Fighting Fairly / Fighting Foolishly

Conflict is normal, but fighting, arguing, swearing, shutting down (and the like) are optional. Conflict makes for change. Barking, bitching and belittling result in no-change and no improvement. Using accepted rules for fighting can reduce the disdain to simple conflict and this might make life more palatable and problems more solvable.

Here are some ideas to consider when you fight. These principles have been around the psychology world (and all over the web) for a long time and they have many sources. So the ideas are not mine alone, though I have fine-tuned some of the ideas. Here we go.

First off, before you do anything, ask yourself why you feel upset.

This is important. It energizes a non-reactive part of the brain. Even for a moment, thinking will help you move to the discussion rather than destruction. Are you angry because your partner left the mustard on the counter? Or are you upset because you feel like you’re doing an uneven share of the housework, and this is just one more piece of evidence that they hate you? Take time to think about your feelings before starting an argument.

Discuss one issue at a time.

This is hard if you are focused to defeat the person you say you like. “You shouldn’t be spending so much money without talking to me” can quickly turn into “You don’t care about our family”. Now you need to resolve two problems instead of one. Plus, when an argument starts to get off-topic, it can easily become about everything a person has ever done wrong, from your point of view. We’ve all done a lot wrong, so this can be especially cumbersome.

Give up on degrading language — it makes you look weak and ill-informed.

Discuss the issue, not the person. No put-downs, swearing, or name-calling. Degrading language is an attempt to dominate your partner through coercion and to make them an “other.” It is bigotry and weak. Degradation will just lead to more character attacks while the original issue is ignored until the next quarrel.

Don’t bring up the past unless it is the “good past.”

Typically we bring up the worst of our partners and shared history when we fight. But what would happen if someone brought out the best in the other or the relationship? What if someone said, “Do you remember the first time we went to Hawaii and we sat on the beach until 2 in the morning?” Or if one said, “I remember how we solved a problem like this before. Talking really worked for us.”

Express your feelings with words and take responsibility for them.

“I feel angry.” “I feel hurt when you ignore my phone calls.” “I feel scared when you yell.” These are good ways to express how you feel. Starting with “I” is a good technique to help you take responsibility for your feelings (no, you can’t say whatever you want as long as it starts with “I”). (Somewhere on my website you fill find a “conversation crutch” where you say “I feel _______ because _______” in under 20 words. Shoot this is a good technique.)

Take turns talking.

This can be tough but be careful not to interrupt, give advice or even express support — just listen. If this rule is difficult to follow, try setting a timer allowing 2 or 3 minutes for each person to speak without interruption. And don’t spend your partner’s minutes thinking about what you want to say next. Listen!

No stonewalling.

Sometimes some people get passive-aggressive towards their partner by hiding behind fury and refusing to speak. This is called stonewalling. You might feel better temporarily, but the original issue will remain unresolved and your partner will feel more aggrieved — and that can produce another problem.

Yelling doesn’t work, so don’t do it.

Sometimes arguments are “won” by being the loudest, but the problem only gets worse and each will feel belittled. Men and women do this in about equal proportions. It is not just a female or a male trait. Bullying is not gender-specific. And don’t yell at your kids or your dog — it doesn’t work.

Take a time-out if things get too heated.

If you become flooded by your emotions, tell your partner you need to take a time-out for 15 or 20 minutes. Agree to resume the discussion later. And go off and write your feelings on a 3×5 card and stick it in your jeans. Don’t waste the rest time figuring out new missile strikes against your friend.

Attempt to come to an understanding.

You won’t find a “1-2-3 now you are free” kind of solution. They don’t really exist. People and their problems are just too messy for that. But you can come to an appreciation or respect for the other person’s point of view. If you can’t come to a compromise, merely understanding each other can help soothe negative feelings.

Be careful about quick draw forgiveness.

Some couples avoid conflict with quick apologies and quick forgiveness. What they lose from this is the chance to understand. Reconciliation (balancing the emotional books) requires conciliation (saying what is important to say).

And get some counselling!

If you are in a cycle of conflict (“It seems to never end.”) then find someone who understands and has some skills. We are pretty good! Also, check out my Referral List in the Tools section for others that are equally decent. And if you live in Smithers or Lacombe or Blaine or somewhere where there are few counsellors, these therapists do online therapy through Doxy or Zoom, etc.

[You are invited to make any comment you wish on this post or anything else you see on our website by emailing me at life@theducklows.ca.]

A+B=C (The Downward Slope)

This is an old psychology formula that makes good sense. “A” is the Activating event or the trigger that gets stuff rolling. “B” is the Belief system or judgment(s) that makes things worse (or possibly better, depending on your beliefs). “C” is the Consequence or outcomes.

This is how the formula works. Mostly the A or activating event (the thing that triggers you) just happens. You can’t control most circumstances and you are not immune to being hurt or upset. It is the B or belief system that produces the C or consequence.

Here is an example from a couple I saw a couple of weeks ago. The male partner was enraged for what he experienced the weekend just prior. This is the A – what he thought his wife did to him. He accused her of shaming him in front of his friends at a really fun party. This is the B – that he felt judged and that he should not be. The C was his rage and hurt and his spiteful behaviour for days following.

This is what went on: she asked him not to drink any more beer that night. He was getting pretty loud and acting “drunk-ish,” she said. She was worried by his disinhibition: flirting, bragging, over-laughing. She asked him quietly to stop the beer, she said. He thinks she publicly shamed him.

A bit later in the session, I asked about his thought processes and what triggered him. “I don’t need her to control me. She is not so perfect. I like to loosen up with my friends. She is so uptight.” That is the B or the belief systems that fueled his fire.

The B (or belief system) produced the C (or consequence) of several days of his swearing and anger, and spitefully threatening a divorce. Her C was to disappear from his sight, visit with her friends in the evenings, make him a Nespresso in the morning.

Here is what I said: “Your problem might be beer – I don’t know that – but it certainly is your belief system. You think that your partner is ruining your life. Where did you get that idea from?”

It still surprises me how hard we hold on to our unhelpful convictions. He needed to be right. He needed her to be wrong. He needed me to validate his narrative.

And then he saw it, reluctantly and thoroughly. He said, “I guess if I didn’t feel ‘small’ with her, I could have handled this differently. Maybe not right away but certainly within a couple of hours.” He apologized to her. She gladly accepted.

Now the therapy begins. He has to sort through his bloated belief system and find out something truer about himself and his partner. (More to come.)

[You are invited to make any comment you wish on this post or anything else on my site by emailing me at life@theducklows.ca. Thanks.]

Pat-Pat-Pow

“True friends stab you from the front” — that is was Oscar Wilde said and presumably he had some true friends.

In my work, I might say, “I’ve got your back but watch your front.” By that I mean, I will “pat-pat-pow” and it might cause you to stumble a bit. 

I think that 80% of confrontation is finding the good and pressing it into my client-friend. That is the “pat” and I do it lots because there are lots to affirm in most everyone. And about 20% is the “pow” or the zinger. Watch for the zinger.

I think of pats a lot in my work. This is finding good and commenting on it. Clients say “thanks” and I say, “It’s not a compliment; its an observation.” Not candy-floss sweetness but what is visible to me but unseen by them.

I think of pows a lot in my work. What will provoke the deepest and most lasting change? How do I de-concretize his thinking or believing? How can I help her get unstuck without harming her? Can I maintain empathy all the while stabbing them from the front like a true friend? And sometimes I think, “WWJD” (as in, “What Would Jesus Do?”).

Normally, I am not too anxious about tension and conflict, but I sure hate harming someone. In fact, I think my job is to create tension and conflict as in, “true friends stab you from the front.” But I will not stab you in the back.

Emotional Triangles: when elephants fight, it’s the grass that gets crushed.

I think I would lose a bunch of my business if my client-friends figured out emotional triangles. I usually suggest they read Generation to Generation: Family Process in Church and Synagogue by Rabbi Edwin Friedman. A tremendous book that is one of my top 10 resources.

You can also read from a presentation I made in New Orleans some years back. I entitled it “Illusions of Power” and it focuses on the three predictable roles of emotional triangles: Persecutor, Rescuer, and Victim.

The basic principle of triangles is that when any two parts of a system become pained or stressed with one another, they will “triangle in” or focus upon a third person, or issue, as a way of reducing the pain in their own relationship with one another. This is what gossip is; blab about somebody else and their deficiencies to make your dyad seem somehow better.

In families or communities, a person may be said to be “triangled in” if he or she gets caught in the middle as the focus of some unresolved issue. This happens when couples fight and then triangle around finances, or sex, or their kids or some other hot issue.

Triangles typically happen when there is too much closeness, as in parent-child relationships — we call this “fusion.” A teenage client that I have seen for a couple of years gets a lot of criticism unloaded onto her. Now she is no innocent but the crap that gets dumped is beyond reason. Makes one think that the parents have a few issues that they project. Of course, she will act out to the measure of their hostility — and she does.

A Swahili proverb states, “When elephants fight, it’s that grass that gets crushed.” I also like Proverbs 26:17 that says, “Getting involved in an argument that is none of your business is like going down the street and grabbing a dog by the ears.”

De-triangulating in these conflicts is complicated and takes some practice. (I guess I will have my job for a bit longer.) Mostly it is about not getting involved in the triangle in the first place. But do you know how hard it is to not gossip? I remember when I was building up a gossipy story that prejudiced someone I didn’t care much about and the person I was talking to interrupted me with “she is one of my best friends.” Well, I shut up really quickly.

Another way of de-triangulating has to do with writing a fresh narrative. If I think of myself as life’s “Rescuer” (see above), I might want to re-think that. Or if I anticipate most people rejecting my interest in them, I might want to approach people differently. I am probably doing something that causes the rejection I so dislike.

When kids grow up, parents have to de-triangulate, especially when they marry or have kids of their own. Benevolent disinterest is a difficult grace indeed.

 

[You are welcome to comment on this blog or anything else you see on my website. Please suggest improvements or ideas, or just dialogue. Contact me at life@theducklows. Hear from you soon. Thanks.]