Couples disagree. That's a fact of life -- but there's a right way and a wrong way to air your grievances.
Just as it does with boxers in the ring, a fair fight between partners starts with a few ground rules.
"Each fight has the potential to be a learning experience rather than a war that builds a wall of anger," says Sharon M. Rivkin, author of "Breaking the Argument Cycle: How to Stop Fighting without Therapy" ($14.95, GPP Life). "With ground rules, there is a better chance for the couple to understand each other, hear each other, resolve the argument and actually build more intimacy."
Mutually agreed-upon ground rules give disagreements structure and prevent minor arguments from blowing up into free-for-alls of blame, shame and hurt feelings.
The next time tensions flare, remember these time-tested tenets:
*Agree to disagree.
You won't always come to a quick resolution or find common ground. Accept this fact upfront, and choose your battles wisely.
"Agreeing to disagree is often the best way to defuse what could easily turn into a blowup," says Brenda Della Casa, author of "Cinderella Was a Liar: The Real Reason You Can't Find (or Keep) a Prince" ($21.95, McGraw-Hill). "While it is important that you both agree on the big, important stuff, it's really a waste of time to argue about trivial things, such as the best way to get to a location or whether your first date happened on a Tuesday or Saturday."
*Choose your words wisely.
Refrain from name-calling, swearing and making personal digs. Also, keep the criticism and blame to yourself; focus on finding a solution instead.
"Speak to your mate the same way you would speak to a colleague," Della Casa says. "You wouldn't dare curse or scream at a co-worker, so what makes you think it's OK to rage at your spouse?"
*Don't try to be a mind reader.
Wait for the other person to explain him or herself before jumping to conclusions.
"Telling your partner how they think and feel using the classic 'you always' preface is going to throw them on the defensive, which rarely leads to a resolution," Della Casa explains.
When it's your turn to talk, focus on your feelings rather than on finding fault. Use "I" statements, and avoid sweeping generalizations, such as "always" and "never."
*Stay on topic -- and leave the past in the past.
Ask yourself, "What is it I'm really upset about?" Then focus on finding a solution.
"If every time you're upset you mention a long list of past grievances, you're always going to have ammo but never going to find a solution," Della Casa says.
*Keep some perspective.
Make a distinction between the action and the person. You may not like it when your husband leaves his dirty socks strewn about the floor, but you still love the man.
"Your mate is going to disappoint and upset you throughout your life together, but good people make mistakes all the time," Della Casa says. "Try to focus on what upset you about their choices and not who they are as a human being."
*Take a timeout.
If the argument delves into dangerous waters, snap out of it! Take a breather to calm down and reflect on the content of the argument, and consider your own part in the dispute.
"It takes two to fight," Rivkin says. "One of the main ground rules should be that each person tries to take responsibility for their part in the fight."
Revisit the issue only once you're both cool and collected -- even if it's the next day. Contrary to conventional wisdom, it's OK to go to bed angry.
"Sometimes sleeping it off is exactly what you need to do," Della Casa says.
*Remember, it's not a contest.
There is no winner. There is no right and wrong.
"Too many couples get caught up in the ego stroke of being right when it's more important to be happy," Della Casa says. "Happy couples are those who understand that relationships are made up of two individuals and that two people aren't always going to be on the same page."