In a healthy relationship, fights are going to happen. (Often, a complete absence of fights is a sign partners have become irrevocably disconnected.) So the goal isn’t to eradicate all fights; it’s to make sure you’re fighting well.
What I mean is, a good fight is one that’s productive: grievances are aired, resentments are released, both parties ultimately feel understood, and the least possible emotional damage was inflicted. A bad fight is–well, the opposite of that.
If you’ve been having bad fights, this is a great post to read with your partner. If you can agree to the ground rules in here (and maybe even put them on the fridge or somewhere you can reference them), that can start turn things around. So here goes!
1) Remember that at the core, your partner is someone you love and respect.
Sure, you’re mad at him/her right now. But you chose this person as your partner for a reason, and before you unload all your frustration and anger, it’s actually a good time to remind yourself of that.
Reinforce that your partner is your teammate. You each bear some responsibility for a fight, as it’s about the dynamic that’s occurring between you; you’re both contributing to that dynamic. Whatever communication problem you’re having, you need to solve it together.
2) Draw on your communication skills, and possibly your anger management tools.
Communication skills rest on this fundamental principle: Express what you feel, don’t attack the other person’s intentions. That’s the purpose of “I” statements. You only know what you feel, you don’t know your partner’s motivations or intentions, even if you think you do. So start from that place, and be open-minded to what the other person will say in return.
Making assumptions about your partner will only produce defensiveness, so avoid that as much as possible.
Anger management tools include deep breathing and taking a break when the conversation is getting too heated (preferably, early on in the conversation, as that will mean it’s a shorter break and you can get to resolving things quicker.) Monitoring your rising frustration and anger helps.
For example, on a scale of 1-10, where 1 is not at all angry and 10 is Mount Vesuvius, notice when you’re going up in numbers quickly. Take a break before you reach 5. Once you’re at a 7 or 8, your higher brain functioning and impulse control will get worse and the odds are, the argument will cease to be productive.
If you’re not able to control your impulses and your anger (or your partner isn’t), it’s a good time to seek out a self-help book, a class, or a therapist.
3) Notice your own reactions, instead of focusing on the other person’s.
You want to avoid the “You made me…” syndrome. We’re all responsible for our own responses. Your partner might be doing a lot of things, some of the provocative, but he/she can’t make you do anything.
If you’re upset by how your partner is talking to you, say that clearly. Point out that the tone or the word choice doesn’t feel helpful, or that it actually feels hurtful. Agree with your partner, ahead of time, that when one of you does point things like that out, the other person will work to alter their demeanor/delivery.
If your partner won’t agree to that, won’t take responsibility for changing, and/or blames you for everything, you might be looking at an emotionally abusive relationship. For more on that, please read my recent posts: Are You Being Emotionally Abused? and (if need be) the follow-up You’re Being Emotionally Abused–What Do You Do About it?.
But remember that a healthy relationship does involve conflict. You’re not one person, after all, and how boring would it be if you were? You’re going to disagree, and sometimes you’ll be irritable or stressed or in any one of a number of situations that increases the likelihood a fight will occur. But you’re also in it together.
** If you or someone you know is struggling in your relationship, contact Aspen Counseling Services to schedule a Couples Initial Assessment.