It's never a nice feeling. You're a few dates into your new relationship when you suddenly find yourselves embroiled in a disagreement. But before you succumb to that sinking feeling and accept this as the beginning of the end, it's important to take a reality check.
Yes, this could be a clear indication that something is fundamentally wrong and you'd be better off calling it a day before you get hurt. But it could also be part of getting to know one another better, and may simply serve to highlight an issue or sticking point that needs to be addressed sooner rather than later. Or it could just be a lot of fuss about nothing – the kind of silly little argument that will quickly blow over (as long as you let it).
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Have you been here before?
Chances are you're both carrying a certain amount of emotional baggage at this stage in your lives. And sometimes a new partner may say or do something that triggers a negative or over-the-top response because it reminds us of a past intimate or family relationship.
'Ask yourself if this feeling is familiar to you,' suggests integrative psychotherapist and couples counsellor Hilda Burke. 'Let's say you feel “put down” by your new partner. Is that a pattern for you? During conflict within our most intimate relationships, we often feel we're being wounded afresh. But what's really going on is that scabs are being pulled off unhealed wounds.
'So the challenge is to address and heal those old wounds. It's then possible to see relationships as they really are and to judge more accurately whether someone is a good fit for you.'
Keep things in the present
The way in which you handle yourself during this first argument can hold the key to a positive outcome. Of course, it's never a good idea to shout, shriek, swear or gesticulate wildly – no matter how frustrating you may find the situation. The trick is to stay calm – or at least appear to stay calm – and stop things from escalating by focusing on the present.
Remember, now is not the time to voice any other grievances you may have suffered in silence during the first few dates. 'If you didn't bring them up at the time, accept you've already made that choice and don't hold on to it,' Burke advises. 'Try to refrain from using the words “always” and “never”.
'If you can manage to slow down the speed of the argument, that can help enormously. Many of the couples I work with say everything happens too quickly and it's all a blur for them how their arguments escalate to such a destructive place.'
Should you lose face – or lose him?
If – despite your best efforts – the evening still ends on a sour note, it can be tricky to know what to do next. Perhaps you've decided this one definitely wasn't for you after all. If so, that's fine. Move on! But if your disagreement didn't fall into the 'irrevocable' category – and you're pretty sure you'd like the relationship to continue – there's little to be gained from sitting around waiting for him to make the first move.
Don't want to lose face? 'Ask yourself if it's more important for you to be right or to be in a fulfilling relationship,' says Burke. 'Often, our egos want to gain the upper hand and point-score from the other person. But acknowledging what you regret saying or doing during a heated exchange can help change the dynamic, and perhaps make it easier for him to do the same.'
Finally, it's worth noting that frequent arguments aren't necessarily bad for long-term relationships, according to researchers. A 2010 study, published in the Journal of Marriage and Family, looked at 373 married couples over a 16-year period. When both partners engaged positively during a disagreement – talking things through calmly and listening to each other's views – they were far more likely to stay together.
So the trick, it seems, is not to avoid arguments altogether, but to learn to argue effectively.
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