What are signs of unhealthy arguing?

In the final part of our five-day series of extracts from ‘Sex Educated’ - a one-stop-shop guide for parents and teens to all things sex, relationships, bodies, puberty, porn, gender, sexuality, anatomy, and so much more - sex educator and intimacy coach, GRACE ALICE Ó SÉ writes about healthy relationships
What are signs of unhealthy arguing?

An illustration by Ciara Coogan, in Sex Educated.

HOW much arguing is normal in a relationship?

First off, it is good to note that arguing is normal in a relationship. Disagreeing about things is not a bad sign, it can actually be a good thing if couples are comfortable speaking their mind and working things out. Even the most ‘perfect’ relationships (although there is no such thing) will feature arguments, so it is good to learn what pushes your arguing from ‘normal’ into ‘worrying’ territory.

Arguing can be unhealthy and problematic if it happens very regularly. This does not include little disagreements or good-natured squabbling. If you feel like you are having serious and/or upsetting arguments often, it could be a sign something is up.

Sometimes, a couple will go through a ‘phase’ where they will argue a lot but then won’t argue for a long time. This may be because there were other things going on in their lives at the time, for instance if they were over-stressed or tired and taking it out on each other.

Another sign of unhealthy arguing patterns is if you are always arguing about similar things, over and over, without anything truly being sorted out, or if it is always the same person starting the arguments (‘picking fights’).

On the other hand, it is also unhealthy if one person refuses to have difficult conversations and arguments, and they shut down and refuse to talk at the first hint of a disagreement. So in that case, funnily enough having no arguments at all can be a big issue in a relationship.

Arguing can be very unhealthy, distressing and even abusive if it becomes nasty, for example if it includes name-calling, threats, shouting, throwing things and/or physical violence. We can all lose our cool now and then and raise our voices or say something hurtful, but if this is a regular occurrence then that is a big red flag. A partner should also be willing to apologise and take responsibility for how they spoke or acted within an argument, whether it was in person or through a screen. If someone rarely or never does this, this is not healthy.

Grace Alice Ó Sé.
Grace Alice Ó Sé.

A very valuable lesson to learn is to argue with love. That probably sounds a bit strange, and it can take some practice, but it is an amazing skill to learn. It is all about having an argument with someone while still showing them that you respect them and care for them. Arguing with love does not mean you can’t express anger, frustration or sadness, it just means that you can express these emotions without using insults or deliberately trying to hurt the other person’s feelings. It focuses on the issue at hand rather than attacking each other’s character or personal traits.

Arguing with love can include pausing for a few seconds, gathering your thoughts, or leaving the room for a breather rather than reacting straight away, and coming up with a solution together. Arguing with love can include using ‘I statements’, e.g. “I felt really uncomfortable when you said that” rather than “Why would you say something so stupid?”.

We can try to do this with everyone in our lives, not just our significant others. We can replace the word ‘love’ with ‘respect’ or ‘kindness’ and it still means much the same thing. 

The aim is to be able to have disagreements, which as we mentioned are completely normal and natural, in a way that feels safe and respectful. 

Many of us do not grow up seeing this kind of arguing at home or around us, so it can be quite hard to get the hang of. It takes quite a bit of patience, empathy and a lot of trial and error, but it really pays off in the long run and is a core part of healthy relationships. So on top of the other fantastic things you can do, you can become skilled at arguing, a very underrated and underdeveloped skill among us humans.

More about the guide ‘Sex Educated’

The information above was taken from Chapter 9 of Sex Educated, which explores all different kind of relationships, including the relationship we have with ourselves.

‘Sex Educated’ is a one-stop-shop guide for parents and teenagers to all things sex, relationships, bodies, puberty, porn, gender, sexuality, anatomy, and so much more. The book is a collaboration between Sexual Health West and sex & intimacy specialist Grace Alice Ó Sé (graduate of NUI Galway and UCC), illustrated by Ciara Coogan. It comprises of hundreds of questions that have been put to Grace and her fellow sex educators by young people in schools all over the West of Ireland. It is written in an accessible, comprehensive and sex positive Q&A style, allowing readers to dip in and out of the content as they need it.

Sex Educated can be bought from sexualhealthwest.ie. Illustrations featured are by Ciara Coogan.

More about the author

Grace Alice is a sex educator and intimacy coach from Kerry. She delivers workshops in schools and universities, as well as working privately with adults and couples. For more see gracealice.com.

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