The Correct Way to Fight as a Couple
In Hump Day, award-winning psychotherapist and TV host Dr. Jenn Mann answers your sexiest questions—unjudged and unfiltered.
DEAR DR. JENN,
My boyfriend and I are very much in love—but when we fight, we hit below the belt, and it's hard to recover from. How can we argue ... without ruining our relationship? —Heavyweight Champion
DEAR HEAVYWEIGHT CHAMPION,
Conflict in a relationship is inevitable. How this conflict is handled, however, often determines whether a relationship will last or is destined to go down in flames. All of us have said things we regret while in a fight. When we get hurt, angered, triggered, or scared, we are most likely to lash out. The goal is to learn to recognize those moments and develop the impulse control to stop yourself so you can turn a difficult moment into a productive discussion, instead of escalating it.
Conflict is growth trying to happen. It brings problems to light so they can be processed. The conversations that result help you learn what is important to your partner. They gives you insight into your own stuff. Conflict teaches you how to anticipate and resolve future issues. It can release tension in the relationship and ultimately deepen the bond when you're able to manage it and resolve heart issues.
But fighting fair is a crucial skill. And “fighting well” doesn’t always mean “winning” those fights; rather, the goal is for you and your partner to walk away from the discussion with a sense of resolution, understanding, and connectedness. In the heat of an argument, when buttons have been pushed, maintaining your cool and knowing what to say are key relationship-saving skills. So are making sure you are heard, even in the face of confrontation.
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So put down your boxing gloves and try some of these fighting tips:
1. Seek to understand.
Even if your partner has been hurtful or used inflammatory language, it is beneficial to come from a place of openness and curiosity. Instead of trying to get your partner to see your perspective or change their mind, start the conversation by seeking to understand their point of view. Explore their perspective. Try to get into their head and understand what upset them and why. Seek to understand their intentions and reasoning, instead of assuming the worst. That can be difficult if the delivery method was shouting, rudeness, or passive aggression—and you can critique your partner’s communication style when the time is right. But ignoring their underlying hurt or frustration is helpful to no one.
2. Change the way you begin a discussion.
John Gottman, a relationship researcher best known for his accurate predictions about couples and divorce, found that 96 percent of the time, the way a discussion begins will predict the way it will end. If you can start from a loving stance, rather than an accusatory or attacking one, the odds are better that you will resolve the conflict in a positive way. So the next time your boyfriend shows up late for dinner again, instead of starting with “You inconsiderate jerk, I can’t believe you left me waiting again,” start with something more diplomatic like, “When you keep me waiting, it really hurts my feelings and makes me feel like you don’t value my time.”
3. Allow your partner to talk, and really listen to what they say.
Interrupting will make the speaker frustrated and give them the impression that you are more interested in what you are saying than in listening to their perspective. In the heat of an argument, most people are not great listeners. Truly listening can give you great insight into your partner’s perspective and make them feel heard, which can go a long way toward resolving a disagreement.
4. Identify "Part X."
Know when it is time to abandon all hope of a productive conversation. When you or your partner is in what I call “Part X”—when your emotions overwhelm your rationality—that primitive state will keep any effective rational conversation from taking place. “Part X” is too invested in winning, being right, and destroying the opponent. When you feel yourself going there or sense that your partner is, tabling the discussion until you are both in a more adult state of mind is the best idea.
5. Take a time out.
When an argument gets too heated, it ceases to be productive. Most couples can benefit from a cool-down period during a fight. Use it. It is important for you to establish this before taking a break, so your partner doesn’t think you are simply walking away. It is helpful to say, “I think I need a time out right now. I am too upset to think straight and need some time to calm down. Let’s check back in an hour.” Determining a time to meet again to finish the discussion is a crucial aspect of this technique because if you don't, your partner will feel abandoned or silenced. Learning to take a loving time out is one of the most valuable skills a couple can learn.
6. Let your partner influence you.
Let your partner influence your decisions, not just during a fight but in general. Gottman found that even in the first few months of marriage, men who allow their wives to influence them have happier marriages and are less likely to want a divorce than men who resist their wives’ influence. For example, the person who is debating between accepting two job offers and allows their partner to help them figure out which one is the best opportunity for him or herself personally is more likely to have a successful relationship. Opening the door for your partner to influence your life decisions reduces conflict because they feel important in your life and you grow to count on them. (On the flip side, when a man is not willing to share power with his partner, there is an 81 percent chance that his marriage will self-destruct.)
7. Try reflective listening.
Reflective listening is repeating back to your partner what they just said, using your own words. For example, “Let me see if I understand you correctly: When I yell at you, you find it threatening and it scares you.” Oftentimes, when couples fight, each person is so busy constructing their next argument while their partner is talking that they don’t really listen to what the other person is saying. Feeling heard in a relationship is vital to good communication. It also allows you the opportunity to make sure you actually understand your partner's perspective. I can’t tell you how many times one couples actually agree on the important things but each partner misunderstands what the other is thinking and why they’re angry.
8. Use the sandwich technique.
Start with the positive and end with the positive, even when you are not feeling especially positive. It makes a huge difference in the way your words are received. For example, “I really noticed that you have been cleaning up in the kitchen more. That makes me feel really cared about since we share that common space and I know a clean space is more important to me than it is for you. I would really love it if you would replace the toilet paper when you finish it. The other day I was trapped on the toilet with no paper nearby. But I hope you know how much I love living with you. I look forward to coming home to you every day."
9. Come up with a temporary solution.
When each of you is deeply entrenched in getting your own way, finding a temporary solution can help break through resistance. When Ethan and Zac, a couple who came to me in my private practice, moved in together, they were excited about sharing a home, but their enthusiasm was dampened when they began to hang their art in the living room. Ethan wanted to hang a black-and-white photo on the wall and Zac was adamant about hanging his collection of framed movie posters. They each felt equally committed to their perspective, and, in that moment, each of them felt as if they were making a life-or-death decision. It wasn’t until they agreed to try putting the posters up for two weeks and then the photo for two weeks before making a permanent decision that either was willing to budge. Ultimately they decided to keep the black-and-white photo up because they found that it was more complementary to the furniture—but it meant a lot to both of them that the other person gave their idea a fair shot for a good two weeks.
10. Watch your Gottman ratio.
Gottman found that the biggest determinant of a stable relationship is the ratio of positive to negative interactions. According to his research, you must have at least five times as many positive to negative interactions for the relationship to work. Share this info with your partner. Make a commitment to each other that when you notice a bad Gottman ratio, you will bring to each other’s attention gently. You can even call yourself out to your new when your ratio is off.
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