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By Nicholas Velotta for Andrew Christian

A marriage and family therapist once told me that the cause of nearly all couples’ fights boil down to one partner feeling either of two emotions: neglect or disrespect. Neglect can refer to our partner being inattentive to our emotional, sexual, or relationship needs. On the other hand, feeling like our partner has done something that crosses a line makes us feel disrespected.

During turbulent times we often lean on our support network of friends and family to listen and empathize with us. Our partner may have been inattentive, but they’ll listen. Our partner may have disrespected us, but they’ll build us up.

It’s important to remember, however, that when we vent, there’s a chance that we create a bleak lens for others to view our relationships through. Friends may use the unflattering information to start judging you for staying with him or to start judging him for mistreating you. And yet, we still want to be genuine when venting to our support network—sugar coating a situation isn’t going to help reduce the emotional distress we’re feeling inside or get us well-informed advice from friends (which are kind of the points of venting, right?).

That’s why it’s best to set some personal guidelines for venting so that your partner, support network, and yourself don’t make a bad situation worse.

Take some time to reflect before venting

First and foremost, you need to take a step back before you call up your friend for a venting session. A good way to decompress a fight is by (1) writing down the problem as you see it on a piece of paper and then (2) doing the same, but from your partner’s perspective, and (3) finally writing down the problem as if you’re a third (independent) party observing the argument. This activity is frequently used in therapy because it helps partners empathize with each other. Even if they don’t end up agreeing on an issue, partners are less upset and hurt after taking some time to reflect on the situation from multiple points of view.

Give a full picture

Building on the last point, we should try to give our support person a clear picture of the issue if we expect them to understand it. By only presenting your misgivings, you’re giving a warped image of how everything went down and neglecting your partner’s point of view.

Don’t “kitchen sink”

Fights can escalate to a level where partners just want to “win.” In order to do this, one partner may bring up past issues they’ve had with their boyfriend as if to show just how iron clad their argument is. They see these past instances as related to the argument at hand, but they’re almost always doing something called “kitchen sinking” or throwing all the attacks they can levy to discredit their partner’s position. We shouldn’t do this in a fight nor when we vent. Stick to the matter at hand.

Don’t disparage your partner’s character

People often think it’s O.K. to call their partners derogatory terms when venting to a friend. If this is you, be careful. For one thing it is incredibly disrespectful (even if you feel it’s warranted). What’s more, do you really want your best friends to think your boyfriend is an asshole, moron, etc.?

Don’t vent for gossip

You shouldn’t use relationship problems or your boyfriend’s idiosyncrasies to entertain your friends behind his back. It’s a violation of trust and gives an immature picture of the relationship.

Don’t vent about every little thing

Relatedly, not everything necessitates your friends’ counseling. Don’t use each inconvenient situation as an excuse to vent because you may be giving the impression that you’re just unhappy with the relationship in general. (And, if you are unhappy, the conversation needs to be with him, not just your friends.)

Pick the right person for the situation

You also should consider who you’re venting to in a given situation. First, determine if they’re trustworthy—for instance, do you have a good history with disclosing sensitive information to this person? No one wants to vent to the whole town, so make sure whomever you pick won’t share your issues with other people. Second, are they well-suited for the situation? It’s probably not the best idea, for example, to talk about your sex life with a prude (unless you have that Samantha-Charlotte bond going for you).

Fill people in when the issue is resolved

Your friends like to know you’re doing alright, so tell them when the problem has been resolved. This also helps to dissolve possible misperceptions they hold about the health of your relationship.

Nicholas Velotta is a sex and relationship researcher and writer located out of the University of Washington in Seattle.

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