Arguments-out of control, how do you fight fair?
Everyone who is in a relationship argues. Research shows that 69% of those arguments are perpetual. We have all had them - the finances, the in-laws, too much time spent at work, too much time spent on sport, not enough help around the house, not enough sex, not enough attention and the list goes on. So if conflict is a healthy part of every relationship, why do so many people avoid it?
We each have our own ways to manage conflict. Some of us are competitive, needing to win at all costs, others accommodate, putting the needs of other first so as to ‘keep the peace’ and some people avoid conflict
all together. It is how we behave during an argument that the damage is done.
Marital expert John Gottman has identified four behaviors that if repeated constantly can be fatal to a relationship. These behaviours are:
1. Criticism: ‘You always…’, ‘you never’, ‘why do you…’ This behavior attacks your partner with the intent of making someone right and someone wrong.
2. Contempt: Insults, name calling, eyerolling, sarcasm, hostile humour, mockery, sneering. This behaviour attacks your partner’s sense of self, with the intent to shut the other down.
3. Defensiveness: Warding off a perceived attack by making excuses, meeting a complaint with a cross complaint, ‘yes-butting…’, blaming, constant repetition which becomes whining. This is done with the intent to shut the other down yet it invites contempt and criticisms well as stonewalling.
4. Stonewalling: Withdrawing as a way to avoid conflict - silence, monosyllabic conversations, leaving the room without explanation and changing the subject. Nothing ever gets resolved.
If you can identify your conflict style and behaviours, then you can begin to replace them with behaviors that encourage ‘fair fighting’, therefore enhancing the relationship rather than harming it. You might not get the desired outcome yet you might understand your partner more and find collaborative ways to solve problems.
SO HOW DO WE HAVE A FAIR FIGHT? HERE’S SOME TIPS:
1. Identify the perpetual conflicts in your relationships, then you can look to ways of discussing and brainstorming solutions before a fight erupts.
2. Identify what your conflict behaviour is and see if you can slowly start to change the patterns - after all if there is a change in you - your partner will change also.
3. If you have a complaint, keep it specific. Understand how the behaviour impacts on you - use ‘I’ statements and listen to the reply - even if you don’t agree with it. Identify what you need and state it.
4. Take some responsibility. Validate your partner’s argument by demonstrating you have listened. Accept responsibility for a small part. This can be a learning
“THE AIM OF ARGUMENT, OR DISCUSSION, OF SHOULD NOT BE VICTORY BUT PROGRESS” – JOSEPH JOUBERT.
experience as once you can accept responsibility you will not have to resort to defensive behaviors.
5. If you feel overwhelmed, let your partner know, take a break and agree to re-visit the discussion when you have calmed down. Don’t avoid the problem - make a specific time to discuss the problem.
6. If you find that none of these options are working for you, therapy can help you understand your triggers and what you are reacting to.
7. Finally try to respond and not react. Conflict is part of every healthy relationship. It is what we do with our anger that can destroy our relationships. If you are constantly using one of the four behaviours identified by John Gottman, you are constantly harming your relationship. You can still argue, but replace the harmful behaviours with relationship enhancing ones.
Charmaine roth is an experienced Counsellor Psychotherapist practicing in Sydney’s Eastern Suburbs. Through safe, skilled conversation Charmaine works with individuals, couples and families to help them become more aware of behaviours that are no longer working and explore new choices that will improve relationships. For more information, see her website.