Raise your hand if you want to be in a toxic relationship. Nobody? OK, well, in that case, you might want to learn how to pick your battles. Sure, most of us have already heard this piece of cliché advice at one point or another. But, unlike much of the vague and unhelpful relationship tips we offhandedly receive from friends and family, mastering this skill can make a real, positive impact on your relationship.
“One of the worst things I see in my practice is couples who are in chronic high conflict,” says Los Angeles-based couples therapist Gary Brown, Ph.D. “Inevitably their relationships become toxic, because almost everything becomes an argument or an all-out fight. You want to learn how to pick your battles. You need to know which ones are worth fighting and which you simply need to walk away from.” But how? I understand this advice in theory, but the fact of the matter is when I’m heated about something my partner did, I find it near impossible to determine in the moment whether or not that thing is worthy of a battle.
Next time you find yourself in that situation, practice these six expert-approved tips.
1. Take time to mull the incident over.
Remember this isn’t some sort of high-stakes game show where you need to make a decision right then and there. If you can’t determine whether or not a battle is worth it, Anita Chlipala, LMFT, founder of Relationship Reality 312 and author of “First Comes Us: The Busy Couple’s Guide to Lasting Love,” recommends taking some time to sort through your thoughts. In the heat of the moment, your mind is likely in fight-or-flight mode, which inhibits your ability to look at the situation with any sort of objectivity.
2. Put the incident in context.
Once you’ve gotten yourself out of fight-or-flight mode and are able to look at the situation more objectively, Chlipala suggests asking yourself two questions.
First, is the issue at hand a recurring theme in your relationship? “If this is a pattern and it [consistently] bothers you, then have a conversation with your partner,” says Chlipala. According to research conducted by the Gottman Institute, 69% of relationship conflict fits into this category. Refusing to deal with these problems can transform even small tiffs into what Chlipala describes as “very painful issues” down the line.
That being said, if the source of conflict is new, Chlipala recommends trying to let it go — at least for the time being. “It’s exhausting to have to check everything out with your partner, and you don’t want them feeling like they’re under a microscope,” she says, noting that the act of moving forward is often easier for couples who already have a baseline of positivity in their relationships.
If it does appear the incident is indicative of a pattern, Chliapala advises you to reflect on who your partner was when you first started dating. “You have to accept certain things about your partner knowing that they’re not going to change too much,” she says. For example, if you’re upset that your partner was sort of ignoring at the last party you attended because they were more focused on being the center of attention, ask yourself if it’s that same sort of charisma that drew you to them in the first place.
3. Determine whether this is a “battle” or a conversation.
If the behavior is indeed part of a pattern, consider asking for a small behavior modification — not every little fight needs to be a full-on, high-stakes battle. Coming to this conclusion ultimately strengthened 26-year-old Morgan’s relationship. “I would get anxiety bringing up how I felt when something was bothering me early on in my relationship, because I thought it would inevitably turn into this volcanic fight,” she says. “But because my partner, Rob, is such a good listener, I realized that if I reframed my perception and viewed these conflicts purely as conversations, our relationship could progress in a healthy way rather than [us] hurting each other through the sort of [blowout] I was so afraid of.”
“Just because there’s a conflict doesn’t mean that you have to have an argument about it,” says Brown. For example, with the charismatic partner who needs to be the center of attention, rather than demanding they completely change who they are, you can simply say something like, “Hey, I know you enjoy socializing with everyone when we’re out, but can you please find me to make sure that I’m OK or that I have a drink in my hand every so often?”
4. Say goodbye to your fear of fighting.
When deciding whether or not a conflict is worth it, make sure one of your driving motives isn’t fear or avoidance of fighting. While needing to “win” can be problematic, Brown warns continuously giving into a demanding partner in order to avoid confrontation can be just as bad.
“If things go unchecked or if people avoid all conflict, generally they [can end up] feeling disconnected from their partner, not feeling satisfied in their relationship, or having resentment toward their partner,” warns Chlipala.
5. Don’t let your partner dismiss your feelings.
No matter what the issue is, you deserve to feel heard. “When we don’t, then we feel abandoned, lonely, misunderstood, and marginalized,” Brown says. “This is a painful way to live and it is worth fighting to be heard, even if it’s not necessarily [a matter of] being agreed with at times.”
Jonathan*, 27, and his partner actively work to make each other feel heard. “As a rule of thumb, we always try to vocalize what’s bothering us — even if it feels stupid or small,” he says. “We don’t always wind up agreeing on everything, but the process leaves us both feeling more respected and heard.”
6. Ask yourself if this is worth it.
Having taken the five above tips into account, the final step is to ask yourself point-blank, “Is this worth fighting over?” Is the issue at hand worth all of the negative energy that can come along with a fight? If the answer is yes, then it’s absolutely time to move forward with it.
If the answer is no, this could be a battle you choose to forego. Still, that doesn’t mean everything will be fine and dandy in a hot second. “Feelings can’t just be fixed or addressed very quickly,” says Chlipala. “Sometimes you may logically be like, OK, this isn’t worth it, but it might take your feelings a little bit of time to catch up. That’s really important for people to understand.”