As a couples therapist, I often hear variations of the following statements from the clients who come to my office:
“We always fight about the same things.”
“We have a problem with communication.”
“I don’t feel like he/she/they understand where I’m coming from.”
Conflict with a loved one is rarely fun or even comfortable. It becomes exhausting and demoralizing, however, when fighting leads to frustration and anger rather than to understanding and solution. In order to better understand what trips couples up during times of conflict, I often have them reenact an argument during session. Here are some of the most frequent ineffective behaviors I see:
- Complaints met with defense: “you promised me that you’d clean the cat litter weekly but you rarely ever do it.” “Yes I DO clean the cat litter. You just aren’t paying attention.”
- Not sticking to the problem at hand: “we need to decide where we’re going on vacation this summer. I’d like to go see family in Florida.” “we went to Florida last year and your mother is always putting me down.” “My mother doesn’t put you down. You’re just to sensitive. It’s like the other day when your boss gave you that feedback…”
- Invoking “ghost people” to help support one side: “you’re too hard on the kids when they don’t clean their room.” “I’m too hard on the kids? Have you ever thought that maybe you’re too permissive? My sister always comments on how poorly behaved the kids are when she visits and says that it’s because you spoil them.”
- Needing to be right: “I feel disconnected from you when you turn me down for sex.” “We’re not disconnected. We’re together every night after we put the kids to bed. Just because I’m touched out at the end of the day doesn’t mean we’re disconnected.”
- Lopsided arguing: one person talks (and talks and talks) without allowing their partner to say much at all.
- Dysregulation of one or both partners: this is a fancy way of saying that the nervous system is perceiving threat in the environment and the endocrine system is flooding the body with stress hormones. These hormones are designed to get our bodies ready to fight, flee, freeze, or “play dead” in the face of bodily harm and it impairs our ability to think calmly and logically through a problem. This can look like jaw or fist clenching, yelling, repetitive speech, leaving the room, a “glazed” look, or “zoning out”
When we feel threatened, we jump to behaviors that protect ourselves. This is both understandable and normal. Unfortunately, self-protective behaviors can often be damaging to a relationship. Fortunately, there are ways we can train ourselves to fight more fairly.
- Own your $hit. When your partner makes a complaint, your job is to listen, acknowledge, and take responsibility for the role you play in their upset, even if it feels unfair in the moment. You’ll get your turn to air grievances but if you jump in with defense, you’re cuing your partner to get ready for battle. This is bad for all involved.
- Stay on task. If one complaint leads into a flurry of all the things both partners are upset about, solutions become all but impossible. Contract with your loved one to focus on one thing at a time. This increases your chances of solving problems and decreases the exhausting merry-go-round of fighting about all the things all the time.
- Stay in your “couple bubble.” In other words, leave all other people, references, institutions, and dogma out of the conversation. This is between you and your partner. Gathering outside resources to support “your side” is another way to signal to your partner that you’re there to attack, not to collaborate.
- Work on THE PROBLEM, not on EACH OTHER. You and your beloved are in one another’s care. That’s the beautiful thing about pair bonding. Built-in teammate! When you make your partner’s beliefs, ideas, or character the target of the fight, you forget that you’re on the same team. When you remember that, you can focus together on solving the problem you’re both having. Additional tip: collaborate, collaborate, collaborate. If you say “no” to a suggested solution, make sure to have another idea in mind. The goal is to get creative and work together to find a solution that works for now and keeps both of you as happy as possible. It won’t be perfect, but you should both feel satisfied.
- Practice Equity and Justice. Make sure that each person gets time to speak and that both partners feel seen and heard. When your partner is speaking, your job is to listen, not to build a counterargument. Helpful phrases for ensuring that your partner knows you’re listening are “what I heard you say was…” and “my main takeaway from what you said was….did I get that right?”
- Pay attention to your body and the body language and non-verbal cues of your partner. If you notice signs of becoming over-stressed such as shallow breathing, rapid heart rate, tightening muscles, difficulty staying “present,” nausea, etc. it’s time to take a time-out to get grounded. Let your partner know that you care about what they have to say and that you need a 20-minute break to “come back online.” Spend that time doing what helps you calm down, NOT ruminating on resentments or building a counterattack. Similarly, if you notice signs that your partner is becoming dysregulated, it’s a good idea to check in with your vocal tone and volume, facial expression, and other forms of non-verbal communication. Remember: SAME TEAM.
Fighting well and fairly is a practice just like anything else, and many of us lack modeling for how to engage in conflict in a way that is kind and non-threatening. Paying attention to the ways we set our partnership (and, by extension, ourselves) up for failure and pivoting to new behaviors will do wonders for our feelings of connection and ability to communicate effectively with our people. Conflict is the way we grow, and it’s amazing how creative, collaborative, and mutually satisfied we can be when we remember that we can care for one another as we work together on an issue.