All couples fight. Some fight in a knockdown-dragout way, some through intensive, long discussions, some through passive-aggressive behavior, and some with pillows.
The pillow fights might be more infrequent, but they should probably be instituted as regular occurrence. Sounds much better than knocking and dragging, right?
Working at The Gottman Institute, I’m surrounded by the topic of couples and relationships every day. It’s great because I have a personal interest in relationships as a whole and I love counseling couples – it’s known for being one of the most challenging populations. Most of the couples we interact with are really struggling to make things work. They are quarreling constantly and they don’t know what to do to solve the animosity that comes up everytime there’s a disagreement.
There is a method to fighting with your partner and fighting fair. I want to debunk the myth that there’s a way to fight and always get your way in relationships, because that’s just not true. Getting your way means your partner’s needs aren’t being met. So if your way is to deny your partner their desires 100 percent of the time in a disagreement, then there’s more that needs to be discussed about how much you value your partner than about how you fight.
So, let’s cover what I feel is essential to fighting fair. I’ve taken Dr. John Gottman’s Sound Relationship House as an approach to solving this issue.
1. Reflect – Before you even start talking with your partner about what’s bothering you, think about it. Try to analyze where this issue is coming from. If you’ve been feeling sad lately, is that your partner’s responsibility to solve or is it yours? If you’re feeling overwhelmed with the kids, have you asked for help from your partner? Now matter how much we wish it was so, our partners can’t read our minds. Very often this issue can be resolved internally and through your own work, with support from your partner.
2. Softened Start-up – This is a Gottman term. Softened start-up is crucial because it signifies to your partner “I respect your time”. When we ask for permission for a discussion, we’re respecting our partners feelings in the moment. If they just walked in the door home from work, the last thing they probably want to hear is, “We need to talk.” Trust me, it will be better to wait until after dinner or even for a day. Ask your partner for a discussion about something, don’t bombard them.
3. Practice Self-Awareness – When you are as emotionally invested as a relationship often requires, having conflict can feel overwhelming. Pay attention as best as you can (it’s a practice, not a competence!) to how your body is reacting and how you are feeling. If you feel you’re flooded – your heart is racing, your blood is pumping, and you feel physically heightened – take a break. Let your partner know you’re going to revisit the conversation when you’re calmed down.
Also, pay attention to the things you’re saying. Use ‘I’ statements and avoid statements which start with, ‘You…’ in an accusatory manner. Attacking your partner as a person is not a likely solution for a positive outcome. Keep an eye out for the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” as Gottman calls them – Criticism, Defensiveness, Stonewalling, and Contempt.
4. Be Prepared for Influence – Practice active listening with your partner – give them nods, mmhmms, etc. When they say how they feel or they make a point and you can practice empathy with that and you honestly see how they could feel or think a certain way, tell them. It’s your job as their partner to be the one person in the world who really aims to understand who they are and what they care about. The statement “I can see how you would feel that way,” can take you very far in conflict.
It’s also known that when partners take ownership of a problem, making it a ‘we’ issue instead of a ‘you’ issue, problems are resolved faster and with less animosity. The problem also doesn’t seem as huge when you have someone working on it with you.
5. Dig Deeper – Most arguments about seemingly petty things or unsolvable issues are really much deeper than they seem. Remember when you reflected? If you figured out that what you are having a problem with goes down to something deeper than what initially bugged you, now is the time to say something. If your worry about your partner never helping you clean around the house is actually a worry that your partner doesn’t respect you or your time, then that’s deeper. That says, “This is more important than vacuuming the rug. This is about how much you value me and my happiness.”
6. Be Flexible – Resolve the issue by finding places for compromise. Figure out your flexible and inflexible areas and find out your partner’s talk about what changes you both will make to accommodate this problem. Make a commitment to be flexible in your approaches to this problem for a while.
7. Dialogue – Don’t sweep this under the rug. Check-in on it. Ask each other how you’re feeling about what changes are being made, how each person is feeling about the solution, and if there are any new ideas for tackling the issue. This is a great opportunity to build intimacy and really learn more about your partner. The silver lining of conflict! You learn more about the person you love.
8. Repair – Always come back to your partner and look for ways to soothe the conflict. Find the situations where your partner tries to help you feel better, apologize, or resolve the problem. Find opportunities to do the same. It can be as simple as a hand on the back, the wiping away of tears, or a gentle joke. You may not be able to always tie a conflict off with a beautiful bow, but you can at least suture the wound.
This is a good standard for fighting in your romantic relationship, or really in any close relationship. I have found these little tidbits incredibly useful over the last few years. When I do these things, I find the anxiety over any problem I’m having – be it with friends, partner, or family – vanishes.
Do you do anything that you feel helps in a disagreement with a loved one that I didn’t list?