Not everyone is afraid of a fight, but there are not many who would put “fighting” on the top of their list of fun things. Some people thrive on drama and their relationships are peppered by moments of calm among the arguments. Others fear conflict and try their hardest to avoid arguments altogether. Then there’s everything in between. But it is unrealistic to think that you will never have arguments in your relationship.
A relationship by definition is about two people. If you were both exactly alike, one of you would not be necessary! That means two different sets of opinions, values, and beliefs. Each of you has your own story. Your own inner life. Your own learned behaviors. Your own triggers. More times than not, arguments start because of those triggers – but they are not really what you are fighting about. A friend of mine found that she always ended up bickering with her husband about the way he left cabinet doors open and how nuts it made her. But she finally realized it wasn’t about the doors. It was about being seen, noticed, paid attention to. The cabinets were the trigger. The way she felt in the relationship was the real issue.
Part of fighting well is to recognize what underlies our arguments. Everyone is better off when we deal with the emotions, not the triggers.
So let’s look at the two extremes and maybe you can plot yourself somewhere on the continuum between them. On one side of the spectrum, you have relationships riddled with bullets and awash in blood. Constant fighting. Whereas these people are clearly unafraid of conflict, they are endangering their relationship because one day the hurtfulness of things said, accusations made, and threats flung may get to be too much. It is hard to get your needs met when you live on a battleground. Trust, intimacy, and tenderness are lost with all the skirmishing. But do not despair! There are ways to mitigate this situation and create a healthy environment for productive fights!
On the other end of the spectrum, there are the people who say they never argue. They are either lying or are deathly afraid to express themselves honestly in the relationship. Keeping silent does not get relationship needs met either, and will eventually lead to resentment and the end of the relationship. Rather than trying to avoid conflicts, consider how to handle them effectively and fairly, so you can be heard, seen, and understood.
Improving your arguing skills can be the difference between staying together and splitting up. There are three main components to what I would call a healthy and productive fight: communicating your truth well, listening to your partner well, and finding resolution.
- Take a time out before you speak. This is not always possible, but if you can avoid a knock down/drag out fight by postponing things until tempers are cooled, that is best. You can take the following steps much more easily if you wait before talking to one another. Easy for me to say, right? Still – worth trying for maximum positive results.
- Know what you hope to accomplish in the conversation. You might be saying, “I’m feeling angry, stressed, and belligerent. How am I supposed to make a game plan for the conversation?” Take a breath when you feel the fight coming on and refer to the bullet point above. Take a minute or an hour. Ask yourself, “Why am I mad? What underlies this feeling? What do I want to ‘get’ out of this encounter?”
- Express your needs and feelings as calmly as you can. Pre plan what you are going to say and pick a time when you are both not tired, distracted, stressed, drinking, or in public. Stick to the underlying emotions, not the triggers. For example, it’s not productive to start out: “You always leave the cupboard doors open. You obviously don’t care about what I want.” Instead, you might say: “I feel ignored sometimes and I want you to notice and take care of me a little more.”
- Stick to “I statements.” “You statements” tend to feel like attacks, no matter how good your intentions. “I miss spending time with you” vs. “You never pay attention to me.”
- Stick to one topic. Even though you may be able to do a brilliant job outlining every awful thing that has ever happened and throw it into the conversation, it is really never a good idea to dredge up the past.
- Be responsible for your words and actions. This includes avoiding certain pitfalls. One example is: the temptation to rise to the bait—don’t do it. However provoked, don’t let yourself become reactive. Another pitfall: the temptation to one-up your partner. If he or she throws a grenade (aka starts a fight), don’t throw one back. Simply don’t participate. Step away, refer to the first bullet point in this list, and proceed accordingly.
- Avoid negativity and personal attacks. Words are like toothpaste. Once they are out of the tube, they can’t be put back. Name calling, emotionally charged language, and acrimonious or insulting messages are not going to help heal anything, and will only make things worse.
- Own your contribution to the situation. It is very helpful to simply admit what you have done. Have you given your partner the silent treatment instead of addressing an issue that has been eating at you? Say so and apologize. Have you been hurtful? Say sorry. Then have an honest conversation, using the guidelines here. Next week look for a whole blog on apologies as guest blogger, Vanessa Park, offers her insights about the importance of knowing how to say two simple words: “I’m sorry.”
Listening (really listening):
- Quiet your mind. In order to truly hear what your partner is saying, you need to hold your own thoughts still. If you are simply preparing your rebuttal, you are not listening.
- Try to understand your partner. Just as you hope to be heard and understood, so does your partner. Rather than focusing on “winning” the argument, focus on the other person when it is his or her turn to communicate with you. One way to listen well, and convey that you truly understand, is to mirror or rephrase what your partner is saying.
- Use self-control. This is not easy, but it is important. For example, do not interrupt. No matter how much you want to chime in, chances are it’s a self-defensive urge. When it is your turn to speak, you can ask your partner to avoid “you” statements too, and to realize how hard it is to hear certain things, but that you are trying. In general, try to control eruptive emotions like anger. However, if you feel spontaneous tears, an upsurge of love or other healing emotions, go with it.
- Stay loving. Hard as it can be when angry, if you stay true to the underlying fact that you care about one another, any fight can be survived, and, in fact, learned from.
Ideally, your argument will be a discussion, and will be resolved in a mutually satisfying, loving way. If the conflict was about how something would be done or handled, come up with a solution that works for both of you. If it was about being heard or seen, do your best to reassure your partner that you understand what he or she is feeling/going through/needing. Whatever the underlying issues of the argument (not the triggers), the goal is to agree that you have both been heard and understood, and that you feel the process has moved you forward in a positive way.
In any partnership, any love relationship, there will be eruptions, arguments, and bumps in the road. If you both understand who you are, who your partner is, and what each of you wants and needs, you’re on the right track. Act with intention and from a place of love. You’ll see, everything will be fine.