I’ve never been good at being angry. I’m better at bottling things up, avoiding confrontation, holding things in, and then having a seasonal breakdown in which I air all my grievances while crying. As you can imagine (or maybe know from experience) this is not a sustainable, healthy model for any kind of relationship. In my relationships with friends and boyfriends over the years, it became clear to me that my communication issues were something I was going to have to deal with. The fact that I could almost never talk openly and honestly about things there were bothering me was causing even more issues that whatever I was originally upset about. Making progress on this front is something I’ve been working on for a long time, and I’ve made what I believe is a lot of progress. Along this painful and un-fun journey of self-reflection and hopefully self-betterment, I’ve learned a lot of things that would maybe be helpful to others with a predisposition to bottling things up.
Just to be clear, I’m not a relationship expert or a therapist or anyone who’s really qualified to give relationship advice. These are just the things that I’ve learned and the things that work for me.
Understanding the Why
One of the first things I really had to come to terms with was understanding why people argue. For a long time I didn’t really see the point. Arguing is not fun. It sucks and I hate it. I know some people feel a release from confrontation, but I am not one of them. Confrontation just makes me uncomfortable; my initial instinct is always to ignore a problem so I don’t have to talk about it with anyone. But ignoring an issue has never made it go away, it’s only ever made it worse. Learning that arguments can be reasonably justified has made me more comfortable with them, which in turn means I can argue better.
I’ve been in relationships with people who do like confrontation, who find it easy to discuss issues right when they come up. I will never understand how someone can have a natural impulse to discuss a problem when it arises, but dating people who do has taught me that it’s better to just get it over with. The amount of discomfort I’m going to feel is never going to be as significant as the peace and relief that come from resolving an argument. Fighting sucks, but resolving an issue is the best. It makes you feel closer to whomever you were fighting with. And understanding that has sometimes made it easier to address issues when they come up. Sometimes. It’s hard to get over the gut reaction that tells you to tuck a problem away. But the only things that have ever come from ignoring an issue are a lot of uncomfortable silence, passive aggressive behavior, and frustration. And even after all that, I still have to actually have a disagreement with someone.
Understanding the Who
It is essential to understand and remember whom you are arguing with. It’s obviously very easy to know who you’re arguing with, but understanding has been a different battle. It can be hard to remember in the midst of an argument that you like—sometimes love—the person with whom you’re arguing. This means that once you calm down you are very likely to regret being mean. You have to understand that there are certain things you can never say during a fight. You can never hit them where it hurts; you can’t bring up something deeply personal. I’ve never had a relationship survive that—I don’t know if it’s possible. It doesn’t matter whether you meant what you said or not, because a low blow will shatter trust, and it’s impossible to piece those shards back together. Sometimes, you need to take a few awkward seconds of silence before you say anything.
Another way to make arguing run smoother in a relationship is to de-escalate a fight before it even happens. There’s a beautiful trick you can use where you can talk about things when you’re not angry or in the moment. Basically, this means explaining your style of communication and what you do or don’t respond well to so your partner knows what will make an effective argument with you and what will not. And vice versa, if you know how they communicate and react it won’t be a surprise when it happens for the first time. Having this kind of conversation beforehand can certainly feel awkward, but it’s an important way to make sure all parties in the relationship feel more fulfilled down the line.
Remember you’re not perfect.
Taking criticism well is also an extremely important skill in interpersonal communication. Being able to take criticism well means you need to let go of your ego; you have to accept the upsetting fact that you are not perfect. I would guess that whoever you are, however humble or well-adjusted you are, being criticized stings a little. Especially when it’s being done by someone you trust and care about. But getting past the impulse to lash out is essential.
Remember you’re not completely imperfect, either.
There is sometimes a different conclusion to that criticism, though, because sometimes even after the initial sting of criticism has subsided and you’ve thought about whatever the criticism was, you may still disagree. You never want to mindlessly accept the criticism your partner is giving you, so if you’ve thought it through and you think their criticism of you is unfounded or irrational, you’re allowed to say something. You should obviously keep the other tips in mind; don’t be cruel or disrespectful, but let them know what you think in an open an honest manner.
Be calm, and be thoughtful.
The best path I’ve found to healthy communication and effective “fighting” is really to be calm and think things through. It is the most cliche piece of advice, but it truly does help bring things into perspective and give you more time to think. A lot of the ineffective disagreements I was having in my relationships were because I could never do these two things, or I could do one but not the other. And I’m positive this isn’t a me-specific issue. Staying calm is truly very difficult, and the same can be said for fully thinking through your actions. But if you’re going to take any piece of advice from this, being calm and collected is probably the most important.