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My boyfriend and I get into horrible fights, so how do we learn to argue better?

Ask Roe: There are ways to resolve this problem and chief among them is being prepared to talk out your difficulties

Dear Roe,

I’m a woman and have been with my boyfriend for four years. He is kind, thoughtful, funny and shares the same values as I do. We want to get married and have children and I think he’ll be an amazing father, but there is one thing holding me back. We don’t argue too often, but when we do, it’s horrible. Nothing abusive or physical or anything, but small things seem to escalate until he becomes completely defensive and blaming before shutting down on me, while I’m emotional and feeling completely panicked that this is a sign we shouldn’t be together. Fights can go on for days because neither of us can manage to find the right way to start a conversation that doesn’t make it worse. Neither of us grew up with great role models for relationships. My Dad was never in my life and his parents split up when he was in his teens after years of fighting, and he agrees that he doesn’t want us having kids if we’re going to inflict this type of arguing on them. I want to be with him but need us to get better at fighting and communicating but don’t know where to start.

First things first: each of you get yourself a therapist. It sounds like both of you had different difficult situations growing up where there wasn’t a parent around or there weren’t healthy dynamics being displayed by parents, and both of these situations could be affecting you both as individuals and as a couple. It may be too simplistic to presume that not having a father around may have left you with some abandonment issues that cause you to panic at the first sign that someone is unhappy with you and that seeing his parents fight so much causes him to shut down around conflict as a defence mechanism, but there are possibilities there worth exploring. Even for you as individuals, it would be worth exploring how you both feel during conflicts so you understand what you need to feel safe and to look at how you can begin to work on feeling connected and able to communicate even when upset — and these are skills that will help you in all facets of your life, not just your relationship conflicts. Examining things like attachment theory may also help (though please only use it as a tool with which to understand yourself a little more and examine tools that might be helpful, not as a be-all-and-end-all diagnosis for your life, as social media might encourage you to do.)

Then, attending some couples counselling might help explore what patterns you and your boyfriend are getting stuck in. From the limited information you’ve given, it sounds like three things, in particular, might be helpful for you to explore while arguing: more generous communication; taking breaks; and scheduling time to repair.


More generous communication looks like communicating more than you are now, and making your communication open-hearted, curious and generous in its assumptions about the other person, which can help diffuse blame and panic. One technique that vulnerability researcher Brené Brown often speaks about is being clear and honest about the narratives we are constructing in our heads when we are feeling anxious, insecure or underappreciated. Stating these narratives aloud can help us not only recognise what is going on inside ourselves, but help our partner understand the source of our feelings and correct our assumptions before we spiral. For example, you could say, “We’ve felt a bit disconnected and the story I’m telling myself is that you are angry at me/bored with me/aren’t attracted to me and that’s making me anxious.” This is a communication technique that not only requires us to slow down and recognise what situations we are escalating in our minds but requires a generous vulnerability — it’s a vulnerability that allows the other person to understand what’s going on and bring their perspective to the table, instead of assuming ill intent.

Other ways of using generous communication involve entering interactions by giving your partner the benefit of the doubt, assuming good intentions, and communicating from there. Helpful statements might include, “I might be misinterpreting this. What was your thought process when you said/did that?”; “I know you would never intentionally try and hurt my feelings. Can you help me understand where you were coming from?”; or “I believe you weren’t trying to say/do something that would create distance but my feelings are hurt. Can we talk about this calmly and figure out what happened?” These types of phrases are ways of reminding you and your partner that it is you two against the problem, rather than you two against each other. (An unfortunate caveat: these phrases only work when both people are genuinely trying to be good to one another and do not apply to repeatedly manipulative, cruel or abusive people.)

Another thing to think about is taking breaks when conflicts escalate or seem to be stalling. It sounds like you and your boyfriend have very different ways of reacting to conflict, and taking a break so that you can both gather your thoughts, take a walk, journal, or even push yourself to get into a more generous mindset might be helpful. If you get very anxious and panicked during conflicts, this may feel difficult for you, so setting a concrete time and place to reconnect and restart the conversation will be important — you can’t just both leave the situation without a plan to return. Could you both practise saying, “I think we need to take a break and calm down. Can we come back to the couch in an hour/talk in the kitchen this evening at 6pm before dinner?” Agreeing on a specific time and a specific place will help remove any potential confusion or power plays of, “Well I was in the sittingroom all evening, you could have come in at any time!”

During your break, consciously do something that will help you regulate your emotions and get clear on your aims for the ensuing conversation which, again, should not be to compete with each other, but to understand each other.

After you have a hopefully healing conversation, try to schedule some quality reconnection time, like taking a walk together, cuddling, dancing, or asking each other a question that makes you feel connected again. Apps like Agape or question card desks like those designed by The School Of Life or Esther Perel can be nice to have on hand for these types of reconnecting conversations. This type of repair ritual can be really important, as you’re not just overcoming the conflict, but marking a mini recommitment to each other in the moment. One thing I wonder is, given your respective childhood situations, whether either of you ever saw adults reconnecting and repairing after a rupture. Often, parents will fight in front of children but apologise and make up in private, which can leave children without a sense of stability or without a script for what a repair can look like after a rupture. It might be very healing to consider how you want to repair fights with each other, and in the future, what kind of repair rituals you want to model for your children.

There’s obviously a lot of love and desire for shared care and development between you. I think you’ll be fine.