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Quick and simple ways to resolve arguments and tension in relationships

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Has your temper ever got the best of you in your relationship? We know it has for us.

Sometimes we snap at our partners, fuel a pointless argument and immediately regret it. Likewise, our partners can get a chip on their shoulders, spit out a few unkind words and even make us cry. 

It may sometimes feel like you're the only couple in the world who's fighting, but arguments are a natural part of every relationship. The difference is, some handle it better than others. 

For example, blogger Joanna Goddard's husband has a brilliant way of defusing his rage when they're in the thick of it. Relationship psychologist, John Gottman who has studied thousands of couples over decades, says an elderly couple he once met made "squabbling look fun". 

From scientific research to advice from long-term couples, we round-up six quick and easy ways proven to defuse a row or period of tension. Even if you feel like it's the last thing you want to do in the midst of an argument, trust us, you'll come out feeling valued, listened to and most importantly smiling once again.

During an argument…

Say "I love you"

In 2012, lifestyle blogger Joanna Goddard shared the brilliant story of how her husband Alex, now of five years, tackles conflict: "If we're in an argument, he says, 'I love you' right in the middle. It's amazing."

Alex says, "One of the most important things is that when you're having an argument, instead of ratcheting up the emotion, you diffuse it. In the middle of a fight, say, 'I love you; you're the most important person in the world to me,' even if at that moment, those words are the hardest ones to choke out because you're so mad. It reminds you both of the big picture. It doesn't make it instantly better, but it takes it down a notch. And in the cool-down period afterward, you're not left questioning. You know everything is going to be ok. Half an hour after the fight, it's over and you feel good".

Hug your partner

"Touch is the most basic way of connecting with another human being. Taking your partner's hand when she is nervous or touching his shoulder in the middle of an argument can instantly defuse anxiety and anger," says pyschologist and author Sue Johnson, who has researched and counseled more than a thousand couples over 35 years.

A 2003 questionnaire of 300 university students found that resolving conflict was easier with romantic physical affections such as cuddling, kissing on the lips and hugging, because it helped them feel more loved and understood.

Paul Zak, a pioneer in the field of neuroeconomics, has also found that hugs trigger happier emotions. When we hug the levels of neurotransmitter oxytocin, which is commonly referred to as the 'love' or 'trust' hormone, rises significantly. In a Ted talk in 2011, Zak explained that after only 20 seconds of hugging a romantic partner, one can achieve a spike in oxytocin levels, as well as a decrease in blood pressure, heart rate, and cortisol levels (the stress hormone).

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Make a joke about yourself

In his book The Relationship CureJohn Gottman pulls together over four decades of research from over 3,000 couples. He recalls: "I was sitting at a coffee shop once when I witnessed a brilliant example of an elderly couple’s conflict resolution. They were sitting next to me when the husband accidentally knocked a cup of water over the table and onto his wife. As he got up to get some napkins, his wife announced to everyone: “He’s been doing this to me for twenty-three years!” And as the husband gently cleaned off the spill on his wife, he turned to us and said: “She deserves it!” His wife laughed. He laughed. We all laughed."

Couples who are good at handling conflict, make "squabbles look like fun," says Gottman. "It’s not that these couples don’t get mad and disagree. It’s that when they disagree, they’re able to stay connected and engaged with each other. Rather than becoming defensive and hurtful, they pepper their disputes with flashes of affection, intense interest and mutual respect.”

Making fun of yourself or lovingly teasing your partner can help to relieve tensions, says Jeremy Shermon a specialist in psychology and decision theory. "The simple solution is to tease only about those things your partner can laugh at with you. That requires some trial and error learning during which you’ll come across as insensitive sometimes. But live and learn you eventually figure out how to tease only when it relieves rather than raises tension."

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Remember, you don't have to agree or disagree

Arguments are often caused when you find yourself not understanding a view or method your partner lives by, whether it's a political opinion or the way the kitchen is cleaned. You might find yourself getting defensive and feeling frustrated. But it's worth remembering that you are entitled to different opinions. 

New York Times bestselling author of The Surrendered Wife, Laura Doyle, has been married to her husband for 24 years and says the secret lies in the art of listening: "I don't always have to agree with my husband, but I prefer to honour him and his decisions by listening to him," she says. "I've learned the phrase, 'I hear you.' It doesn't mean I agree or disagree. It just means I'm listening. And the first duty of love is to listen." 

An alternative to "I hear you" could be "I'm listening" or "Sure, that's one way of looking at it".

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Refrain from saying these five things...

"What's wrong with you"
"I'm sorry if you feel that way, but..."
"Why are you getting so upset?"
"I always...You never..."
"I don't mind"

Earlier this year we collated research and tips from leading psychologists and relationship therapists that identify the five expressions that trigger conflicts. Words are powerful things and certain phrases serve as a conduit to spreading blame and defensiveness. Not only do they obstruct the process of listening and compromising, they also create a repetitive cycle that gnaws away at intimacy and understanding. It's best to cut these phrases right out of your vocabulary when you feel your temper brewing.

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...Instead, apologise or forgive right away

Gary Chapman, author of New York Times bestseller The Five Love Languages has learned a thing or two from his 45 years of marriage to wife Karolyn. On the topic of forgiveness, Chapman says, "It's a choice. You either choose to forgive, or hold it against them. If you choose to hold it against them, the relationship doesn't go forward. If you choose to forgive, it opens the door to possibility that the marriage can continue to grow. The decision to forgive can be made in an instant, even if the emotions might take a while".

On apologies, he says, "Typically, if people apologise at all, they say, 'I'm sorry.' For some people, that doesn't really communicate sincerity. Learning what the other person considers an apology is important, so that if you are going to apologise, you can do it in a way that's meaningful to them and communicates sincerity to your partner".  

Image: still from Disney's Up, Rex features, ThinkStock

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