Recently my beloved and I were at the grocery store, shopping for a dinner party. We have done this before but something about this outing was different.
“We already have an onion,” my partner said to me in the produce section, followed up by, “We don’t need that large a chocolate cake—let’s buy the smaller cheesecake instead.” It went on and on like this throughout the store. Finally, in the meat section, things came to a head over a pork roast I was getting. “I think that is too much meat,” my non-cooking lover said. In my head something erupted and my little angry person said “Quit doggin’ me about the pork roast! And every other damn thing in the store!” Luckily for us I did not say this out loud. I held my tongue and started wondering what was really going on.
We were able to navigate this disagreement once we got back to our car. Make no mistake; this was a disagreement. It was a good fight, and we did not necessarily like what we each were hearing, but we heard each other’s side without thermonuclear fission. What we both clearly understood was this was not about pork roast or my partner wanting to be cheap, or my cooking skills. I needed to have my partner support me making our guests feel welcomed and cherished. My partner wanted us to be a team around finances, especially since we have had some big bills lately. There were deeper needs here of understanding and safety and once we heard each other’s deeper needs we were able to move on and kiss and make-up.
How did we do that?
As a Marriage and Family Therapist Intern I have seen many couples try to go twelve-rounds about the most amazing things, from rubber spatulas to driving habits. While these may be very important issues, what always comes to the surface is that these things are not truly what the fight is about.
Marshall Rosenberg, the non-violent communication guru states, “Love is not denying ourselves and doing for others, rather it is honestly expressing whatever our feelings and needs are and empathically receiving the other person’s feelings and needs.” I found that once a partner can truly hear and empathize (not necessarily agree) with what the other partner is saying, an argument could be diffused and repaired quite quickly.
How to get to the Empathic Place
This sounds grand but once you are in a fight it is often hard to calm the warriors of justice inside your head, the ones that want to make that final point or jab.
What has to be cultivated is awareness. It is all about your awareness of yourself. If we are not able to slow down and get aware of what is making us angry, then it is very difficult to be empathetic to our partner’s deeper needs. We will just get stuck in defensiveness and annoyance, the “stop pestering me about the pot roast” place versus being able to articulate and listen in more open “neutral Switzerland” kind of way.
How to Fight the Good Fight Fundamentals
• Set ground rules. These must be agreed upon when you are NOT fighting. These rules must be specific to your tolerance levels. Example: You might be able to tolerate yelling but when it gets to a screaming level that may be too much.
• Don’t interrupt. Give your partner the floor first. See if you can really listen and not just wait to interrupt to make your point or correct your partner, “No it happened on Wednesday not a Tuesday”. This requires slowing the argument down and taking some breaths.
• Check for readiness. Fights often happen very spontaneously. It is often a great idea to agree to a time-out, and come back to the issue later when both partners are more prepared to discuss it.
• Avoid bullying and blaming language. It is statistically proven that blame is a relationship killer. Avoid words like “always” and “never.” Try to start each disagreement with an “I” statement versus “You.” Swearing and name calling often lead to contempt and should be avoided.
• Don’t Dog Pile. It is very easy to start arguing about one thing and then listing every single thing that ever pissed you off in your relationship. This type of “everything-but-the-kitchen-sink” defense does not lead to closure and repair and it often does quite the opposite. Our nervous systems can really only handle one topic at a time.
Being able to fight effectively and constructively is really important to the overall health of intimate relationships. The good news is that practicing any one of these fundamentals on a regular basis will change the dynamics of your relationship and help you fight the good fight and get closer to your partner.