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Loud Arguments: Okay or a Sign of Trouble?

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Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD - Blogs
By Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhDPsychologistFebruary 18, 2015
From the WebMD Archives

Does the house shake when you and your partner argue? If so, you may wonder whether this is a problem, especially given all the advice out there that couples need to communicate in a caring manner. The short answer is that loud arguments don’t necessarily mean that your relationship is in trouble, or at risk for being in trouble.

A much more important factor than volume is the tone of your fighting. Relationship researcher John Gottman differentiates two kinds of highly emotional couples: volatile and hostile.

While volatile couples act like passionate teammates who care deeply about each other, hostile couples seem to be more like they are on enemy teams. This difference is apparent in how they argue:

Passionately sharing versus nasty attacking: Partners in volatile couples pour out their thoughts and feelings about a given topic in a passionate manner. By contrast, partners in a hostile couple are insulting to each other and look for ways to degrade their partner. So, for volatile couples, arguing is a battle between ideas, but for  hostile couples it’s a “battle to the death.”

Working toward resolving conflict versus trying to win: Volatile partners fervently express their differences, but they don’t lose sight of caring about their partner. People in hostile relationships, however, see their partner from a less than kind perspective. They are critical of them and can even be contemptuous. If they feel they are in a no-win situation, they become defensive and withdraw emotionally.

The difference between volatile and hostile couples can also be seen in how they interact in general:

Open versus defended:Partners in volatile couples are genuine with each other, allowing themselves to be vulnerable. They truly listen to each other as they share both positive and negative feelings. Partners in hostile couples are much more detached. They protect themselves against each other, tend not to really listen to each other, and are indirect, misleading or minimalist in their communication with each other.

More positive versus more negative in their interactions: Gottman found that volatile couples tend to have 5 positive interactions for every 1 negative interaction. Hostile couples not only had fewer positive interactions, but they had even more negative interactions than positive ones!

The most important takeaway from these distinctions is that you and your partner can have a very healthy relationship while being as passionate and emotive as you want. The caveat to this, however, is that being so expressive must be comfortable for both of you. If it’s not, then you must work through your differences in style. No matter the situation, the message is the same: you and your partner must work as a team. As long as you both express respect and sensitivity even at the height of conflict, you can enjoy a happy, healthy relationship.

Entries for the Relationships blog are for general educational purposes only. They may or may not be relevant for your particular situation; and they should not be relied upon as a substitute for individual professional advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you need help for an emotional or behavioral problem, please seek the assistance of a psychologist or other qualified mental health professional.

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About the Author
Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD

Dr. Becker-Phelps is a licensed psychologist in NJ and NY, and is on staff at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital, Somerset. She is dedicated to helping people understand themselves and what they need to do to become emotionally and psychologically healthy. She accomplishes this through her work as a psychotherapist, speaker and writer. She is the author of Bouncing Back from Rejection and Insecure in Love.

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