After 10 years of marriage, Ashley Innes is no stranger to heated, circular arguments with her spouse. Oftentimes, these fights are centered on work-life balance since both she and her husband have demanding, high-stress jobs.
“The last time we argued, it was about career decisions and how they affect us and our kids ― how much time we spend together as a family and who’s responsible for certain tasks around the house,” said Innes, a writer and HIV advocate who lives in Dallas. “At some point, it was getting intense. We were falling into the trap of blaming each other.”
But then, Innes pulled out a secret argument-ending phrase that she now uses often.
“I told my husband, ‘Hey, remember we’re on the same team,’” she said. “Saying that just instantly takes you out of the argument and reminds you that this person is not the enemy. Then you can start focusing on listening, compromising and reaching solutions as opposed to just continuing to go back and forth, fighting.”
Innes is onto something. Marriage therapists say invoking those two words ― “same team” ― in some way or another just may be the quickest path to deescalating an argument.
Used judiciously (you don’t want to be “same teaming” every few hours, lest it lose its potency), the phrase can turn a fight into a problem to solve. In those moments when you’re at each other’s throats, it’s a gentle reminder that ultimately, marriage is a team sport, and going for the jugular is the quickest way to lose.
“Saying ‘same team’ is saying even if I don’t want this situation or disagreement, I still want us and this relationship,” said Marie Land, a psychologist in Washington, D.C. “That itself can allow defenses to come down and real problem-solving to begin.”
Physically, pressing pause on an argument for even 10 or 15 seconds will slow your heart rate and help you calm down, Land said.
Even better, the conversational trick becomes more effective over time. If you’ve found a shout of “same team!” to be grounding or calming in the past, hearing it again reminds you that there’s precedent for compromise and understanding.
The technique works because it acknowledges something important about emotionally loaded conversations, said Jennifer Chappell Marsh, a marriage and family therapist in San Diego. When we argue, the conversation operates on two different levels: the subject of discussion (the what) and the process of discussion (the how).
“More often than not, simple discussions turn into arguments because of how they are being communicated,” she said.
When you set up the conversation as you vs. me, the “how” is flawed from the start. You might win the argument or strong-arm your spouse into agreeing with you, but you’ve lost sight of the real goal: facing your true opponent ― the unwieldy issue you’re arguing about ― together and conquering it as a team.
“Calling out a pre-agreed-on phrase like ‘same team’ acknowledges emotions have taken over and interrupts the negative cycle of wanting to win,” Chappell Marsh said.
It’s such a simple solution, it makes you wonder: Why are we so fixated on winning an argument anyway? Why is it so hard to see that you’re on the same team from the get-go?
“I think it’s because sometimes the immediate individual needs to be heard, acknowledged and valued win out over the partnership,” Chappell Marsh said. “On a primal level, if you’re winning an argument, you are likely being heard and validated. That feels secure.”
On the other hand, losing an argument to a partner can stir up feelings of fear, failure and disappointment. You feel insecure and threatened, which triggers a fight-or-flight response. To avoid those emotions and that predicament, you put up a fight so you can be the victor.
“That’s why people end up behaving in ways that are aggressive, not team-oriented,” Chappell Marsh said.
Admittedly, that instinct can make the “same team” concept difficult to swallow at first. Trey Morgan, a Texas-based marriage coach who has been married to his wife Lea for 31 years, swears by the “same team” trick now, but early on, he struggled with it.
“When we had an argument, we both wanted to be right, and honestly, we wanted the other to be wrong,” he said. “It took several years before it hit us that we were on the same team. We finally realized we either win together or lose together because that’s what being on the same team means.”
Once “same team” became a fixture in his marriage, Morgan said things improved dramatically.
“It’s amazingly calming and effective once you get in that mindset,” he said.
As for what direction to take the conversation after invoking “same team,” try to follow up with questions aimed at understanding your partner’s point of view, said Winifred Reilly, a marriage and family therapist in Berkeley, California.
“Ask curious questions like, ‘What’s most important to you here?’ ‘What’s
upsetting you?’ ‘What is it that you want me to understand?’” she said. “Do that rather than stating and restating your position.”
And once you’ve adopted a one-team mentality, try to work it into your everyday interactions with your partner.
“It’s good to keep in mind that when one person wins and one person loses, both of you lose,” Reilly said. “Even if things end up going your preferred way, a solution that feels respectful and inclusive will give you a better relationship in the long run.”