Fighting. We all do it. We fight about the laundry, the dishes, the cleaning, the finances, time together, sex, video games, fantasy football leagues, whose television show we’re going to sleep through at the end of the day and how long we should ground our teenage daughter for staying out after curfew! You name it, we will fight over it. We will fight over anything from the mundane to the extraordinary. And it’s perfectly normal.
Arguing with your partner allows you to maintain your sense of individuality and express your feelings as an autonomous, free-thinking human being. More often than not, this can be an empowering experience for both individuals and “clears the air” of rising tensions. It also challenges one another’s opinions. Neither partner should always get his or her own way. Arguments can serve as a reminder of the importance and necessity of equality and balance in the relationship. In fact, many couples actually report feeling closer with one another at the end of an argument after being able to express their opinion and come to a resolution.
With this being said, not all fighting is healthy. It has to be done the right way. Many arguments can become toxic, and if left unchanged, may predispose the relationship for failure. Those couples that will stop at nothing to win are gaining nothing, and slowly, argument by argument, jeopardizing everything.
Arguing only works when the couple stays on topic and doesn’t get personal. As soon as the situation goes from, “Why didn’t you do the dishes? That really makes me mad!” to, “You never do the dishes or anything else for that matter! You’re lazy!” – the landscape has changed. It’s no longer a situational event, but a global character assassination of your partner. Equally so, when couples yell at one another, get defensive, mock each other, make threats, shut down, criticize one another and use name-calling, they’re sending a clear message to their partner: I don’t respect you, or your opinion. This will undoubtedly lead to hurt feelings, a greater sense of loneliness and vulnerability within the relationship and increased likelihood of future conflict and disconnection.
Nobody’s perfect. Even the best of relationships have ugly moments. It’s easy to get upset or even offended by something that your partner says and react angrily or defensively. Instead of trying to eliminate these emotions or deny that they even exist, it’s important to learn how to recognize and manage them more effectively. Your goal should not be to avoid the argument, but to navigate your way through it successfully.
Here’s a step-by-step process to move your relationship away from toxic conflict and toward a more fulfilling resolution.
Most arguments turn toxic when we: 1) interpret what our partner is saying as an attack or criticism, or 2) our partner actually criticizes or attacks us. Regardless, our thoughts (accurate or not) about the situation ignite our emotions. When we feel attacked, our most basic human reaction to threat kicks in – our “fight or flight” response. We either prepare for battle or run for the hills!How many times have you tried to convince your partner that the sky is blue, and even though the evidence is there to be seen as clear as day (pun intended), they insist it is pink with purple polka dots? Have you ever begged and pleaded for your partner to tell you what they’re thinking and feeling, only to feel like you’re talking to a brick wall? This is because emotion and reactivity have taken over and you and your partner are in survival mode.Before anything positive can happen both you and your partner must be aware of your emotional and physiological state. Take a step back for a moment and assess how you feel. Are your muscles tensing up? Is your heart rate increasing? Is your blood pressure rising (feeling flush)? Are you breathing faster? Are you starting to sweat? Are you having thoughts about lashing out at the other person? Are you seeing red? If so, own it. Being able to identify your emotional and physiological experience in the moment is the first, and one of the most important, steps to this process.
Simply recognizing your emotional state is not enough, in itself, to be much help. It allows you to take stock of the situation and provides an opportunity for you to act differently. It’s unreasonable to expect any couple to have a constructive and collaborative conversation when one or both individuals are overwhelmed with frustration, hurt, anger or anxiety. During times of intense emotional or physiological reactions, it’s paramount that you create an opportunity for “therapeutic space”.This is not the kind of space that happens as a result of an offensive comment that causes your partner to storm out of the room, or the kind of space that comes from your partner not wanting to engage with or even acknowledge you. This is a mutually-agreed “time-out” that’s taken out of respect for one another and the relationship. It’s a mature decision made by both individuals.Choose a code word together. It can be something simple, or even silly. Just make sure it’s easy to remember and that it helps you connect with this therapeutic process. Something that might lighten the mood or even make you crack a smile is a bonus. I’ve had clients use code words as simple as “therapy” and others who’ve gotten more creative with “English muffin” (some rather unkind reference to yours truly, I fear!). As long as it’s not offensive, you can’t go wrong.If you’ve determined that your emotional state will not allow you to communicate effectively with your partner during an argument, use your code word and take your time-out. If your partner uses the code word, make sure you respect their wishes and give them space. Pursuing the argument is only going to end badly.
Ego Check: Take responsibility for how you’re feeling. Don’t be selfish and react angrily or withdraw just because it makes you feel better. It won’t last. If your partner uses the code word, put it in perspective. Remind yourself that the code word says, “I love and respect you, and this relationship, enough not to continue down a road that will lead us to more feelings of disconnection, loneliness and despair.” It does not mean “**** you!”
After you or your partner have taken your therapeutic time-out, you now have some time to calm down and think things through. Put this time to good use. Take a walk, take a hot bath, read a magazine, listen to some music, go for a run. Do something that will take your mind off what just happened so that you can calm down and emotionally and physiologically recover.Once you’ve done that, you need to start processing what happened. Instead of focusing on what your partner said and did and getting worked up again about the situation, think about what you contributed to the conversation and how that may have been perceived by your partner. Reflect back on the argument and put yourself in your partner’s shoes. Take ownership for what you said or how you reacted and be prepared to apologize for that. Think about how you felt and why, and what you could have done or said differently that might have positively impacted the situation. Be prepared to discuss these things with your partner and to offer suggestions on how the situation could be managed better in the future.
Ego Check: It’s easy to blame the other person for everything that happened. Even if you strongly believe that you’re not to blame for how the argument started, you probably contributed somehow. Take ownership of your actions and be prepared to apologize. No excuses!
After you’ve both had an opportunity to think things through, if you were the one that used the code word and initiated the therapeutic time-out, you need to approach your partner and ask if he or she is ready to talk. If your partner is ready, then it’s time to get verbal.Make sure that you’re able to give your partner your complete attention (TV off, iPhone on silent and out of reach, X-Box in different room, etc., etc…). Throughout the conversation, it’s important that you don’t interrupt, that you maintain good eye contact, and that you listen carefully to what your partner is saying. Ask questions, and try to empathize and validate where you can (see Five Ways to Communicate More Effectively With Your Partner for more detailed information).Start out by apologizing for what you can. Sometimes this is not always clear, but hopefully you made good use of your time-out and came up with something honest and sincere. At the very least, you can apologize for how your partner is feeling (i.e. “I’m sorry you feel angry … that wasn’t my intention.”). This will set the tone for the conversation and immediately disarm your partner.Once you’ve done this, you’ll need to explain to your partner how you were thinking and feeling leading up to using your code word. Try to avoid “you” statements and use “I” statements as much as you can. (For example, “I felt attacked when you said…” or “I thought you didn’t want to hear my perspective…” instead of “You attacked me when you said…” or “You didn’t want to hear my perspective”). Using “I” statements speaks to your perspective and yours alone, whereas “you” statements imply judgment. Nobody likes to be told how they’re feeling or what their intentions were, especially if the assumptions are wrong.
Ego Check: Let your partner have a voice. Whether you agree or disagree, don’t interrupt. This is your partner’s perspective on the situation and their experience of it. Your time will come. Don’t fight it, try to understand it. Stop taking things so personally. Put yourself in your partner’s shoes for a moment and try to relate. Make a real effort to soften your words and speak in a loving and respectful way. You can be angry or hurt and still treat your partner with love and respect. Always accept an apology.
Finally, after you’ve both had an opportunity to apologize and share your thoughts and feelings with one another, you’ll need to offer a “resolution suggestion”. This is exactly what it sounds like. Suggest a plan or action that might change the course of any similar interaction in the future. Brainstorm some ideas collaboratively until you have something hashed out. You are both the best experts on yourself, each other and your relationship. Don’t stop until you have a plan of action. Even if it doesn’t work out the way that you planned, it can be an empowering experience in itself to know that you can work together as a team to overcome an issue in the relationship.When thinking about a resolution suggestion, try to incorporate ideas that reflect both you and your partner’s concerns. For example, you’re a saver, your partner is a spender and you keep getting into arguments over being overdrawn every month or living paycheck to paycheck. A good resolution suggestion might be to sit down and make a budget (for you) that includes a “fun money” allowance (for your partner). When you present your resolution suggestion to your partner, be sure to pay attention to your approach. Start out by saying, “How about we try this…?”, or “What do think of this…?” Avoid statements that imply you have already made the decision, like “This is what we are going to do…”Once you’ve decided on the best solution to the problem, clarify your roles with one another. It’s critically important that you and your partner thoroughly commit to the plan. The process will be undermined if either partner fails to follow through with what’s been agreed upon, and will predispose any future efforts to failure. Neither one of you will get it right 100% of the time, but it’s reasonable to expect that you and your partner follow through on what you agreed to more often than not.
Ego Check: Don’t be selfish. If your resolution suggestion represents only your needs, your partner will see through it and immediately reject it. And rightly so! This will erode some of the trust being built throughout the course of the conversation and set you back in the process. If you genuinely put your partner first, they will want to do the same for you.