The Difference Between A "Healthy" & An "Unhealthy" Argument

Photographed by Lula Hyers.
Some people say that happy couples never argue — but we all know that isn't the case. Partners argue throughout the course of their relationships. And while having a spat here and there doesn't necessarily mean your relationship is doomed, how you and your partner communicate when things heat up can change your relationship.
So how can you tell the difference between a healthy, productive argument and one that's potentially poisonous? "A healthy argument has an 'endgame' in sight," says Jane Greer, PhD, a New York-based relationship expert and author of What About Me? Stop Selfishness From Ruining Your Relationship. "There is a reason why you're fighting, a problem you're trying to resolve." Healthy arguments are also less about anger and more about disagreements of certain values between you and your partner — be it where you'd like to live, or how you'd like to raise children.
But the most important indicator of a healthy argument is how both parties behave. "There's no belittling, devaluing, name-calling, or insulting your partner," Dr. Greer says. "Both parties are able to listen, to problem-solve, to compromise. You can relate to your partner's needs and acknowledge that you want them to be happy." Compromise seems to be the most important aspect of all of this, Dr. Greer says. Your ability to recognize the fact that you'll have to let go of some of what you want (and so will your partner) will keep your fights clean.
Arguments turn unhealthy when all of the above goes out the window, and things turn ugly. "In unhealthy arguments, people get defensive and critical," Dr. Greer says. "They start to place blame on the other partner, which is never a healthy situation to be in." The hallmark of an unhealthy argument is when one partner starts saying the word "you" a lot. "You did this. You did that. It's your fault."
Unhealthy arguments can spiral, because there's never really an end goal in sight. "You wind up having what I call the 'never-ending argument,'" Dr. Greer says. This happens when you and your partner refuse to acknowledge or respect what the other person wants, and cannot find that middle ground of compromise. So you argue until you can't argue anymore, and then let the fight go unresolved. Then, a few weeks later, one person forgets to take out the trash, and it can dredge up these feelings of unease. "All of the anger and resentment from the bigger issue comes bubbling out over something trite and meaningless, and you're then stuck in this never-ending loop," Dr. Greer says.
In order to turn a fight from unhealthy to healthy and break the cycle of the never-ending fight, Dr. Greer suggests taking a break — with one caveat. "You and your partner need to acknowledge the fact that you want the other person to be happy, set a time to revisit the conversation, and stick to it," Dr. Greer says. "That way, things aren't left open-ended." During the break, figure out the points in which you're willing to compromise — and you will have to compromise — instead of figuring out how to get your partner to come over to your side, which is a fool's errand. Once you two sit down and talk again, remember that your partner's happiness is just as important as your own. "You'll be able to get some resolution if you rank your partner's contentment within the situation as highly as your own," Dr. Greer says.
And if you two still can't figure things out on your own, there is zero shame in looking to outside help. "Couples feel there is a stigma around going to therapy, but it's one of the healthier things two people can do in a relationship," Dr. Greer says. If the most important thing to you is keeping you and your partner happy in this relationship, then a visit to a therapist can be the best thing for you. A therapist can also help you two figure out how to argue in a healthier way — so that future disagreements don't have to end in bickering. Keep your eye on the prize, and both of you will emerge as winners.

More from Sex & Relationships

R29 Original Series