3 Steps to Argue Your Way to a Stronger Relationship


Do you often find yourself in the same argument over and over again with your significant other?  Are there certain topics you can’t seem to agree on, no matter how often you talk about them?  Maybe you truly love your spouse and want what’s best for them, but you can’t seem to see eye-to-eye on finances, parenting, or household responsibilities. 

You are not alone.  Every couple faces these types of conflicts.  But there’s some good news: these conflicts are the greatest opportunities you have for increasing intimacy and connection in your relationship.

John Gottman, a marriage researcher who has been studying what makes marriages healthy for over 40 years, has termed this type of conflict “gridlocked.”  He defines gridlock as conflict that doesn’t have a clear-cut solution.  And surprisingly enough, he has found through his research that 69% of all conflicts are gridlocked.  That means over two-thirds of all conflict doesn’t have a right or wrong solution!

But that doesn’t mean it’s a lost cause.  Rather, these conflicts you experience in your relationship can be approached with a heart of compromise and understanding in order to pave the way for more closeness in relationship.

Where do these arguments go wrong?

When you’re in gridlocked conflict, you may find yourself trying to convince your significant other that you are right and they are wrong.  You may not be wiling to see their perspective because you’ve already dug in your heels on your point-of-view.

On the flip side, you might develop bitterness and resentment from avoiding conversations about these tense topics, which spills out into other areas.  Have you ever had difficulty remembering what started your fight?  Little annoyances are magnified by the underlying tension and anger from gridlocked conflict.

What needs to change?

Altering your approach to conflict requires you to reframe the argument as an opportunity to grow in intimacy with your partner.  There are reasons why you feel stuck in these areas.  Often it is because of your own and your partner’s desires and the narratives tied to them. These make it difficult for you to change your position.  The purpose of the next exercise is to understand you partner’s story so that you can see why their position is so important to them. 

This does require some level of vulnerability on the part of each of you in order to grow in intimacy.  If you struggle with vulnerability with your partner, try this exercise out with a smaller gridlocked issue first..

Gottman’s 3-Step Process

Step 1: Discuss (and listen) to each of your perspectives.

Set aside a time for each of you to talk about your personal perspective on the issue.  Use the talking formula: “I feel…because/about…and what I would like is…”  Speak in a respectful and non-critical tone to your partner, believing that they want to hear your side.

The most crucial component of this exercise, however, is playing the role of the listener.  Often we listen with one ear, but our mind is focused on our response and how we might defend ourselves.  When we do this, we’re not truly listening to the other person.  Instead, Gottman encourages you to “suspend persuasion” for a time and seek to understand your partner’s perspective, as if you were an outside observer.  Validate what you hear in your partner’s perspective.  What feelings make sense to you?  Can you understand from their perspective, even if you don’t fully agree? 

Example: In talking about housework, you might say, “I felt abandoned when I asked you to help me clean the garage and you said “no.”  I need to feel like we share responsibility and are working together to keep our home organized.”

Step 2: Identify the “dreams within conflict.”

Look deeper at why the issue is so important to you personally.  Exploring your own triggers is a self-reflective tool that helps you identify your own personal narrative contributing to the issue.

Typically, this narrative has to do with your past.  Describing why you are uniquely triggered helps your partner feel empathy.  As you discuss this narrative, ask open-ended questions like “tell me the story behind that” or “what experience from your past makes this so important to you?” to understand more of your partner’s perspective.

Similar to Step 1, it is essential to listen and understand your partner’s perspective.  Do you see why they might make the connection between the present issue and a past experience?  Does it make sense why they are having a strong emotional reaction? 

Example: “I’m reminded of the importance of my value of equality.  My father made sure that my mother felt as though they carried an equal weight in taking care of the house, and I saw that as a way they loved each other.  When you don’t help me out, I wonder if you don’t see us as equals, and then I feel unloved.” 

Step 3: Choose areas of compromise.

Once you’ve listened to one another’s perspective, asked questions, and helped each other feel fully understood, then you can move into a place of compromise.  Understanding and empathizing with your spouse’s story makes compromise vastly easier.  Where you might have been stubborn before, now that you know their story, you may be more willing to move closer to what they desire.

Make a list of essentials about this area: what do you need?  Then make a list of more flexible items where might you be willing to compromise.  Discuss your lists together and seek overlap.  Where might each of you make some compromise to move closer to your partner’s needs?  How can you practically put this into play this upcoming week? 

Example: “It is essential to me that, in general, you help out with tasks around the house.  I am willing to be flexible about what those tasks are.  If organizing the garage is not your cup of tea, I would feel supported and equal to you if you prepared dinner so I could focus on getting the garage done today.  Are you willing to consider that?”

Know this:  even in using these three steps, you will likely still argue.  Perhaps the compromise will work for a time, but eventually a new trigger will come up that needs to be discussed.  Remember: this is normal!  You will be discussing compromises and seeking to support one another throughout your relationship.  If you look at this as an ongoing conversation that will get easier over time, you’ll be set up well to continue to love one another through compromise in the course of your relationship.

Are you having a hard time finding common ground in your relationship?  Do you constantly feel stuck in your arguments?  At Restored Hope, I offer supportive couples counseling that helps you learn to communicate your dreams and listen with empathy to your significant other.  Give me a call at 734.656.8191 or email me today to schedule your first appointment at my Ann Arbor office.

One Game-Changing Tool to Approach Arguments as Opportunities for Intimacy in Marriage


It’s a typical Saturday afternoon, and you’re wrapped in up in cleaning the house, watching a pot of soup on the stove, and attempting to keep your kids entertained.  Your spouse walks in the door to see Legos scattered around the floor, the debris left over from one of your many attempts at distraction.  Your spouse gives you a look that communicates, “did a bomb go off in here?”

You immediately feel a flood of anger coursing through your veins.  You snap at your spouse, irritated with their nonverbal insensitivity and criticism.  You start defending yourself, and meanwhile your spouse looks completely bewildered and caught off guard, like a deer in the headlights.

Little did you know in that moment, but that particular look on your spouse’s face was exactly the same as the look your father used to give you before he launched into a tirade about your irresponsibility and immaturity.  For a moment, your father’s face flashed before your eyes, not your spouse’s, and you were brought right back to the feeling of being a chastised child.

What is a trigger?

You’ve likely experienced moments like these in your life, where you’ve had an intense and strong emotional reaction to something that didn’t make sense.   These moments, referred to as triggers, are moments when you experience an intense and extreme emotional reaction that is disproportionate to the event that occurred.  Typically, these are brought on by memories of past experiences where you felt hurt, ashamed, guilty, or a range of other negative emotions.  Most often, triggers differ from person to person and are not easily predicted, and therefore can lead to arguments or miscommunication in marriage.

Talking about triggers is an integral part of learning to communicate more effectively in your relationships and have arguments that lead you to become more intimately connected with one another.

Wait a second – arguments that cause you to become more intimately connected?  That sounds like a mistake.

Guess what?  It’s not.

John Gottman, marriage researcher, prefers to talk about the concept of conflict “management” rather than conflict “resolution.”  Why’s that?  He found that 69% of conflicts couples have in their marriage are unresolvable – meaning that conflict resolution is a myth in 69% of arguments.

Instead, couples need to come to a place of compromise in their arguments.  The process of getting to compromise involves learning more about triggers in order to grow to understand your partner’s past.  As you get to know your partner’s experience, you’ll become more adaptive and empathetic to their needs, and more willing to make a compromise.  You’ll also feel known and understood as they learn your side of the story.

Sounds like a win-win after all!

How can I tell when I’m being triggered?

Step one to understanding triggers is understanding when you’ve been triggered.  This involves becoming aware of your emotional and physical reactions.  In the example above, you had no idea why you jumped from relatively neutral to raging in less than 3.6 seconds at the look on your spouse’s face.

If you were able to take a step back a little later when you had calmed your emotional arousal, you may have been able to gain more awareness of what emotion came up.  In the example above, you may have felt fear or defensiveness.  Triggers typically involve emotions or beliefs that are deeper under the surface, so uncovering them is a crucial process.

When you identify the emotion, ask yourself: what message does this emotion communicate to me?  If I could give the emotion a voice, what would it be saying?  In the example, the fear of defensiveness is saying that I’m worthless or not good enough.

Then, take a moment to ask yourself this question: when was the first time I remember feeling that way?  What is a significant time in my past when I remember having those thoughts?

Alternatively, think of that emotion or that belief and rewind the tape of your life back – what moments stand out to you as times when you truly believed that thought?  When that emotion was felt?

How do I communicate about triggers with my spouse?

Once you’ve calmed down enough to identify that trigger, then it’s time to communicate the trigger to your spouse.  This process mirrors Gottman’s Aftermath of a Fight exercise, allowing you to name what you need.

First, talk to your spouse about how you felt in the moment about what happened. “I felt angry when you came home because it seemed as though you were judging me for the state of the house.”

Next, identify why that particular reaction was triggering to you.  “The look on your face reminded me of a look my father used to give me before yelling at me about how irresponsible I was.  Back then, I would feel afraid and believe that I was worthless and not good enough.”

Then, take responsibility for the disproportionate reaction: “I responded out of fear and defensiveness to you, even though you are not my father, and I don’t believe those words were what you were trying to communicate to me.  I am sorry for snapping at you and criticizing you.”

Finally, communicate what you will do in the future, as well as asking your spouse for help.  As an option, you can invite your spouse to suggest an idea for him or her to carry out.  “In the future, I will do my best to remind myself that you are not my father and that you are not commenting on my worth or value.  If you’re willing, it would be helpful for me to hear you say that you love me or offer to help.  Is that something you’re willing to try?”

Notice how the interation above invites intimacy.  You have to step into the risk of sharing vulnerably a difficult part of your story that allows your spouse to get to know you better.  You humbly take responsibility for your fault in the matter, as none of us are without blame.   And it gives a solution-focused response on how to approach those conflicts in the future.

My hope is that you’ll begin to see your arguments with your spouse not as a signal that your relationship is falling apart, but as an opportunity to grow closer to one another and connect to one another’s worlds.


Do you find yourself caught in a pattern of getting triggered every time you and your spouse have a conflict?  Have you been completely unaware of where those triggers are coming from?  Are you looking for help with creating intimacy with your spouse through fighting well?  At Restored Hope, I believe in the power of intimacy-building in relationships through honesty, vulnerability, and open communication.  I offer couples counseling at my Ann Arbor therapy offices – give me a call at 734.656.8191 or email me to set up an appointment today.

Four Tips to Stop Arguments Before They Start: Travel Edition

Summer vacation season is here!.  Maybe you have a road trip, cruise, or flight to an exotic locale planned.  Vacations involve a break in the routine, high stress of deadlines and flight times, and all that extended time spent with our loved ones: a perfect recipe to set us on edge.  It can be easy to use harsh words to those around us, feel anger or frustration at not being heard, or end the trip wishing we hadn't come.

I know this from personal experience: when you’re in the middle of a fight on a vacation, it's difficult to snap back into a relaxed, vacation-ready mood.  What are the things we can do that will help us to snap back into that mindset?

Preparing for a trip in a way that prevents arguments before they even start can help you avoid these travel-related spats with your loved ones.

John Gottman, an expert on healthy couples, suggests that we can learn from past arguments in order to prevent those same fights from happening in the future.  Gottman focuses on the way we argue: how our tone of voice, personal triggers, and ways of responding when feeling threatened can take over.

Instead of finding yourself in reactionary mode during your entire vacation, take a few ideas from the list below before you leave for your trip to practice a more preventative approach.

Reflect on arguments you’ve had on vacation before and look for any trigger events.

How many times have you thought back on an argument and forgotten what started it?  It could’ve been about something as trivial as which fast food restaurant to stop at for lunch or which route to take.  But before you know it, it’s blown up into a huge dispute that highlights your insecurities or fires up anger in you.

Your strong emotional reaction in these situations may be linked to something deeper than the relatively minor event that started the fight.  It serves as a red flag of a trigger: an event that reminds you of something from your past or present to which you are particularly sensitive.  It could be that your spouse raising her voice reminds you of when your father used to yell at you and your siblings on family camping trips.  This memory can lead to feelings of fear or anger.  Perhaps your friend’s sharp words about your driving remind you of your own insecurities around your skill as a driver.  This trigger could be driven by shame or self-protection.

What are some common triggers for you?  Take some time to reflect back on past arguments you’ve had on vacations and how you felt in the midst of them.  When did something similar happen on a past vacation with family or friends?  Did you notice any shame or insecurity coming up that you felt you had to defend?  What stories in your life explain why you might be sensitive to certain issues?

Have a conversation with your travel partner about past arguments you’ve had on trips. 

Once you’ve explored your triggers in travel situations, you can more clearly communicate them to others.   Before you leave for the trip you’re going on, answer these prompts based on Gottman’s Aftermath of a Fight intervention with your travel buddy.

  1. “When we argued last trip, I felt…” – List the emotions you felt.

  2. “In my experience, what happened was…” – Imagine you’re watching a movie of the event from your point of view. What happened?

  3. “This was particularly hard for me because of…” – Explain the trigger: the past event or the experience of shame that led to your response and why you were particularly sensitive to it.

  4. “The part I played in this was…” – Name something you can take responsibility for: maybe you responded with anger and defensiveness, or you shut down emotionally.

  5. “Next time, what I can do….and what I need is…” – Identify a change you’d like to make the next time you disagree, as well as a change you’d like to ask of your partner.

While practicing this exercise, use the authentic communication formula and responses in order for both of you to feel heard and understood.  Remember – the goal isn’t to get back into arguing: it’s to understand what can set each of you off so you can know to avoid those trigger points on future trips.

Have an open conversation about expectations for the trip and come to a compromise.

We each bring our personal expectations into vacations.  For example, a husband might see the trip as a way to relax and check out of his daily life.  But his wife might look at it as an adventure and pack in as much fun and activity as she can.  Imagine this couple vacationing without having discussed their expectations first, and you can guess what might happen.

To fend off this potential disaster, talk with your loved ones about your hopes or expectations for this vacation.  Be open to compromise.  For the couple above, they could plan two day-long excursions in their vacation locale throughout the week, while reserving one day for relaxing on the beach.  You may not have the ideal vacation you had desired, but you can create a plan that cuts back on conflict and caters to everyone's ideas of fun.

Accept the fact that you will fight – and make a plan to recover and bring yourself back to fun!

Even if you understand what triggers your travel buddy and you do all the prevention you can, in reality you may still fight while you are on the trip.  Travel is high stress – there’s no getting around it. 

Instead of being surprised by fights, make a plan now for how to recover from those arguments.  You can use the above conversation prompts on the trip if needed, but it can also be helpful to remind yourself of the ways you have fun together.  Make a joke with your spouse.   Play a game with your friends in the car or on your iPhones (a friend and I tried the Heads Up! App on a trip and it was a game-changer for waiting in lines).  Create a music playlist with your family and have 30-second dance parties.

What can you plan to start now to prevent arguments on your vacations this summer?

At Restored Hope, I know that relationships are tricky, and clear communication can be the trickiest.  As you prepare for your vacations this summer, you might find that none of the ideas listed above seem probable.  You could be struggling to understand how you get triggered in these arguments.  Or  it's possible the conflict with your spouse is so tense that having a civil conversation about expectations feels like it will end in an explosion.  If these stories ring true, I’d love to help.  Restored Hope is an Ann Arbor based counseling office where I use principles from Gottman Method Couples Therapy to help foster authentic and loving relationships, romantic or otherwise.  Give me a call at 734.656.8191 or fill out the form here to talk with me today.