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The best way to argue with your partner, according to a psychologist who's studied couples for decades

Erin Brodwin
Couple joking

Arguments with your partner don't have to be devastating.

In fact, couples who follow two basic rules when they argue tend to stay together longer than couples who do not, according to research from University of California, Berkeley psychologist Robert Levenson and University of Washington psychology professor John Gottman.

Those rules include addressing disagreements quickly and approaching an argument with an open mind. Those two things are almost always easier said than done, but here are some easy ways to incorporate both into your relationship.

Stabilizing a rocking boat

Over 14 years, Gottman and Levenson studied nearly 100
married couples living across the Midwestern US. Among the couples they studied, roughly 20 divorced before the study's end. Comparing the pairs who stayed together with the ones who split up allowed the researchers to make some key observations.

First, they found that arguments could either be used positively to "stabilise a rocking boat" -- as Gottman called it during a call with Business Insider -- or they could be used negatively, potentially leading the vessel to capsize. If an argument quickly follows a disagreement, it can be used to stabilise the boat. On the other hand, an argument that blows up after hours, days, or weeks after an initial disagreement will send the boat rocking.

Couple

Gottman suggests talking with your partner immediately and openly about a disagreement. This requires recognising that both of you are partially responsible for the problem and both of you are responsible for making amends, he said.

A recent study of 145 couples published in the Journal of Counseling Psychology also found that couples who received trainings on how to address conflicts immediately and clearly felt more satisfied with their relationship a year down the road. Couples who didn't receive the training were also more likely to see their interactions deteriorate during the year they were reporting back to the researchers.

Going into it with an open mind

Gottman and Levenson also observed that the couples who divorced over the study period frequently had arguments that involved cutting each other off. Usually, the comments the individuals made to stop the conversation were unhelpful and insensitive, Gottman said.

"If you tell someone they're not being logical or say something like 'you're getting off track,' it just doesn't work. It makes people angry," he said.

On the other hand, couples who stayed together tended to approach an argument with a more open mind. Partners were usually willing to take responsibility for their actions and listen to what their partner had to say, Gottman said. Couples who do this might use language like, "I can see that this is really important to you; tell me more."

A 2010 study published in the Journal of Marriage and Family looked at the argument patterns of nearly 400 married couples. The results suggested that when both partners engaged "positively" during an argument -- meaning they discussed the topic calmly and made an effort to listen -- they were far less likely to divorce than couples in which one or both partners didn't exhibit positive engagement. Those results held steady as long as 16 years down the road.

So next time you feel an argument escalating, you might want to put one of these tactics to use. It could restore some calm to your relationship, or even help keep your boat from capsizing.

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