Fights are a healthy part of every relationship, right? Wrong. There’s a huge difference between a respectful disagreement and a “fight”. The former is healthy; the latter – not so much. Fights, in fact, can be very destructive.
In a “fight”, the objective is to beat the other person, or to win. But does it really help your cause to beat or defeat someone you claim to love? By taking a “fighting” approach to your conflict, you and/or your partner may be slowly poisoning your relationship, and not even know it.
Taking the pulse of your “fights”
Think about it: What was the last really bad argument you had with your partner? Now ask yourself: Were you proud of how you handled it, or could you have done better? On the continuum between “polite disagreement” and “all-out war”, where did you fall?
The truth is, most of us have, at one time or another, injured our relationships by getting sucked into one or more of the five common “fight” traps listed below. But with self-awareness, self-control, and some good alternatives to these behaviours, we can rise above each and every one of them – and improve our relationships dramatically in the process!
Five common “Fight Traps” and how to avoid them
- What it is: Angry statements beginning with the toxic phrases “you always” or “you never”; overall attacks on a person’s character, or overall level of commitment to the relationship (for example, accusations like “you don’t care about me”, “you’re so self-centered”, “you were never committed to this relationship in the first place”, etc.).
- Why it hurts your relationship: Puts the other person on the defensive and diverts the focus away from the specific problem that needs resolution. Does nothing to help you progress towards resolution of the issue at hand. Makes the other person feel that you have deep-seated contempt for him or her. Plus, how can a person possibly respond to such vague accusations? The argument will only escalate.
- A better approach: Focus on the specific problem you wish to resolve; don’t treat the argument as a golden opportunity to air every grievance you have against your spouse. If, in fact, the specific problem is part of a larger issue (for example, your spouse is “always” frustrating you by “never” being home on time), timing is everything; wait until the argument is over, then choose a calm moment to explain why it is important to you to address this issue together in a productive, solution-oriented manner (i.e., because you feel it is damaging the relationship).
2. Hearing without listening
- What it is: In the heat of the argument, you’re not truly listening to what the other person is saying, and you’re not even attempting to understand his or her point of view – not because you don’t want to listen or understand, but because you’re feeling under attack. You’re so busy formulating your counterattack or defense that you’re not even able to focus. Your spouse may have a legitimate gripe against you, but you’re not open to hearing about it because it’s too threatening; it’s easier to turn the tables and show him that as bad as you are, he’s worse!
- Why it hurts your relationship: If you are not willing to understand your spouse’s subjective experience of your behavior, you’ll probably keep doing the things that are bugging him. Either the fight will keep recurring, or he’ll drop it because he feels that it’s not worth it, because nothing ever gets resolved (this can be even worse, because he’ll resent you inwardly and you may not even know it).
- A better approach: Unless you are a truly perfect person (and if you think you are, you have other problems!), be open to the fact that there may be areas in which you need to make changes, if the success of the relationship is important to you. But if your spouse is expressing himself disrespectfully, point out that you might be much more open to hearing his point of view if you weren’t feeling so attacked. It takes two to resolve a problem constructively.
3. Building a Case
- What it is: Collecting “evidence” of your partner’s bad behavior (for example, filing away all the nasty texts that she’s sent you during previous arguments); keeping a list of past grievances to throw back in her face during a fight; bringing up things that happened 5, 10, 15, 20 years ago that have already been rehashed several times and already resolved (or so she thought); threatening divorce.
- Why it hurts your relationship: You are establishing an adversarial relationship, sending the message that past mistakes can never be forgiven, and implying that your private relationship may be put “on the record” for the consumption of a third party (for example, the judge, in the event of a future divorce). If you threaten divorce, you’re sending a message that you have one foot out the door, and are not really committed to the relationship. This makes it impossible for the other person to trust you or to feel that you have a common sense of purpose.
- A better approach: Instead of keeping score of past grievances and/or threatening to quit the game every time you don’t like how the other person is playing, move forward together towards the mutual goal of supporting each other and resolving disagreements through respectful dialogue. If past grievances are legitimately painful and impossible to get past (for example, an affair), seek professional help in order to enable you to heal and move forward.
- Retaliating With Hate
- What it is: Exactly what it sounds like. People who retaliate hatefully treat their spouses with contempt and disrespect. This category of behaviour encompasses biting sarcasm, eye-rolling, yelling and screaming, wild hand gestures, getting in the other person’s face or cornering him or her, name-calling, put-downs, comparing your spouse negatively to your parents or friends, making demeaning comments (for example, about a person’s weight or appearance), and insulting the other person’s family. In extreme cases, this category includes emotional and physical abuse, which both go beyond normal arguing. Abuse is a huge red flag indicating that professional intervention is required. Run-of-the-mill meanness, however, can, with a lot of effort, be unlearned.
- Why it hurts your relationship: Because expressions of contempt will quickly destroy your relationship. Because you just can’t be hateful and loving at the same time. Because your spouse will quickly conclude that you can’t possibly love her if you speak to her this way. This may sound obvious, but you’d be shocked at how many of my clients (who admit to having behaved hatefully for many years) are genuinely surprised that their spouses have ended their marriages. Shockingly, many people think that this kind of behavior is normal and okay (“…but this is how my parents fought, and they’re still together – that’s just what marriage is!”). It’s not – or at least it shouldn’t be!
- A better approach: No matter how angry you get, treat your spouse with at least the same level of respect with which you’d treat the cashier at the grocery store. If you feel yourself about to lose control, tell your spouse you need a minute to calm down because you don’t want to say something you’ll regret. Think of the big picture before you speak, because once the words are out of your mouth, they will likely be remembered for an eternity, and will erode the other person’s feelings of emotional security in the relationship. Is it really worth it?
- What it is: Hiding behind a wall that your spouse can’t penetrate, thereby avoiding an honest discussion of your problem. Refusing to even engage in an argument, or abruptly ending an argument and/or walking away even though the issue has not been resolved. Giving your partner the silent treatment. Pretending you are fine with capitulating to your spouse’s demands but silently seething with anger, leading you to behave in passive-aggressive ways, such as withholding sex or “accidentally” leaving a mess for the other person to clean up. Basically, this category includes any behavior designed to avoid dealing with the real issue in a mature and productive manner.
- Why it hurts your relationship: Shutting the other person out is cowardly, immature, and punitive. And avoiding conflict altogether by being a “pleaser” or a yes-man will eventually leave you frustrated and hostile because your needs will go unexpressed and unmet.
- A better approach: If this is your default approach, seek professional help so that you can understand why you’re so threatened by the idea of engaging with conflict. Conflict is a necessary and even healthy part of every relationship. Learning to face it, engage with it productively, and use it as an opportunity for growth can be challenging for some people, but these are essential life skills, without which it can be very challenging for relationships to succeed. It’s worth the effort!
Freeing your relationship from the fight traps
Relationships can be hard, and resolving conflict is often a challenge, so it’s natural, from time to time, to feel anger or even contempt towards someone you love. But it’s important to remember, in the heat of the moment, that while your feelings may be legitimate, expressing these feelings the wrong way can result in severe damage to the relationship…and that this kind of damage can’t necessarily be undone. So if you find yourself and your partner falling regularly into these “fight traps”, resolve to do better.
How? Well, for starters, next time you’re in a heated argument with your partner, stop and take a deep breath. Think carefully; ask yourself whether what you’re about to say will likely help or hinder your goal of fair and respectful resolution, and whether your words will increase or decrease the likelihood of maintaining a satisfying long-term relationship with the other person involved. If you think you might be about to do some damage, you’re probably right, so in those moments, do your relationship a favor, and change the path you’re on, before it’s too late!
Until next time,