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How to 'better argue' with your loved one

GRAND FORKS, N.D. -- Disagreement over little things can spiral into a battle between Amanda Nelson and Doug Chavis, but they have learned how to handle these "discussions" before they get too heated.

Doug Chavis and Amanda Nelson
Doug Chavis and Amanda Nelson try to deal with disagreements in a positive manner. "Most importantly," Nelson said, "try to remember that your relationship is more important than your individual pride."

GRAND FORKS, N.D. -- Disagreement over little things can spiral into a battle between Amanda Nelson and Doug Chavis, but they have learned how to handle these "discussions" before they get too heated.

"Most of our arguments seem to be a difference of opinion on the mundane, everyday stuff," said Nelson, who is from Northwood, N.D., and lives with her finance, Chavis, in Rosemount, Minn.

Most frequent points of contention are about "how something should be accomplished," Chavis said, like which route would be faster to drive or how to decorate a corner of the family room.

Underneath it all, their arguments represent "a need to be acknowledged by the other as having a worthwhile point of view," he said. "We want our perspective to be treated with respect."

Disrespectful behavior "can foster resentment and bitterness, fueling further conflict in a pointless effort to 'win' an argument or just to take out festering frustrations," he said. "A relationship cannot survive that dynamic for very long."

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Seek solutions

Couples need to remember that, when arguing, it's not about winning, said Luke Klefstad, licensed professional counselor at The Village Family Service Center in Grand Forks.

The biggest mistake people make is being intent on gaining a victory, he said. "They think, 'If I yell louder, or can persuade the other person to my side, so I feel I have won,' " that's the goal.

"We know there are healthier ways to disagree about things," and people can learn and put them into practice.

He says a better approach is "How do you reach a solution?" which emphasizes problem-solving and changing clients' perception and mindset. In counseling, he tries to shift couples' thinking away from unproductive impulses, toward better communication.

If an argument is getting intense, Chavis asks himself, "Is this worth it? Do I care enough about this to argue?" he said. If so, he will convey that, and "she can decide if it is likewise worth it to her."

If they both have strong feelings, he will "sometimes make a conscious decision ... to concede. Even if it's important to me, I sometimes just let it go ... because I love her and respect her."

Or, he will walk away "while communicating that this isn't over, oh no-sir-ee. I just need some space," he said. "That's always a good move if I'm nearing the point of no return on an emotional level.

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"I've never regretted walking away for five minutes. ... It's better to have a quick shout at the Christmas lights in the garage than at the woman who loves you and counts on you for love and respect ...

"I always feel terrible when I lose my composure. ... I don't regret feeling frustrated or angry; they're natural feelings. But I have regretted how I dealt with those feelings externally."

Different backgrounds

Nelson and Chavis "are both stubborn," she said.

"If one or both of us believes that our choice is preferable or correct, and particularly if it's a topic that one of us feels we have an emotional stake in, we're going to argue for it.

"The thing is, we're building a shared life together. ... We have very similar beliefs and want the same things out of life, but we have different personalities, temperaments and backgrounds -- different ways of getting there."

Growing up, each was exposed to different fighting "styles." Chavis was raised in a household where shouting was common, "and not necessarily in anger," he said. "That's how I learned to emphasize a point or be heard."

Nelson knew little of her parents' disputes, resolved less loudly behind closed doors.

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"It's funny because one of my biggest concerns earlier in the relationship was that we didn't seem to argue about anything at all," Chavis said. "I began to recognize she could be almost infinitely agreeable but then would sometimes seem passive-aggressive after the fact. ... I've encouraged her to speak out and be more assertive in the moment ...

"And now, for the better, I believe we argue as much as, or perhaps still a bit less than, the next couple."

Nelson said, "We'll argue more when there's more at stake, obviously, but that's just part of decision-making. ... We prefer to talk through things to a point of agreement. When you're in a respectful relationship, you can't make a decision in a vacuum."

If the disagreement is "a matter of perspective (and it almost always is), try to recognize it as such," she said. "It changes the whole conversation."

Never assume

Often a spouse "will assume (they know) what the other person is thinking or feeling," Klefstad said. "We try to get them out of that mode."

Never tell another person how they're thinking or feeling, he said. "Never say, 'You shouldn't feel that way.' "

If the person is obviously upset, it's better to say, "You look sad today; do you want to talk about it?" rather than "What are you crying for?"

"Telling someone how they should feel is a sure way to perpetuate the argument. It's assuming," he said. "That's where it can go downhill."

Such assumptions lead to "disappointment and frustration."

Watch intonation

Tone of voice has a big impact, he said. "It's about delivery. How you say something is as important as what you say."

When arguing, don't call each other names, he said. "When you call names, man, does that derail things quickly."

And don't use emotional blackmail with statements like, "If you loved me, you would (fill in the blank)," he said.

Make a conscious effort to avoid comments starting with "You always ..." or "You never ..." Instead, use "I" statements, he said. This way, "you tell the other person how (the behavior) is affecting you." For example, say, "I feel frustrated every day when I come home and you haven't cleaned up your mess."

Using "I" statements defuses defensiveness, he said, and makes the other person more open to talking about the issue.

Klefstad encourages clients "to try to start to understand where the other person is coming from," he said. "Empathy is huge. ... We try to get them to step back and put themselves in the other's shoes. That's opposite of the approach of someone who wants a victory."

Marathon battles

It's not uncommon to hear about couples who argue for hours, he said. "I tell couples, if they've been arguing for more than 20 minutes, they should stop and step back."

In such instances, someone is probably trying to gain a victory or has made assumptions. Couples "need to stop and recognize 'this is not really what we should be focusing on.' "

The bottom line, Chavis said, "is that we must learn to treat our partner with respect." If you don't, "it erodes the trust and respect your partner has in you. ... There comes a point when there is no 'getting back to good' without some serious intervention."

On the other hand, "each argument is a chance to strengthen the trust and respect you have in each other, even if you just agree to disagree."

"Most importantly," Nelson said, "try to remember that your relationship is more important than your individual pride."

Related Topics: FAMILY
Pamela Knudson is a features and arts/entertainment writer for the Grand Forks Herald.

She has worked for the Herald since 2011 and has covered a wide variety of topics, including the latest performances in the region and health topics.

Pamela can be reached at pknudson@gfherald.com or (701) 780-1107.
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