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How to argue – 9 rules for smart fighting

How to argue smart - 9 rules on how to 'fight clean' MAIN

Whether it’s Christmas stress or end of year exhaustion it’s that time of year where everyone is slightly more tetchy than usual. Marital therapist Andrew G. Marshall explains the golden rules of how to ‘fight clean’

How do you cope with an argument? Do you have a fiery temper and a tendency to fly off the handle? Or do you shy away from arguments and keep things all bottled up? Healthista’s got the love advice from the expert that might just save those relationships.

We spoke to marital therapist and love guru, Andrew G. Marshall about how best to fall out (and back in) with our partners so that we can come out the other end without sleeping on the villa porch. Marshall revealed his golden rules for fighting clean. Now we can air our grievances calmly and rationally (okay, some of the time) so that we don’t explode into unresolved-argument-city.

Rule #1 Watch your wording

Certain words don’t bode well when fighting with a partner. ‘Get rid of words like ‘always’ and ‘never’ because you know that your partner is going to be able to come up with the one time that they actually did buy you flowers,’ advises Marshall. Other words to avoid include ‘must’ and ‘should’ – ‘they always get people’s backs up,’ he said.


Another way to word things better in a fight is to use ‘I’ statements instead of ‘you’ statements. ‘You should say ‘I feel angry’ rather than ‘you make me feel angry’ because that’s just going to make your partner angry and defensive too,’ explained the therapist. ‘Own your half of the argument. Own what you’re doing and don’t blame the other person. For example saying, ‘I know I’m angry and I’m raising my voice,’ would immediately make your partner feel a bit calmer.’

Rule #2 Pick one issue at a time

When your partner has done something that niggles you, going in there full steam and throwing around a million different accusations isn’t going to do you any good. If you’re arguing over what to have for dinner and he still hasn’t washed the car, maybe just leave the latter for later and fight the first battle.

 it’s important to avoid exaggerated statements that are intended to hurt the person we’re falling out with

‘You should address one issue at a time,’ explained the love expert, ‘if you’re talking about one issue but you have seven other issues floating around at the same time, you’re less likely to sort it – so stick to one subject in an argument.’

Rule #3 Fit in some flattery

You might be wondering what place a compliment has in a heated discussion with your partner but Marshall says it’s a crucial tool employed by good arguers. It’s important to avoid exaggerated statements that are intended to hurt the person we’re falling out with but to keep the tone positive.


‘Really skilled arguers disagree with the other person but still add words of reassurance and even compliments along the way… for example, ‘you’re a really good listener, so could you please try and understand…’, ‘you’ve made a good point there but…’ and ‘I really value your opinion but…’, this way you’re mending the relationship even though you’re in the middle of an argument.’

Rule #4 Don’t expect them to read your mind

If your partner has done something that niggles you – let them know when and where it happens. Marshall uses an example, ‘If you tell your partner you’re annoyed that they didn’t put petrol in the car, they might go away and put petrol in the car. If you don’t tell them at the time but one day when you fall out, you tell them that you were really angry with them back in 1985 when they didn’t put petrol in the car – what can they do about it then?’

Rule #5 Have a sideways conversation

This technique is for the big niggles that have been bugging you about your partner for a while. If you need to have it out with them, Marshall suggests having a sideways conversation – this basically means having your argument at the same time as doing something else.

‘If you’re on a car journey somewhere, you’re not having to look at each other which could increase the anger, plus they’re less likely to go storming off. Or if you’re doing a job together like gardening, it gives them some thinking time, they can go off and water a couple of plants and then come back to it, rather than expecting them to sit down, right now and answer this immediately.’

couple arguing in car, golden rules of fighting clean healthista

There’s one place the love guru suggests definitely NOT having an argument. ‘I wouldn’t argue in the bedroom – I don’t think that’s a very good place to have an argument. After all, it’s where you make love.’

Rule #6 Make an appointment to argue

If an issue has been brewing all day long, Marshall suggests addressing it before you go to bed ‘unless it’s 3am… an argument just before you’re about to go to sleep is never a good idea,’ (see the bedroom rule above).

You don’t instigate arguments because that suggests you’re fishing for an argument

And if it is 3am or you just don’t have the time or energy to talk about it that day? Easy. Book in your partner for a quarrel another day. ‘Make an appointment to talk about it. Say something like ‘the atmosphere between the two of us has been really bad. I know it’s late at night, shall we talk about it tomorrow?’ They might say, ‘tomorrow isn’t good for me. Let’s do Saturday 5pm.’’

Rule #7 Don’t start an argument, accept an invitation

If you have a problem with your partner and you want to be active about it then tell them you have an issue. But according to Marshall, that’s very different from starting an argument with them. ‘You don’t instigate arguments because that suggests you’re fishing for an argument,’ explained the therapist.

clock, golden rules of fighting clean by healthista
Can’t argue right now? Pick another time to do it

‘You’ll get thousands of invitations for arguments every day and most of the time, you’ll avoid them. If you want to bring something up, next time you get an invitation, accept it and head it out. I don’t think you need to instigate them… it’s a bit childish to just pick an argument with somebody. The adult thing to do is to say ‘I’ve got a problem with this, can we talk about it.’’

Rule #8 Don’t play the victim

When it comes to falling out, Marshall explains that we should own our own material and our half of the argument. ‘Don’t play ‘find the bad guy’. In most arguments, we’re trying to say ‘I’m a good guy and you’re a bad guy’.

But in reality, it’s about thinking what you can both do differently, rather than pointing the finger and laying the blame… who wants to live with the person that thinks it would all be perfect if their partner did everything they said?’ (But it would, wouldn’t it?)

Rule #9 Change the way you think

An argument isn’t the end of the world – Marshall says the key to fighting clean, is to realise this. ‘If you think the argument is going to end the relationship then you’re probably going to avoid arguing and bottle it up until you explode.’

Don’t play ‘find the bad guy’

Instead, the relationship expert reveals that we should think of an argument as an inevitable consequence of two people living together. ‘If you realise that there is a chance for you both to sort things out, learn and do things differently then not only is arguing a natural part of living together but actually from time to time getting everything up to the surface and sorting things out can actually be quite helpful.’

As it happens, most of the people that wind up on Marshall’s couch are the couples that never argue, ‘I like to say that having an argument a day, keeps the marital therapist away… a good argument finishes with a couple deciding they’re going to do something differently.’

Andrew G Marshall, How to deal with a breakup by healthistaAndrew Marshall is the UK’s best-known marital therapist and has thirty years experience helping couples fall back in love. His self-help books include the international best-seller I Love You But I’m Not In Love With You.

He leads a team of therapists in London offering tailor-made practical solutions for couples looking to repair the marriage or improve their love life by getting back the spark.

Marshall’s new book Can We Start Again Please? Twenty questions to fall back in love (Marshall Method Publishing) is available to buy for £6.99 here

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