Fighting Fair

May 4, 2009

     A lot of people ask and are concerned about conflicts in their relationship.  Let’s talk about some realities and myths about arguing and fighting in a relationship.
     Having arguments and conflicts in a relationship is normal.  The vast majority of couples have some kind of conflict from time-to-time.  It is a myth to believe that a relationship is stronger or more loving because there is no conflict.  If anyone tells you they never fight, that is highly unlikely.  If it is true, then tension is building up some where and coming out some how.  It is better to acknowledge and work through conflict than it is to deny it and have anger and resentments building up.
First and foremost, physical violence or psychological cruelty is never acceptable!  This is not what fighting fair is about.  If you physically abuse someone one time or on a regular bases, you need to be in jail and then in domestic violence treatment!  If you get so angry that you have to beat someone or make them feel so horrible about themselves, then there is something wrong with you and you need to get that attended to.
     Both parties in a relationship have to be aware of a few things in order to handle conflict effectively.  Begin to understand the physiology of anger/fear.  When we get angry or fearful, our fight/flight/freeze response kicks in automatically.  Most people don’t know this but the auditory centers of the brain do not work as well  at processing auditory information when we are angry/fearful.  This is why when you are arguing with your partner, someone is saying, “you are not listening to me.  You don’t hear what I’m saying!”     
     When this happens, one or both of you have to walk away for a few hours or a couple of days.  Walking away doesn’t mean that you don’t talk about the issue again.  It means that you recognize that communication has stopped and good communication will only happen when both are in a more calm space.  This also means that you may have to have several small conversations to solve an issue.  For the couples I work with, this is one of the hardest things I ask them to do.  It is very counter-intuitive and some don’t like the feeling that the other is walking away but it is critical.
     Even if there is no physical violence in a relationship, there is also no room for cruel or controlling words.  Having difficult, honest discussions is way different than being mean to each other.  It is one thing to say, “I didn’t like…don’t like it when…think that you did…” versus saying cruel things about the other person — name calling or being personally demeaning.  You both have to make a commitment to not engage in that kind of interaction.  If you can’t, you need to get help.  Don’t fall into the excuse of, “he/she made me say it”.  No one makes anyone say anything.  
     Keep the discussion to the issue at hand.  Disagreements will go on for hours or days when you begin your argument over one thing and then someone starts bringing up issues/events from the past.  For the person who brings things up from the past, this may be an indicator that you are not dealing with conflict well because you are stuffing things down and then letting them explode down the road.  If this is the case, get help in understanding why you do that and how not to stuff your emotions.
It is important to remember that each person in the couple processes things differently and you have to have an awareness of how you do that and how your partner does that.  Once you have that awareness, then you have to allow for that to happen.  For example, some people want to talk about a situation and get answers/feedback right away.  Others need time to think about it and mull it over in their minds before they know what they want to say or do.  When arguing, some people immediately want to stay close to the other person and others want to retreat and spend time on their own while they sort things out.  None of the styles is right/wrong, good/bad — they just are.  Once you understand these patterns, it is easier to make your communications successful.
     Finally, you have to be willing to change your own position from time-to-time.  Rather than getting defensive all the time, sometimes you have to get curious and start asking questions rather than fighting for your position.  Once you’ve asked a whole bunch of questions, you might look at your partner’s experience/position differently.  It is okay to admit that!  It’s okay to admit when you are wrong or have made a mistake.  
     We all get into patterns of behaviors.  If you and your partner are chronically fighting and it feels like it is getting no where, then you might enlist the help of a therapist to guide you in understanding your patterns, triggers, and why things aren’t getting resolved.  Conflict and conflict resolution are signs of a healthy relationship.  Make the commitment to engage conflict in a fair, respectful way.