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!
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.]