Is Arguing Healthy?

A visitor to my new web site emailed me that he and his wife argue quite a bit. Though it seems destructive in some ways, he says they always make up, with the problem solved. He asks if arguing is a constructive way to solve problems. 

At least one professional thinks marital arguments are just fine. Dr. Gail Saltz, a psychiatrist writing for and the ‘Today’ show online says, ‘Because your [spouse] is not your clone, your opinions will sometimes differ. How you negotiate those differences is predictive of how healthy a relationship you will have ‘ Arguing well can even result in further intimacy because it shows both of you that you can disagree yet find a way to compromise and still love each other.’

My own perspective is that arguing is not, in general, a desirable way to communicate. But when arguments DO happen, the key is to not say hostile things that you’ll later regret. Hurtful words cannot be taken back.

When you view arguments in hindsight, there are some advantages. You can sit quietly and ponder what your spouse’s errors are. A key example would be a mistaken assumption she has about what you think or feel. This allows you to go back and tell her, ‘I listened to what you’re saying. But I believe you’re operating on some mistaken assumptions about what I think, feel and do. May I tell you what those are?’

You can do this in your own words, but if it doesn’t work verbally, then try it in written form. Believe it or not, couples sometimes resolve painful differences by writing thoughtful letters back-and-forth. After both have had a chance to think about it, they can discuss the letters. Writing isn’t a perfect substitute for verbal communication, but it can help each partner be more rational and feel heard—minus interruptions and outbursts.

Dr. Saltz suggests, ‘Don’t insist on being right. It’s not about right or wrong. There are two sides to every story. The point is to find a position both of you can accept.’ I both agree and disagree. Sometimes there IS a right and a wrong. But your spouse is not your adversary. When adversaries disagree, they often go their separate ways. But loving partners are (hopefully) committed to resolving their differences. They assume that they WILL reach a conclusion in the spirit of mutual self-interest and love.

A devoted spouse should be open to the idea that his or her partner might even be right. If you respect the one you love, their point-of-view should matter. They could actually be right—what a radical concept! If more married couples took this idea seriously, the divorce rate would probably be cut in half.

I’m amazed by how many fighting couples throw around the word ‘commitment’ as if it’s somehow a mantra to solve everything. The word can give one a sense of phony moral authority without having to work for it. ‘Well, I’m committed. If you were committed, you would see my way!’ Sorry, that’s not what commitment means. It doesn’t mean getting mad or hurt when someone doesn’t see things your way. It doesn’t mean being righteously indignant, as if being understood and agreed with were somehow an entitlement. In fact, commitment means just the opposite. It means thinking, ‘My own point of view is, and should be, very important to me. But my partner’s point-of-view is equally important. If there’s a difference here, we’re going to find a resolution, no matter how long as it takes. We are BOTH entitled to a reasonable outcome.’

If that feels like duty and obligation, then why did you get married? Why do you love this person? There’s no law preventing you from living without a partner. You consciously chose your spouse. If you can’t muster up a mature dedication to resolving differences, then you have no business being in a relationship in the first place. Sorry, contradictions aren’t allowed. That’s not my rule—it’s just the way it is.

Dr. Saltz’ bottom line is this: ‘Disagreements in a marriage are necessary and healthy, but arguing well includes finishing your disputes in a constructive way.’ She makes a good point. Disagreements are necessary and a part of life. Something is wrong if you’re never feeling or expressing disagreement with your life partner. The key is in how you handle it.

Movies and TV are filled with images of couples fighting and then making up, both sexually and romantically. Though it’s a bit of a myth (and surely overplayed), at least the idea is right. To survive a disagreement and come back still in love is a sign of true commitment and genuine maturity on both sides. Maybe there needs to be a little destruction in order to clear the way for something better.