Many people can relate to having fights with their significant other that may start off about something as insignificant as dishes, but turn into screaming, crying, doors slamming, or icy silence. Often in these fights, the catalyst is forgotten altogether. Not forgotten are the hurtful words, comments, and general distance felt from each other. No one wants to engage in these kinds of fights. No one wants to say hateful things to a person they love, so why does it keep happening?
Often in my work with couples I see two people who love each other and would give anything to make the nasty fighting STOP. Below are 4 Do’s when engaged in a conflict with your significant other.
- Respect your partner, even in a fight. Often when we are upset, we criticize our partner, attacking them as a person instead of for what they have or have not done. Criticisms include blaming, name calling, and generalizing. For example, you may be upset that your spouse failed to do the dishes. Instead of saying how upset you are about the dishes, you state or insinuate he or she is “lazy” or they “never” help out. Keep your complaints specific to a problem, the dishes. State how you feel: frustrated, overwhelmed, or disappointed that your partner forgot to do the dishes. Keep the name calling out of it.
- Hold yourself accountable. We all make mistakes from time to time. I know I have made my fare share in 10 years of marriage. When you mess up, acknowledge it. This may sound easy enough, but it is not so easy when your partner is pointing out what you have or have not done. Your knee jerk reaction may be one of the following: “I did not have time to do the dishes.” (defensive); “You are always on my back about something.” (deflecting, attacking back); “The dishes can be done tomorrow. It’s not that important.” (minimizing); or “You are right. I never do anything. I’m lazy” (deflecting by self-deprecating). These statements may be true but you will leave your partner feeling unheard, minimized and that their feelings do not matter to you. If you did not do the dishes, apologize and acknowledge your partners feelings. “I did not mean to make you feel overwhelmed. I am sorry I did not get to them. I will do them now.”
- Respond with respect. At times you may feel like the innocent bi-stander of your partner’s attacks. You may be caught off guard or be angry to be criticized out of nowhere. Responding with a counter attack or defensiveness is likely to be your gut reaction. I am sure you have experienced that counter attacks only lead to being stuck in a dead end conflict leading nowhere fast. Instead, if you feel attacked or criticized, let your partner know. “It seems like you are really upset, but I’m feeling blamed.” “I’m sorry you are upset but please don’t criticize me. We are in this together.” “It seems like you are really upset. Is everything ok?” You get the idea. Acknowledge their feelings first, then state how you are feeling. Most likely their blunt approach is not about you. They are likely overwhelmed or angry in general and it is coming out at you. They need your support with the underlying problem or feeling, but they are going about asking for your support in all the wrong ways. Respond to their need for you, instead of their approach to get your attention.
- Stay present. Another common response to escalating fights for at least one partner is emotional shut down. The fight has become too overwhelming or upsetting so you begin to shut down. You stop responding. You look away. You may even leave the room. You may say you stop responding to de-escalate the fight, but what often happens is your partner becomes more upset and pushes harder. Their response is natural when you consider someone they love is turning away from them and denying them access. Their Alarm bells go off and they push harder because they need to know you are there for them. If you find yourself shutting down when you and your partner fight, talk about it when you are not in a disagreement. Let them know your triggers which you may have to first learn yourself. “When you roll your eyes, raise your voice, blame me, etc. I feel myself shutting down. I want to stay present with you but I need your help. Can I let you know when I am shutting down and why, so we can take a step back?” Again you are acknowledging your partner’s feelings and letting them know what is happening for you as well.
Each of these common patterns during fights is difficult to break so be patient with yourself and your partner. With time and effort, it gets easier to avoid the pitfalls which lead to destructive fights with your partner. A great book to better understand destructive fighting patterns is John Gottman Ph.D. and Nan Silver’s, Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work.
Michelle Puster M.Ed., LPC | Helping disconnected couples grow closer