Let me preface this by admitting that I am not a natural fighter. At all. I will do pretty much everything within my power to avoid any form of confrontation. And if something upsets me, my natural reaction is to sulk. I’m pretty good at sulking.
It seems to be pretty widely acknowledged that all couples argue. But I’ve been in relationships where we didn’t argue much at all. Told you I was good at sulking. These relationships all ended though. Make of that what you will.
Some of us might feel unable to argue because we feel that our underlying anger, which can get triggered during an argument, will get out of control. Others might find it difficult to argue because we feel inadequate within the relationship. Some of us might have been exposed to bitter arguments as we grew up and are determined not to repeat the patterns of unhappy parents during adulthood.
The thing is, in intimate relationships when we avoid arguing, for whatever reason a lot of things remain unresolved. Or power games begin to play out. Or we might distance ourselves from our partner.
Arguments and disagreements are not necessarily a sign of a relationship ending or love fading. They’re just a sign of two imperfect human beings in an imperfect relationship expressing their own individuality. This is pretty bloody healthy really. They’re about compromise and commitment and communication.
When couples seek relationship therapy it’s often interesting to explore with the couple the themes of the argument. Couples may find that they always argue about the same issues time and time again without ever resolving the underlying problem. It helps to see that arguments around money are rarely about money: they're usually about power. Arguments about kids are usually arguments about control. When we argue about chores, we are often more concerned about fairness. Sexual arguments are usually about intimacy; and arguments about jealousy and fidelity are usually about maturity. By identifying these underlying issues, we can often communicate more directly and with a more positive outcome.
There are a number of things we can try and do to stop sulking and put up a good fight. In addition to reaching a good understanding of the nature of the commitment, there are several other guidelines that can be explored when a couple decides to bring their arguments to a more constructive level.
1. It is better to be close and happy than to be right.
This is another Dr-Philism that I sprout. A lot. Blaming each other and trying to change the other person's opinions are both counterproductive. When we assume that one person is right and the other person is wrong, we put the person who is “wrong” on the defensive. Get out of this right vs. wrong framework altogether. Accept the fact that you simply see the issue differently.
2. Healthy fighting begins with empathy.
After all, you love this person with whom you are fighting. The empathic process is a really positive way to disagree, problem solve and find compromise. Become aware of your impact on your partner. To fight as an adult, we remember that no one is perfect. We move our attitude from all or nothing to realistically accepting the foibles and failures of others without trying to convert them. Arguments often start when we say something without realising how our partner will take it. During an argument, check out what the other person means: “When you said that, did you mean that you feel I always have the upper hand?” Listen to what your partner is trying to tell you.
3. Don’t keep score.
This one is pretty important. It’s a really good idea not to view our relationship like a bank. "Well I put this into it, so you should too. You debited this amount back in 1993 and I didn’t, but I will continue to remind you of that debt forever more because this is a JOINT ACCOUNT". Again, kind reminder, this person is your beloved. Another small reminder, we can’t change the past. Although you may feel hurt by something that happened in the past, the only options we have are to work for better circumstances in the present and the future. Of course, you may want to talk about things which have bothered you in the past, but holding a grudge usually interferes with the productive resolution of current problems...those things which you can do something about. Work on one current problem at a time, not a list of things from the past. Discuss the problem while it is relevant.
4. State your needs as specific requests.
Try not to personally attack your mate. Best to criticise the problem, rather than the person you love most with all your heart and soul. Express your feelings as your feelings, not your thoughts. Own your own feelings and express them in a responsible way. For example, instead of saying, “I think,” say “I feel.” for positive behavior change. It is not helpful to criticises the person's character; this simply puts the other into a defensive stance. If we label our partner with words like “crazy,” “immature,” or “slob” does not solve the specific problem you need to address, and it pretty much ensures that you will not be heard. These words are only meant to hurt (and it would be better in this case just to say, “Right now I feel like I want to hurt your feelings”).
5. Simply and genuinely listen. Be there.
Try and be present in the moment with interest. Really listening means to open your heart and shut off any inner dialogue that attempts to answer what your partner is saying. Use descriptive language to explain your feelings and never interrupt.
6. Avoid the avoidance.
This includes the sulking Sam. And the other less useful fighting techniques. Which are so easy to do sometimes. And often make us feel like you’ve been the winner or gained the upper hand. But does anyone in the relationship really win, when any of these techniques are implemented?
- Timing – Really not helpful to discuss something really, really important when our partner is least able to respond or least expects it -—like just before he or she leaves for work, or late at night, or during a favourite TV show.
- Crucialising: This happens when we exaggerate the importance of an issue by drawing conclusions of great magnitude regarding the relationship. “If you loved me, you would never have done this” is a good one. Or: “This proves you have never cared about me.” Incredibly unhelpful, yet incredibly common.
- Cross Complaining: This is when our partner complains about something and we ensure that we’ve got a complaint of our own to raise. “I forgot to take make up the bed? How about all the times you haven't taken out the garbage?” This means in essence no one’s issues get heard.
- Mind Reading: When we let our partner know that as it turns out we are actually the expert in how he or she feels or things or should behave. “You don't really feel angry right now.” “You didn't mean to say you wouldn't be home for dinner.” This one is really annoying when we’re on the receiving end and it does wonders to deprive your partner of all rights as an equal.
- Fortune Telling: Like mind-reading, this technique gives us the upper hand. “You will never change” demoralises our partner and effectively blocks any resolution of the real issues at hand.
- Pulling Rank: This one screams nastiness if you ask me. But it’s easy— it's much easier just to say that you bring home more money, or you have more friends, or you have more education, or you do more around the house, than to address the real issues. “When you make as much money as I do, then I'll listen to you” works like a charm at showing that there’s no need for equality in this relationship.
- Giving Advice: To really be a dick, whenever your partner wants to talk over a problem, always act like the expert. Tell your partner how to act, think and feel. Always have the better answer. If this is ever questioned you can always say that you were only trying to be helpful. This will undermine all attempts for an empathic, supportive and understanding relationship.
7. Ask for help.
Many relationships have been lost that could have been saved from the inability to ask for help. Pride has no place in intimacy. We all make mistakes and have misunderstandings. And if the relationship cannot be saved, you are always free to leave.
On occasion it blows my mind that individuals live healthily and happily in intimate couple relationships for so long. This stuff is hard. No one provides us with accredited formal training in this arena. It's just another one of the fabulousness trials and errors of life.