“A bad fight is anything which does not help to move the relationship and the people involved forward. If one dominates the other, it will eventually be at the expense of the relationship. Everything depends on the intention. If the intention is to hurt, belittle, ignore, reject or win then good will struggle to come from that.
If the intention is to wrestle with some boundaries and deal with unresolved issues then that is positive and important. Love for the other person and respect for their rights, as well as our own rights, will set a steady course for any argument. Of most value is a sincere desire to make the relationship work which, after all, is often why we fight. We want the relationship to honestly work.”
~ Donna Goddard
Disagreements are inevitable in a relationship but they don’t have to be destructive. The key to handling disagreements comes down to the nature of how you communicate your needs.
I break the process of having difficult conversations into three pieces:
Readiness to share/receive.
It’s important to consider when you are ready to talk as well as when you are ready to receive communication.
Hint: You are NOT ready to share if one of the first three emotions you are feeling is ANGER.
Remember anger is never a primary emotion it is always secondary; so feel it and move through it to get to a place where you are able to deliver messages to your partner without it blocking your true feelings. Often under anger we are hurt, frustrated, and/or sad; try to list out your three emotions.
Hint: You are NOT ready to receive information if your first thoughts are about how you can’t wait to get your point across or if you could care less what your partner is about to say.
You can ask to take time but make sure you let your partner know when you are ready to listen, otherwise it will only frustrate them more.
Communicating using the rules of engagement.
Here are some pre-established guidelines to keep the conversation ‘in-bounds.’
The top three rules I use in my office with clients are as follows:
- No degrading language/violence of any kind
- Define yourself, not your partner
- One issue at a time/stay present
Knowing your typical argument pattern, you and your partner should add two or three more rules to the list and post them on the fridge!
Hint: Try to stay with ‘I statements’ as saying ‘YOU’ is full of blame and often sends the wrong message.
Own what you can and discuss how to do better in the future together.
We should be able to learn and grow in our relationship. Remember that we are just people trying our best to get by so- assume positive intent. I ask clients to consider, “What if your partner is doing the best they can?”
To valid we try to see the other person’s perspective. We do not have to agree with our spouse to validate their emotions. We just have to show that we understand their perception.
For instance, a partner may say, “I can understand that you feel annoyed when I leave my shoes out.” However, this partner is not saying they too feel the same way, which is fine, we do not have to feel the same way.
What can you take responsibility for in this situation?
Be genuine in this exchange. I have worked with a lot of people that felt they were very ‘right’ that ended up very ‘divorced.’
Instead of arguing as to why your partner should see your point clarify how you feel and what you need to move forward together.
By following these guidelines, you will learn and grow together and not fear disagreeing.
Dana Hall, LCPC, MA, TF-CBT – www.danahalltherapy.com
Couples ask me a lot: are we fighting too much? This isn’t exactly the right question.
Because in reality, how often we fight or engage in conflict is not as detrimental as HOW we fight. So today let’s talk about how to fight fair.
Isn’t it crazy to think we could fight fair and as a result end up feeling closer and more connected with each other? Well, it’s true! Especially, when we learn a new dance.
Sue Johnson, famous researcher and couples therapist, describes the cycle of fighting we get into as a dance.
And sometimes, our dance is way out of sync. So, how do you get back in sync?
First, you have to know your role.
In relationships you either are a pursuer or withdrawer.
- Pursuers draw close to conflict, seek resolution, and well, pursue.
- Withdrawers avoid conflict, disconnect, and you’ve got it, withdraw.
As a result, many couples go back and forth barely recognizing that they have entirely different dances.
And before you think “dang, it would be so easy if we were just both pursuers or both withdrawers.”
While it can be tempting to think that those relationships are better suited, keep in mind the grass is not always greener.
Many times two pursuers are intense, volatile, argumentative, and conflict driven. These couples can become aggressive and hurtful if they go too far.
And on the flip side two withdrawers can avoid conflict for years, or decades! I’ve worked with several couples who had sat on something that hurt them for 10+ years!
So, when it comes to fighting fair. Know your roll. Are you a pursuer or a withdrawer? Think back to conflict you’ve had, when s/he does _____, what do you do?
Next, to fight fair you have to know your impact.
I could easily give you a list of toxic things to avoid in fighting: screaming, name calling, gaslighting, stonewalling, etc. but what’s BETTER is for you to explore and learn your impact.
Here’s the deal, learning how you impact your partner creates pathways for compassion, empathy, and understanding (ahem, growing closer).
So, if you’re a pursuer, ask your partner:
- When I follow you after you try to pause/walk away, how does that impact you?
- When I threaten the relationship, how does that impact you?
- When I don’t give you space, how does that impact you?
- When I call you a name or criticize you, how does that impact you?
- When I don’t affirm you, how does that impact you?
- When I _______, how does that impact you?
And, if you’re a withdrawer, ask your partner:
- When I leave without telling you where I’m going, how does that impact you?
- When I shut down and ignore you, how does that impact you?
- When I look at my phone or turn on the TV, how does that impact you?
- When I walk away without explanation, how does that impact you?
- When I don’t provide reassurance about my love for you, how does that impact you?
- When I ________, how does that impact you?
And I want to get real raw and honest with you – I know why you do these things. You’re scared, you’re afraid to lose one another, you don’t feel good enough, you’re tired of not being appreciated, you’re alone, you’re angry.
So, when learning your impact, now is not the time to blame the other.
You are in a dance. You are dancing beautifully or you’re dancing a bit funky. Either way, it’s not one or the other, it’s the dance that’s out of sync.
It’s time to sync up!
Finally, know your needs.
- Pursuers need reassurance, comfort, validation, safety, love, support, affirmation, and acceptance.
- Withdrawers need space, respect, acknowledgement, calm, love, validation, and acceptance.
We all need gentleness because we’re human and this journey of love and relationship is harrrdd.
Next time you enter the dance, rather than do all the things that leave one another feeling disconnected, hurt, and angry, START with offering what you need.
Then, you’ll be dancing smoothly and intimately in no time.
Kendra O’Hora, Ph.D., LCMFT – www.wellnessandco.org
One of the great myths about relationships is that conflict is bad; conflict is not bad, but how we go about it definitely can be.
Conflict can be a healthy tool for resolving issues in your relationship, but there are some right – and wrong – ways to do it.
1. It may sound cliché, but it is helpful to start phrases with “I feel.”
If you find yourself starting with “You,” you are more likely to find yourself fighting with a partner that feels blamed and/or defensive. For example, “I feel like we don’t get to spend enough quality time together,” will be much better received than, “You don’t make our relationship a priority.”
2. Be specific
The more specific you can be, the more likely you will find a workable solution.
3. Timing matters
Ideally, you would not fight if either of you is tired (e.g. late at night), hungry, or distracted. Make sure you are coming to your partner with as many of your resources as possible (i.e. at least somewhat rested, nourished, and focused). This will also increase your ability to self-regulate if you become upset.
4. Be mindful of how long you have been engaged in this conflict.
I encourage the couples I work with to limit conflict to no more than 15 minutes. You may want to check in with your partner at the 15 minute mark as to whether either of you needs a break to do some self-regulating (e.g. deep breathing, a hot shower, etc.).
Another good indicator that you need a break is if you feel like you are saying the same thing over and over (some couples say they feel ‘stuck’ or that they are ‘spinning in circles’). Be sure to set a time to come back together to see if you are ready to continue to talk; give your body at least 20 minutes to calm down.
5. Be kind
I have seen couples be so mean to each other. It is true that our partner can hurt us more deeply than anyone else, but that does not give you the right to be mean. Treat this person with respect and with as much kindness as you would treat anyone else (e.g. your boss, grandma, etc.).
6. Lastly, if you feel like you are stuck or find yourself becoming resentful, get help.
Some couples wait far too long before seeking help. A few sessions can be effective in helping a couple learn how to resolve conflict early on; it is much harder when pain and resentment has built up over years.
Alexis Anttila, MA, LMFT – www.onegreatlifecounseling.com
Relationships can be challenging to say the least. It is inevitable that arguments will occur from time to time. This is natural, and yet is it also an opportunity to become closer as a couple.
The key is being able to fight fair and come to a peaceful resolution where each partner gains perspective and can honor and respect her/his significant other.
Remember it’s okay to agree to disagree. When an issue arises that a couple argues over, it’s important that you both sit down together, look into the other’s eyes and truly listen. Do not interrupt.
When one partner has spoken about the issues and concerns he/she has, then the other partner should repeat back what he/she heard to clarify what was said.
Then the couple should acknowledge which partner this issue more important to and agree to compromise and come to a resolution. Remind each other of your purpose as a couple; to face your challenges grow together.
If one person wants to resolve the issue right away and the other needs time out, a common occurrence, then agree to some time out.
Then agree to come back to discuss the issue and make an attempt to resolve it before you go to bed.
It’s important to have some resolution without going to bed angry. If you cannot come to an agreement, then set a time to continue your discussion so some resolution can take place.
Communication truly is vital and with open honest communication, you have a head start to improving your couple ship.
Constance Clancy, Ed.D. – www.drconstanceclancy.com
Is fighting fair really possible?
Some of us feel that we just aren’t clever or quick enough for a truly fair fight.
- What if we didn’t need to fight at all?
- What if we could just be heard and hear the heart of the one we love the most?
- Shifting one’s thinking takes time and practice, and yet if we were to view our opponent as someone really needing to be heard, how would that change the rules of engagement?
I have found that I’m actually much more likely to have a positive outcome in a conflict if I take off my fighting gloves.
This has worked so well for me that I’d like to suggest a few steps that will help you overcome the fear of conflict in your own life as well.
The first rule of engagement is to slow down long enough to realize you are entering a conflict in the first place.
Often we’re so wrapped up in our own thought process that we don’t realize until things have already escalated that we’ve stepped into a battle zone.
Whether you’ve unintentionally said or done something to offend your partner, or you’ve slipped into the famous fight you’ve carried on for years (we all have them), or you’re just in a feisty mood, it’s time to Stop in the Name of Love!
Ask yourself if you want to try something new.
By the time you’ve thrown out the first barbed comment, your fight or flight pattern has already been triggered. Your body’s autonomic nervous system has taken over, making it unlikely that you’ll be able to think clearly or speak lovingly.
You can get to know your own tendencies and those of your spouse, however, in order to prevent these conflict patterns from running the show.
Couples in relationship tend to be either “fighters” or “flighters.”
When both partners are fighters, things can heat up suddenly, turning seriously volatile or even abusive.
When both are flighters, a couple can get stuck in a cold war leading to dissatisfaction and resentment, with nothing ever getting resolved.
Most couples are a combination of both, creating a frustrating situation where the flighter feels like the battle-weary victim and the fighter never feels his partner is truly engaged.
And switching gears or trying to become something different from how we have been habituated, only shifts us into the negative side of the new mode.
No matter where you see yourself and your loved one on the fight or flight spectrum, it’s never too late to improve your reaction to conflict.
- We can train ourselves to simply stop, disengage and politely exit the situation, with an agreement to come back to our lover in a set amount of time, after heads have cooled and hearts have melted.
- During the time-out, really check-in with your body. Do some deep breathing.
- Rest, read or get some physical exercise. Do what it takes to settle your body and mind, to lovingly reconnect your head and your heart.
- When you’re calm and you’ve had a chance to think over what is bothering you, that’s the time to reconnect with your loved one.
- When you come back together, try this new strategy: ask him to share his heart with you. Reassure her that it’s a safe time and place to do so.
- After you have listened to her whole heart, ask if she feels completely heard and if you can have a turn sharing your heart as well.
- Tell him that you promise to respect his ideas and opinions, without judgment. Then begin asking questions that gently draw him out.
You might lead your beloved with these questions:
- What are the things you see in this situation that concern you?
- When did you first notice this problem?
- What do you feel when…?
- What do you want from me in order to solve this problem?
- What do you need?
- What are you willing to do to solve this issue?
- What can I do to support you in this?
After hearing an answer, it is essential to summarize what you have heard.
Unless we give the speaker feedback, we will never know if we truly understand the issue at hand.
Give him the opportunity to tell you more about the issue until you are both absolutely sure you understand where he is coming from.
Start with questions like, “So what I hear you saying is … Is that correct? Did I get it all? Is there anything you want to add?”
Let her fill in the missing pieces and then summarize again until she truly feels heard in her heart of hearts.
Tone of voice should be as nonjudgmental and open as possible, even if you adamantly disagree with what your beloved is saying.
Watch your own body signals again.
If you’re feeling your blood beginning to boil again, ask for another time-out. Say something like “I want to be the best listener I can be, so I need a little break to get back to that loving place.”
Remember, that it will soon be your turn to go through this process, so help your partner to feel as safe and secure as you want to feel.
One way to be a great listener is to take on the presence of love, wisdom and compassion.
By asking yourself to embody any one of these attributes, you signal the brain to stop seeking your own needs and look instead for opportunities to build bridges with the other.
Separate each characteristic – love, wisdom, compassion – now.
Ask yourself what it would look like to be the presence of love, to be the epitome of wisdom, to exude the characteristic of compassion.
Ask yourself who in your life embodies them and what other qualities do they possess? What does it feel like to be in their presence? How could you model yourself after them?
Every time we enter into a fight with our loved one, it leaves an impression on our souls.
When we learn to shift out of fighting mode and into listening and being heard mode, we safeguard our relationship and prevent it from cycling into a constant fight to be right.
- Ask yourself whether you’d rather be right or you’d rather be reconciled.
- Ask yourself how badly you want to win the argument.
- Is it a matter of pride that your loved one ends up on your side of this issue?
- Is the battle worth squandering your mutual love?
- Is this fight really worth the pain and sorrow you will endure and inflict?
- Is being right worth the wounds, sometimes irreparable, that you may inflict on your loved one and yourself?”
The next time you’re tempted to enter the ring for another round, I challenge you, instead, to take on the presence of the best, most loving and compassionate person you know.
Give yourself the time and space to emulate that person’s love, wisdom and compassion, rather than dusting off your best fighting words.
You will both win, I promise!
Sabrina Walters, LPC, LMFT – www.corevaluescounseling.com
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