Baltimore Sun

‘Fight with love’

Engaging in honest disagreeme­nts a positive sign for relationsh­ip

- By Allison Hope The New York Times

Dori Brail says she can tell when a fight is brewing with her wife of three years, Angie Peng. “I can feel it bubbling up,” said Brail, 41, a social work supervisor at a public defender’s office in New York. “The tone in our voices is different and our body language is stiffer and more defensive. Both of us need space when we’re upset, but at different times.”

The pandemic made fighting harder for the couple, compounded by a new baby, which added another layer of intensity to the heightened stress many are experienci­ng of late. “Being together all the time, isolated from other people, relying on each other for things we’d normally look to friends for made small things that we would normally ignore feel bigger and more important,” Brail said.

“There has been so much unpredicta­bility the past year and a half and couples have been navigating new conflicts that they weren’t prepared to encounter,” said Lauren Cook, a Los Angeles-based therapist, speaker and author who holds a doctorate in clinical psychology. “Partners have shorter fuses with one another and it may be harder to repair than before the pandemic.”

Brail tries to create space when she feels annoyed in efforts to circumvent a full-on fight. Peng, also

41, and a project manager for a research firm in New York, actually prefers the confrontat­ion, needing, she said, the “energy of the fight to blow off steam.”

“Once we start fighting, it happens quickly where nobody is listening and everyone is just trying to prove their point or let the other person know they are hurt,” Brail said.

Engaging in honest disagreeme­nts — or fighting “right,” as some might say — is actually a positive sign that a relationsh­ip has a pulse. Even before the pandemic, couples argued a lot. According to a widely cited 2011 survey of more than 3,000 couples conducted by the British insurance company Esure, couples argue, on average, 2,455 times a year, or roughly seven times a day.

The majority of the fights are about money, housework, free time, physical intimacy and extended family, according to a 2020 study led by scholars at the department of psychology at Oakland University in Missouri. Many are more frustrated with their partners since the pandemic hit, particular­ly moms, according to another recent study out of Indiana University.

Arguing is not necessaril­y a bad thing. “When we fight in healthy ways, it’s actually an indication that each partner is invested in getting clarity and ultimately, closeness,” Cook said. Increased tension is also expected in this extended crisis environmen­t where “many couples are spending more time together than ever before and it can change the dynamic in key ways,” Cook said. “Partners have shorter fuses with one another and it may be harder to repair than before the pandemic.”

While their reactions to arguments differ, Brail and Peng “fight with love,” Peng said — that is, to choose words carefully so that

“we don’t hurt each other purposely.”

Another approach to healthy conflict is the so-called Gottman Method, which is recommende­d by Nidhi Tewari, a clinical social worker in Richmond, Virginia. Based on scientific research and coined in the 1980s by the husbandwif­e team John and Julie Gottman, Seattle-based psychologi­sts, this method is meant to help couples identify whether they are fighting fairly.

In essence, if you catch a whiff of “criticism, defensiven­ess, contempt or stonewalli­ng” in your conflict repertoire, according to Tewari, then your fighting has gone afoul.

The idea is to manage the conflict rather than resolve it — to pay attention to your specific words and general posture in the moment so that you can air your issues in a way that still feels accepting of your partner and can actually deepen your emotional connection.

“Healthy relationsh­ips require a balance of quality time together and individual time apart, and the pandemic limited couples’ abilities to create this harmony,” Tewari said.

Still, Tewari says, you can take some simple steps despite the added constraint­s of the pandemic to fight fairer. First, press the “metaphoric­al pause button” by setting a time limit on your argument and revisit later when both parties are less “emotionall­y aroused.”

Take time to breathe, meditate or practice grounding exercises, even if for a few minutes, to reset. Write down your thoughts so you can capture what is upsetting you and then resume the conversati­on.

Another important tip for fighting well, according to Tewari, is to choose your words carefully, avoiding contemptuo­us language and practice using “I statements,” to avoid insulting the other person. For example, you can say “I feel frustrated when you leave dishes in the sink after I am working all day and would appreciate if you could wash them after you use them,” rather than, “You never wash the dishes!”

Areefa Mohamed,

35, a massage therapist based in the New York

City borough of Queens, who found herself underemplo­yed during the pandemic, says COVID-19 laid bare just how different she and her boyfriend of6 ½ years are, which led to many disagreeme­nts. “His normal is far from my normal,” Mohamed said. The pandemic enabled Mohamed to spend a lot more time with her boyfriend, who lives in Clifton, New Jersey, and works in finance in New York, but it wasn’t all blissful. They found themselves for the first time fighting about everything from dinner and bedtime routines to TV habits.

“It has been a learning experience,” Mohamed said.

For these sorts of blowups, the key, once again, is to “respond rather than react,” Cook said. “When we get activated, the limbic system, or emotional center, of our brain can take over and our logical reasoning can get lost in the mix,” she said. “That’s why it’s so helpful to slow yourself down, listen to your partner, and say to yourself how you want to respond before you speak it out loud.”

Cook also recommends analogizin­g your fight to a “fur ball,” or the thing that keeps coming back up once in a while, rather than something that will break you. “As aggravatin­g as this can be,” she said, “see it as something that requires some maintenanc­e. It doesn’t mean it won’t get better.”

Fair fighting is an ongoing effort, even when a pandemic is fanning the flames.

“Even the healthiest of couples encounter challenges and stumbling blocks, and tweaks to communicat­ion should be made along the way,” Tewari said.


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