By Triantafillia Memisaki
Growing up, I’m sure at least one adult told us that we shouldn’t fight – especially not with people who care about us and who we care about in return. But how many of us are guilty of fighting anyway? I thought so. Here’s the thing, when those people told us not to fight, they didn’t mean we shouldn’t ever express our disagreement with someone just because feelings are involved, nor did they mean that we shouldn’t stick up for what we believe in. They simply meant that we would be better off resolving our issues in a more civilized way than squawking and screaming. The problem is they never gave us any specific things to do instead. So how are we supposed to stop when we have no alternative? Especially when it involves becoming so angry or upset that we have a hard time controlling our thoughts and emotions in the first place. Fear not, my friends. There’s a pretty extensive list of things we can try. Hopefully some of these will help:
- When you suspect a fight is developing, use the “pass the baton” approach. This means while your partner is talking, you wait until they “pass you the baton”, i.e. that they are finished and it’s your turn to state your opinion. You can be literal about this and use an actual object so that only the person holding that object is allowed to speak. But, however you do it, it’s important to remember that when it’s your turn to listen, don’t simply use that time to think of ways to counter what your partner’s saying. Actually make an effort to understand where they’re coming from and to empathize.
- When it is your turn to speak, avoid using sentences that start with “You” – especially if it’s followed by words like “never” or “always”. Sweeping generalizations like that add an accusatory tone, so even if you are right, it will only upset or annoy your partner and escalate the problem. Instead, only use statements that start with “I”, because those show you are taking responsibility for your actions and also that you’re trying to communicate how you feel about the situation, rather than blaming your partner for everything that’s wrong in the universe. Think of it as a game. Every time someone uses the word “You” at the beginning of a sentence, they have to put a penny in a jar. A whole dollar, if they also use “never” or “always”! Let’s see who will make the other richer faster!
- Time out! You don’t have to express your every feeling at that very moment. I know it’s hard to hold everything in and just walk away, but you’re not leaving the problem unresolved. You’re just going to think about all the things that made you feel and react the way you did, so when you continue the conversation you can make yourself clearer than if you were just screaming random things as they came to you. That way, your partner will know that you aren’t just saying things because you’re mad. At the same time, they, too, will be given time to cool down, so they can listen to you and understand what you’re saying better. It’s a win-win, as long as you don’t take more than a 2 hour time out, coz then the issue just gets swept under the rug and will come back with a vengeance.
- When you’re mad at your partner, try to find your sense of humor. Of course, saying or doing something funny when your partner is trying to be serious will likely upset them even more and make the fight worse. They might take it as sarcasm and lack of interest on your part, so the key here is to use the humor inwardly. When YOU are the one who’s mad, try to think about something funny to force yourself to see your partner in a different light. Finding something to laugh and smile about will let off steam and calm you down enough to think a little more clearly.
- Touch each other (get your mind out of the gutter!). By that, I mean that you should make a point of cuddling with each other while discussing topics that you are prone to fighting over. It’s a very effective method, since the pheromones, combined with skin-on-skin warmth, will make you both feel safe and calm in each other’s arms.
- Realize that it’s not just you and your partner that have to take care of each other, but there is also a third presence in this equation: your relationship. Any decisions you make have to take into account its well-being, as well as your own. So every time you get into a fight, take a step back and ask yourselves “What’s the best for the relationship?” That way you disconnect from the selfish thinking and realize that some things may annoy you, but they’re still not worth losing your partner over.
- There’s always that old saying: “Put things in perspective”. Does it really make a difference whether the toilet seat is up or down? In the end, how does sweating the small stuff make your life any better? Besides, what’s the point of having a perfectly organized life if it means you and your partner are always fighting? Being a couple is about compromise and it’s not that hard to do, when you really care about someone. Didn’t you both promise to make each other happy when you became a couple? When did that fly out the window?
Finally, if none of those seem to work for you, then there’s one last resort you can lay your hopes on. And that is a system I read about in Sharon Rivkin’s book “Breaking the Argument Cycle: How to Stop Fighting Without Therapy”. Sharon talks about a three part method any couple can use to not only figure out why they’re fighting so much, but also to come up with ways to solve their underlying issues. Here’s a quick summary…
The most important fight a couple ever has is their first one, because by analyzing it they can figure out the initial problem all their other fights stem from. That’s because that first fight usually remains unresolved, and the feelings evoked build up into even more misunderstandings that eventually become hostile situations. It’s important to remember that everything that happened during that first fight needs to be written down. By breaking it down into a set of actions and reactions, you make the next step a breeze. You’re both supposed to ask yourself: What was done or said before our first fight? How did we each react during that fight and how did we feel and act after it?
Once you’ve written all those down you each have to think back to your childhood to the earliest time in your life when you remember you felt the same way as in that first fight. Try to link exact words that were said, emotions that were felt and actions you experienced.
Voila! Now you know why that first fight actually happened and why the little things suddenly become World War III. By making the links between your childhood and your first fight with your partner, you realize anything that subconsciously reminds you of something that affected you during your childhood is going to trigger an emotional response that doesn’t really fit the situation at hand. So any time you find yourself getting disproportionately upset over something that would normally not involve such a passionate response, you know it’s because it’s really not about that little trigger at all, but it’s actually about your core childhood issues.
Now that you’ve discovered the pattern you can start to resolve it. “How do you do that?” you might ask. Well, it depends on the type of core issue you each have. According to Sharon, there are 6 distinct types:
- abandonment/lack of trust (reacts with feelings of hurt, fear, sadness, clinginess, and constantly need reassurance)
- control (reacts with jealousy, a sense of entitlement, revenge, and a need for everything to be perfect)
- detachment (reacts with self-doubt, numbness, confusion, and act spacey when things get ugly)
- fear of commitment (reacts run away from a fight, deny their side of it, and sometimes ignore the fight and its cause all together)
- rage (reacts with extreme impatience, are critical, judgmental and vengeful)
- victim (reacts by crying, often feel worthless after a fight, and experience self-doubt)
Because each core issue is triggered by different words and gestures, and is expressed by different reactions they are each tackled in different ways, which I’ll let Sharon explain since she’s the expert here. Read her book to make the most of the incredible insight and step by step system she has to offer.
But I will tell you one thing for certain: the only way to work through your issues – whatever they may be – is to truly listen to one another when you’re explaining your issues and to remember how the other person feels every time a fight starts, so you can catch yourselves and stop before it escalates. Now that you know the other person isn’t out to get you, but has a specific vulnerability they have to work on, you both know what to focus on. I hope this helps!
Breaking the Argument Cycle: How to Stop Fighting Without Therapy, by Sharon Rivkin