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The ground rules of good arguments

by Kelly Burch

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I’m an over-communicator who loves nothing more than to talk through all facets of a problem. My husband, on the other hand, is a stiff upper lip Brit who thinks talking about emotion is a drab American indulgence. To say that we have different communication styles is an understatement.

When we argue, it goes something like this: there is a disagreement, and I’ll say something along the lines of, “Well I just think—”

“I don’t want to talk about it right now,” he’ll reply.

“Well, I just want to say…”

“Can we please talk about this later,” he’ll insist.

I’ll storm off, everything I wanted to say swirling in my head, fed by righteous indignation that he didn’t want to communicate on my schedule. This pattern turns small disagreements into large arguments. Until I realized that mindfulness could break the tension.

Instead of stewing in frustration and taking it personally that my husband didn’t want to talk then and there, I now slip my earbuds in and allow my guided meditation sessions to calm the storm before it starts. This break allows me to respect my husband’s communication style and detach from my own emotional reaction to how it differs from my style.

Mindfulness has changed the way that we communicate (and argue) so profoundly that I wondered if other couples had experienced the same.

When couples argue, they often become more focused on proving themselves right rather than resolving the issue at hand.

“I knew I needed to make a better decision but didn’t know how to make that choice in the moment,” said Eileen Koenig*, 45, who has been married for 14 years. “I would wonder, ‘why can’t I put the brakes on before I say that mean thing.’”

After months of meditating with Headspace, Koenig found herself pausing before reacting to her husband during arguments, something that allowed her to hear what he was actually saying.

“I learned to take a pause and listen to what he said, and respond to what he said rather than to how I am feeling,” she explained.

That small halt allowed Koenig to break a cycle of dysfunctional communication within her family.

“When you grow up in a family where you fight, you become used to thinking chaos is the way. In the absence of chaos, in silence, I was angsty,” she said. “Learning that peacefulness was an option that was in my grasp allowed me to be more considerate in my responses to my spouse.”

It may seem obvious that mindfulness leads to better communication. However, both Koenig and I were surprised when the mindfulness practice we’d implemented in other areas of our lives also had a positive impact on our marital spats.

Perhaps that is because arguments—particularly between spouses—can be wild and emotional; there’s a reason we refer to them as blowups or outbursts. When anger swells up, our rationality can be left behind while our animal instincts take over.

And often times, when couples argue, the individuals find themselves digging in, becoming more focused on proving themselves right rather than resolving the issue at hand.

“People start blaming, accusing and projecting,” said Mary Berney, a mindful communication coach in San Diego. “What happens is they lose track of what the issue of concern is, and get entangled in the feelings and emotion and why they feel that way.”

Mindfulness communication starts with the simple tactic that Koenig and I both discovered: the pause. Or, as Berney called it: letting the tornado settle.

“The thing about mindfulness is you don’t open your mouth until you know what it is that you want to say. Mindful communication begins with feeling the emotion and sifting out the thoughts.”

Note that Berney didn’t say to suppress feelings of anger or other negative emotions.

“Part of being mindful is that you have to be able to feel the real anger and resentment,” she said. “Absolutely feel [those emotions], and then identify what you have to communicate about that. In order to bridge communication, each individual has to unpack what it is that [they’re] feeling. Ask, ‘what is it I’m responding to, what about that do I need to communicate so I can begin sharing the pieces of what’s important to me?’”

Berney suggested three ground rules for arguing effectively with a partner:

1.Breathe and pause. “In an argument, you’re on turbo speed,” she explained. Giving yourself a moment to slow down will allow you to focus on the real issue, rather than your knee-jerk emotional reaction.

2. Always use “I” statements. “This is about taking real ownership over the situation,” she said. Identify what you’re experiencing, what you’re reacting to, and what you’re hearing, and then allow your partner to work with you to move away from that space of conflict.

3. Keep it simple. Identify the problem at hand and focus on that, not any extra complications.

Mindful communication isn’t about glossing over problems or hiding emotion; it’s about exploring disagreements and breakdowns in communication in a way that is calm, kind and compassionate.

“You’re not skirting the issue or covering things up. You can be firm and clear, but in a way that takes full ownership,” Berney said. “Everyone is at different places and has different communication styles. That’s why compassion and kindness are key.”

Compassion, kindness, and, my personal favorite, the pause.

*Name changed.

The author of this post is an editorial contributor to Headspace. These are their views, experiences and results and theirs alone. This contributor was paid for their writing.

Kelly Burch

Kelly Burch is a freelance writer, sharing stories of mental health, family, and anything else that catches her interest. When she isn't lost in a story, she enjoys getting lost in the New Hampshire woods with her daughter and dog. Connect with Kelly at, on Facebook, and on Twitter @writingburch.