From an Emotionally Focused Therapy and Attachment Perspective - By Jen Zajac, IMF
There are some couples who fight explosively and often, and others who seem to rarely get into a heated argument. Perhaps you can recall separate relationships you have been in where each has had a different “fight dynamic”. Regardless of how you define what a fight is, we all at some point encounter conflict, or disagreements, in our relationships. If our emotional needs aren’t attended to, even the small things that get dismissed or “swept under the rug” can develop into larger issues later down the line. Merely avoiding a fight does not resolve conflict.
As strange as it sounds, fighting (or conflict) can be part of a healthy relationship if both partners adhere to some “Fighting Fair” rules.
- Don’t dismiss the parts you have done or said to trigger your partner: An argument is hardly ever one-sided; both sides contribute. We can all have a different perspectives on the same situation. Dismissive comments such as “You took that the wrong way”, “you’re just being sensitive”, or “that’s not how I remember it”, etc. will just get you further down the wrong path. Stating “I understand that this upset you” will help you both come to mutual understanding.
- Connect through touch: This doesn’t mean sexy time; if your partner (or you) is upset or highly accelerated, an embrace or understanding touch can help send the message that you are there for them and listening- and can also be physically calming. Make-up sex doesn’t really make-up for anything (sorry to break the bad news), and sex will always be better later when you are both in a good place with each other emotionally.
- No “Buts” about it: You’ve probably heard this one before- a “but” completely erases everything said before the “but”. It also signifies to your partner that you aren’t fully listening and understanding, but dismissing their feelings and becoming defensive. It’s amazing how differently something comes across if “but” statements are reframed to more vulnerable, instead of defensive, language.
- Try to remain calm: Yelling or raising your voice will probably accelerate things further. If your partner begins yelling, responding calmly will help regulate them automatically. If you start the yelling, they will probably respond in like, and it will push them into defensive mode. You can’t be vulnerable and understanding when volume becomes hostile.
- Express how you feel, not how you think your partner feels: You already heard me make some statements about being vulnerable. A key point in vulnerability (which leads to understanding and compassion from the other side) is being careful to state how you feel instead of blaming your partner. A statement regarding your own feelings such as, “I feel unappreciated and I worry I can’t do enough to keep you happy”, is very different than stating “You are so ungrateful”.
- Don’t bring in other issues: This would be hard to do if you are aware of the other rules, but it’s important so it deserves to be restated. Saying, “yeah, but, that one time you did something similar” is not only diverting from the topic, but it’s also dismissing, using ‘but’, blaming, and probably breaking other rules as well. If you are more focused the core issue, the faster you can come to an understanding.
- Be sensitive to ‘soft spots’: Throwing a ‘blow below the belt’ is using harsh or blaming language especially where it doesn’t belong, such as throwing in a comment for the spite of it. This is where we usually are hurt, so we throw in something to hurt our partner as well. If you attack your partner, you have just added to the conflict.
- Don’t generalize: Using “always” or “never” is much too broad and can easily lead to defensiveness. Being specific is much more helpful in sharing how you feel about something. Stating “It hurts me when we don’t greet each other when I get home”, is more constructive and has more emotional vulnerability than “you never acknowledge me”.
- No accusations/degrading language: Not only is this blaming, it’s disrespectful to your partner. Hurtful language is a dangerous misstep.
- Do not use force: Physical force is obviously never acceptable, but verbal force can make your partner feel cornered and play defense. If they aren’t ready to discuss something, respect them. Reassure them that you are open and ready to discuss when they feel comfortable.
- Don’t pull the ‘divorce’ or ‘break-up’ card: Making threatening remarks about ending your relationship will either make your partner feel less safe sharing anything with you, or cause that ugly defensive side to show up again. Discussing your long-term compatibility is a very different discussion than ‘up-ing the ante’.
- Listen: If you think it’s important that you are heard, your partner likely feels the same way too. Communication is a two way process; allow them a turn to speak and share. Don’t just be silent when they speaking, but use touch and validating language to show you care what they are saying and that it has an impact on you.
- Validate your partner: You don’t necessary need to agree with your partner’s point to validate them. Just because you don’t feel a particular way about something, your partner has a different background and experience in the matter than you do. Acknowledge how they feel, and don’t write it off. They feel that way for a reason.
- Don’t expect to solve everything in one day: If some of these points sound repetitive or similar, it’s because they are. Fighting usually occurs in cycles, and these really aren’t each separate points, but a pattern that you probably see repeating itself. It takes time to change a negative cycle of fighting, and the more ground rules you can adhere to, the easier the rest will come.
If you are having trouble identifying where the negativity in your disagreements comes into play, or if you experience the same fight repeatedly, meeting with a Marriage and Family Therapist can help you sort out what the fights are really about and help guide you back on the right track. For additional support and to schedule an appointment with me, you can click here.
Jen has over 1,800 hours of experience counseling couples, individuals, pre-teens, teens, and their families. She has worked one-on-one with clients regarding tough issues such as relationship satisfaction, communication, infidelity, self-esteem, depression, phobias, life transitions, anxiety, family relationship issues, being bullied, self-injury, assertiveness, and drug and alcohol abuse/dependence.
She is a Marriage and Family Therapist Intern IMF#73826 working under direct supervision of Jennine Estes MFT#47653.