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How to Have Healthy Disagreements

Relationships bring conflict. We can learn how to have healthy disagreements that honor our loved ones and our values.

My husband and I had a fight. It was about something small, but the conversation rapidly got out of control, until our words were dripping with sarcasm and antagonism, and we had said many unkind things to each other.

We were ashamed and shaken. Normally, the moment our tones become heated, it’s an alarm bell for us--that we need to stop & shift our conversation.

I don’t mean we’ve never had messy disagreements! We are two sinners living under the same roof -- of course it gets messy. But we took pride in our quickness to work at healing until we succeeded, even if our attempts were clumsy. It’s hard for me to confess to you that this time, we did not do that until after we’d been very unkind.

We as a society don’t like to talk about our fights. We all have them--but we don’t like other people to know about them.

But here’s the thing -- all marriages (& most relationships) bring conflict. And because we are all sinners, we are going to be tempted to say hurtful things much more than we’d like. That’s normal.

I suspect a lot of us have had disagreements in this season. Social tensions are high, political divides deep, and we have a fresh rise of Covid cases. Most of us are sick of restraints and uncertainty. Pair that with tight finances and close quarters in isolation, and we have a lot draining us, and a lot of openings for conflict.

The good news is that we can argue productively. Here's how:

Set “alarm bells”

It’s extremely helpful to be able to identify when a conversation is not heading a healthy direction. Try deciding on “alarm bells” together: these are your identifiers you might need to pause the conversation.

Possible Alarm Bells:

  • Interrupting

  • Raised or angry voices

  • Low blows

  • Insults

  • Finger pointing

  • Disrespectful tones: sarcasm, antagonism, dismissiveness, etc.

  • Words / tones intended to hurt

When you hear one of your “alarm bells,” simply say, “Oops! That’s an alarm bell. We need to hit pause.”

Heart Checks

Alarm bells are an opportunity to check our hearts. What’s motivating our words?

Ask yourself before speaking -- what is my intent in saying this? What do I hope to accomplish? What is my heart behind it? Where do I want my heart to be?

Be the First To Apologize

Get the mending going. Start small if you need to. Apologize for how the conversation is going. For how you’re coming across. For the way the person is feeling.

Ask the person how you can apologize. What is it that they need from you? What are they feeling and experiencing right now? What do they want to see happen in this conversation?

Try taking the apology languages quiz together, to find out how you each prefer to receive apologies! This will help you avoid missing each other’s efforts to mend.

Psst -- it’s okay to ask for an apology! Share what it is you’re hoping for or wanting to see.

Pray Together

Ask -- ”Can we please stop for a minute? I’d like to pray.”

There have been times when my heart was hard, and I did not “feel like” praying. But talking with Him returns our hurt hearts to Him.

Share with God how you feel, using “I feel” statements. (Focus on your emotions here, not on what the other person has/hasn’t done.) Confess that you know things are not right and that you need Him. Ask for Him to show you the path to healing.

Prayer starters:

  • “Jesus, I don’t feel like praying right now. Help me want to talk to you.”

  • “Father, my heart is really...heavy / hard / cold / hurt / frustrated... Please open my heart right now to your plans for this conversation.”

  • “Papa God, we know we aren’t speaking right to each other. Help us treat each other as sons and daughters of you.”

  • “Abba, there’s a lot of hurt right now. We need you. Show us how we need you right now in this specific situation...”

Language Matters

Say I statements and not You statements

It brings a whole different tone when we say, “I am experiencing…” rather than “You are making me feel…”

The first says, without judgment -- this is what’s happening in me. The second casts blame: you did it to me.

The first allows room for benefit of the doubt -- it’s explaining. The second is accusatory.

Try switching:

“You are being so combative!” → “I am receiving you right now as combative.”

“You are making me feel attacked.” → “I am feeling attacked.”

Remove why Questions

There’s an implied judgment in why questions that immediately makes us defensive: Why can’t you just…? Why would you do that? Why are you being so…?

Instead, try: What is preventing you from…? What contributed to that decision? What is making you feel as you do? These questions bring curiosity to learn what’s happening.

By shifting our words, we not only come across better -- we slow down, become intentional, and recognize the impact of our words.

Team-First Approach

Especially in marriage: As players on that team, you may have different needs and wants, but you both want victory as a team--victory for your relationship. My husband and I often remind each other: ”We are on the same team.” We even have a silly team name that we say to each other!

More Team Tips:

  • Have a shared vision for the conflict. Figure out what success would look. Then work backwards to figure out how to get there.

  • Prioritize unity: “I want healing. How can we heal?” or “How can we create unity here?”

  • Give each other the benefit of the doubt. When emotions are high, it’s easy to miss the other person’s attempts to make amends. Try to focus on the efforts they are making, however messy they might be.

  • Remind yourselves of the other person’s love for you, their values, and their heart.

  • Affirm and validate the other person’s feelings and experiencing of the conversation, even if you don’t understand them.

  • Celebrate progress! When you do conflicts better, give praise and appreciation.

Join the Conversation:

What helps you honor your relationships even when you disagree?

What helps you mend relationship?

This blog post was originally posted on June 25, 2020 via Stephanie Haynes Coaching.

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