s extensive research on relationships found that one particular characteristic at the outset made a huge difference in how well couples’ conflictual conversations turned out. He refers to it as harsh startup vs. soft startup, and it’s pretty much as it sounds. The harshest startups open right away with criticism, which you can think of simply as anything that makes your partner look bad or feel bad. These are accusational statements or questions, often start with “You…,” and may include the universal quantifiers “always,” “never,” or the like.

Gottman found that only analyzing the first one to three minutes of a couple’s conversation for these characteristics could predict whether the couple would divorce or not with an astonishingly high degree of accuracy.

Softened start-up is the antidote, and we can be much more precise than generally “being nice.” Specifically:

  • start with something positive — maybe your positive intent, something connecting, or an overarching goal for the relationship (e.g., “I want to talk with you about something because I love you and want to let you know something that’s been bothering me.”)
  • be concise (going on too long can be overwhelming or overbearing)
  • minimize or eliminate blame and exaggeration (watch out for the “you’s,” “always,” and “nevers” — also see Delete These 6 Words and Phrases From Your Relationship)
  • talk about what you want and how it would make you feel emotionally to get it, instead of what’s missing or going wrong (this will also help with being less blaming — e.g., “I love it when you initiate date night plans for us, it makes me feel special and loved.”)

OK, so that’s a start, but now let’s back up a little, because what most people think about even less is how to prepare their mental states for a difficult conversation. Awareness and planning of a softened start-up is one part. But more broadly, how you conceptualize the conflict or tension, and also how you compose yourself emotionally can make all the difference in how things go.

When conversations turn into fights, almost always it’s because one or both people got triggered into a fight-or-flight response. This is an adrenaline and cortisol driven reaction designed to protect us from threat, but at the cost of clear and creative thinking. If you can settle your nervous system in advance it can make you less susceptible to triggering. There are a variety of ways to do this. Exercise and meditation can help, for instance. But I believe the most effective and efficient is what is known as paced breathing. This is mostly slowing your breathing down in a purposeful way for a significant period of time. The basic pattern is to breathe fully in, as if breathing into your belly, hold for 2–4 seconds, and then exhale for about twice the length of your in-breath. If you keep that pattern up for 5–10 minutes it can make you calmer and more emotionally resilient for hours (yes, hours!) afterwards.

In terms of preparing a helpful mindset for the conversation, an intervention designed by Eli Finkle at Northwestern University can be helpful. Dr. Finkle’s research showed that couples who practiced this every four months maintained higher relationship satisfaction. The full intervention is a writing exercise that involves several different steps, but parts of it can be helpful in preparing for a conversation. The essence of it is framing the conflict or tension for yourself as factually and neutrally as possible (that is, without judgements of rightness or wrongness), as if witnessed by a third benevolent party who has both of your interests in mind.

One of the things that trips people up is pushing for their own side of the argument without taking the other’s point of view into consideration. This leads to a power struggle in which neither partner feels heard, and both escalate in order to try to get through to the other.

By thinking about the conflict from a benevolent, third-party view, partners can have more perspective and empathy for each other, which is ultimately the solvent for gridlock.

There is another way of thinking about the conflict that gets at the same principle. Dr. Pete Pearson of the Couples Institute suggests you do not start by trying to define the problem. Often partners will disagree on what the problem is, again because each sees it from only his or her own viewpoint and needs. Instead, Dr. Pearson says, begin with a statement of what the disagreement is. So you might start by coming to an agreement on that difference, such as, “We seem to disagree on how to load the dishwasher,” or “We seem to disagree on how to discipline the kids.” Beginning this way allows equal footing for both points of view, and can invite an exploration of both sides rather than jumping right into trying to change or convince each other.

The more you can prepare for the start of an argument, the more likely you’ll come to a better ending. And maybe it won’t even turn out to be a fight after all.


Thanks for reading! ~ * ~ If you found this interesting or helpful I would love your ❤.

Robert Solley is a licensed clinical psychologist with a private practice in Noe Valley, San Francisco.

[Image credits: Scarecrow & Dorothy, Dolphins]