Ground Rules: Lines in the Sand

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Categories:  Life, Relationships
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Some people hate arguments, but they are going to happen in any long-term relationship. Get good at them or get ready to be unhappy. I’ve written my handy guide to arguing here and I hope it helps.

Are You Mad?

Don’t bring it up right away. Give yourself a couple minutes to think about what you’re feeling. Many arguments can be prevented entirely by just giving yourself a few minutes to cool off. Everyone has moments when they get mad over something minor. A person with good self control can keep those things from messing up an otherwise lovely evening.

Don’t dwell on the anger or think of ways to “win” the argument. Don’t dramatize it or let yourself get swept up in irrational emotion about the topic. The person you’re with is someone you love, so don’t get into the mind set that you’re fighting against each other. Your common goal is to coexist happily. If cooling off hasn’t made you feel better, continue.

Think of what the ideal goal of the impending argument would be. Consider how realistic that goal is and refine it. We want to make the goal as painless to achieve as possible, so try to condense it to the minimum it can be to satisfy you enough to end the argument. This can be anything from “have sex more often” to “stop calling me that nickname”. This goal is the most important part of the argument.

If you can’t think of a goal, you’re just venting. Tell your partner that you just need to blow off some steam before you begin. This will allow them to be a bit more objective and hopefully prevent them from feeling attacked. Tell them you just need them to listen for a little while and they don’t have to respond or defend themselves. Try to get it over with quickly and move on.

Next, we need to gauge the severity of the impending argument so we can choose our battles well. Is this topic important enough to:

  • Category 1: Ruin the next 30 minutes.
  • Category 2: Ruin your plans for the next hour or more.
  • Category 3: Ruin the rest of the day / Go to sleep angry.
  • Category 4: Possibly break-up.
  • Category 5: Zero tolerance event. Break-up inevitable.

Keep in mind that any argument you bring up is likely to piss your partner off to some degree. If you feel like you’re starting arguments too often, perhaps it’s time to re-think what is important to you in the relationship. Perhaps you’re starting fights because you subconsciously want out of it. Perhaps you’re taking out your stress from other aspects of your life on the person you love. Either way, you probably need to give yourself some more time to think about your relationship as a whole instead of picking another fight.

Category 1

If the argument isn’t worth the time it takes to have it, save yourself the time. If it is worth it, get it over with before it gets any worse.

Category 2

If you really want to enjoy the movie/restaurant/party you’re going to, just let it go. Otherwise, bring it up later or cancel your plans so you have enough time to focus on the discussion.

Category 3

It’s cliche for a reason. You don’t want to go to bed angry. You’ll get a shitty rest and you’ll feel shitty in the morning because you’ll probably have to go to work for 8 hours, run your normal errands for the day, and commute doing nothing but dreading when you get home and have to bring up the argument a second time. You should put effort in to resolve any argument before you go to sleep.

Category 4

Give yourself enough time to have a long conversation. Cancel plans and don’t start this one close to bedtime for the above reason. If things are this heavy, it can wait half a day. Don’t surprise your partner with it either. Let them know you want to talk to them about the relationship with some notice so they don’t make plans. This is going to be tough, but if it’s not Category 5 it’s worth it.

Category 5

No need to butter it up. Just tell them you want to break-up and walk away. You’re going to want to make them feel better about it by softening it up, but nothing you say will. They are going to be sad no matter how much you explain. Don’t draw it out, and use the rest of your day to move all your stuff out of their place and make arrangements for who gets to keep the couch you split.

Is He/She mad At You?

First, shut up and listen. You can’t make a proper response without know what they want. Make a point to let them talk until they run out of gas. Sometimes, they just need to vent and if you let them do it, they’ll be more likely to calm down and be more receptive for the remainder of the argument.

It’s probably inappropriate to keep paper notes of what they’re saying, but mental ones are very helpful. While they are speaking, listen carefully and make mental notes about the points of their argument that you want to respond to. This will keep you from interrupting and will allow you to express yourself in an orderly manner. Don’t only focus on the points you disagree with either. Pick out specific points they have that you agree with and tell them so.

If anything is missing from the opening statements, make sure you fill in the blanks. If you don’t know the goal of the argument they’re initiating, you will have nothing to contribute. And if there is no goal, then it’s not an argument. It’s someone complaining to you to make themselves feel better. If it’s loud or offensive, that’s verbal abuse.

Ask questions before you respond. Most of the time, the longer you wait to put forth your argument, the better off you both are. If he/she’s mad at you because you never do the laundry, ask her questions like “How often do you think I should do laundry?” or “Is there another chore I can do instead?” if you have an aversion to doing laundry.

If what they’re asking for is something you know you don’t want, put your foot down and be honest. Caving to peer pressure may make your partner happy, but you being miserable won’t. Don’t sacrifice too much of yourself or you’ll end up resenting them for it. That being said, don’t be stubborn for the sake of laziness or winning the argument either.

The Battle

Now that we’ve begun the argument, it is important to stay on track. Don’t allow the other person to derail the argument by changing the subject or bringing up unrelated issues to the one you’re currently trying to resolve. Keep the goal of the argument in mind and look for the fastest way to get to that goal. It’s not about winning, losing, or power.

Keep your voices down. If either of you feel like you’re getting too loud, apologize and lower your tone. Likewise, if the other person gets loud, politely ask them to lower their voice. This isn’t a football game, so intimidation should never be a factor. You either win together or lose together. When it’s over, you aren’t going to separate locker rooms to celebrate or weep. You’re on the same team.

Throughout the argument, there will be times where the goal might change. Making concessions is natural and helpful in resolving any issue. Keep in mind that the underlying goal of every lover’s quarrel is being mutually happy together. As obvious as it sounds, keeping in mind that the person you’re arguing with is the one you love is helpful.

If, despite all your best efforts, the argument gets too heated and emotional, take a 15 minute break. Go out on the front porch or balcony and breathe some fresh air. The last thing you want is to get too emotional and say something you don’t mean — or even worse, make it physical. Make sure you resume when the break is over and resolve things.

If you feel like the argument is getting off-track or taking too long, change it up. Sometimes you just won’t be able to come to an agreement using the current line of debate. Think of another way to reach the goal. If your options are exhausted, then you have reached an impasse.

Most likely, if you’ve followed this guide closely enough, you will eventually get to resolution. This will be marked by both people agreeing that the goal or goals of the argument have been reached.

The Results

Conflict Averted

Great job! You’ve displayed excellent self control and critical thinking by putting the issue in perspective and choosing not to bring it up. An averted argument is equivalent to letting go of anger, frustration, and stress, so you should feel good afterward. Make a point to kiss your partner just to give them a hint that they are appreciated and continue to enjoy your time together.


If both of you are tired of arguing and the goal hasn’t been reached, you’ve ended up here. Depending on the severity of the argument, things should be resolved as peacefully as possible. The defending arguer has decided not to compromise, but that doesn’t mean that they won.

Usually an impasse means no one wins, because the person that started the argument now feels like their feelings have not been recognized. If they chose their battle well, this subject was something important to them. If you are the defense, and we’ve reached this point, try to reach a settlement to soften the blow. Maybe you don’t want to take the trash out more often, but you can offer to do the dishes more often.

If the argument was Category 4+, it looks like it’s time to break-up at this point. Make sure that this result is truly enough to sever the relationship, but don’t chicken out for fear or loneliness. You only have so many years on this planet, so moving on from a situation that makes you unhappy is in your best interest. Try to be civil and make a clean break. It may not seem possible now, but if you’ve been honest with each other to this point, it is possible you may be friends someday, and there is no such thing as having too many friends.

If the argument was Category 3 or lower, just agree to disagree. Don’t hold each other in contempt over it, because at the end of it all, you’ve both decided that the issue was not important enough to ruin an otherwise rewarding relationship. It’s understandable if you’re both in a bad mood, but do your best to cheer up and move on. This may even be a good time for some angry sex, as it is an excellent stress reliever.

Mission Accomplished

Congratulations! You’ve both had a constructive argument. Now, change the subject, go out for drinks, or have some sweet make-up sex. Don’t let the argument’s aftershocks stagnate in a silent room. The mood will be lifted if the conflict has been resolved, so it’s time to get back to enjoying each other’s company.

This result may seem like the “prosecutor” has won, but in reality both of you won. A problem was brought up honestly and effectively by one of you and you got through it. Both of you should be happy that your relationship is important enough to both of you to compromise and change for its sake.

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