Put Up a Healthy Fight

Just like a tod­dler’s tantrums, ar­gu­ments with your part­ner can be caused by feel­ings lurk­ing be­neath the sur­face. It’s good to get them out—then take steps to re­pair and re­con­nect.

Parents (USA) - - Contents - by DAPHNE MARNEFFE, P .D. de h

Hash out ar­gu­ments with­out hurt­ing your part­ner.

WE’VE ALL been there. You need to bring up an is­sue with your part­ner. Maybe he leaves his stuff ly­ing around, or you have to agree on a way to get your tod­dler to sleep through the night. You start off calmly and rea­son­ably, but things es­ca­late, and be­fore you know it, what you’re say­ing is crit­i­cal and even mean. One of you storms out of the room, and per­haps you go to bed with­out even ex­chang­ing an­other word.

If you find your­self in this pat­tern, you know how painful it is. Ar­gu­ments go un­re­solved, and over time you be­come more dis­tant. As in­di­vid­u­als, you’ll al­ways have your dif­fer­ences, and as par­ents, you’ll have to com­pro­mise and col­lab­o­rate. But, like cou­ples who come to me for ther­apy, you may find your­self lament­ing, “It’s eas­ier to just do it my­self!” be­cause try­ing to agree so of­ten leads to a fight.

Be­fore we con­sider what fight­ing well might look like, it’s im­por­tant to rec­og­nize that not all dis­agree­ments are fights. In my prac­tice, I no­tice that some­times a wife will raise an is­sue, and then her hus­band will say she’s “never happy.” Or a hus­band will dis­agree with his wife and she’ll say he’s “start­ing a fight.” Some peo­ple are al­ler­gic to any kind of ten­sion, so it’s hard for them to tol­er­ate even nec­es­sary con­flict.

Fam­ily life hands us one com­pli­cated prob­lem after an­other, and cou­ples have to be able to with­stand some fric­tion in or­der to solve them. To han­dle con­flict skill­fully, you need to cul­ti­vate what I call the three C’s: cu­rios­ity, com­pas­sion, and (self-) con­trol. When you lis­ten to what your part­ner is try­ing to say, em­pathize with his feel­ings, and ex­press your­self re­spect­fully, you can hash out tough is­sues with­out ar­gu­ing.

Con­sider a cou­ple I saw in ther­apy, Amy and Liam. Amy worked at home in the morn­ings and spent af­ter­noons with their sons, 5 and 2. Liam com­muted into the city and ar­rived home ex­hausted. Lately, their older son had be­gun to wet his bed, and Amy had to change his sheets and was los­ing sleep as a re­sult. Both of them were lov­ing par­ents and con­cerned about why their toi­let-trained son was now bed­wet­ting.

One night when Liam ar­rived home from work, Amy com­plained about how tax­ing the day had been and said that from now on they had to put their 5-year-old in a night di­a­per in or­der to save her san­ity. Liam said he thought the di­a­per would em­bar­rass their son and listed some rea­sons why he might be bed­wet­ting (a new school, a new babysit­ter).

Amy re­sponded, “Okay, if you don’t want to use the di­a­per, then you wash the sheets.” Liam be­came an­gry and hurt, and re­torted with sar­cas­tic com­men­tary about how Amy was so “put upon.” Amy ended up in tears.

At any point in this painful back-and-forth, ei­ther Amy or Liam could have taken a small ac­tion to slow the down­ward spi­ral and limit the de­struc­tive im­pact of their fight. Psy­chol­o­gists have re­searched and val­i­dated the sur­pris­ingly pow­er­ful meth­ods cou­ples can use to do just that.

Re­pair early and of­ten.

This is an ef­fort to put on the brakes. When Amy griped about her day, Liam could have said, “That sounds hard.” When Amy told Liam he could change their son’s sheets him­self, he could have said, “The way you said that hurts my feel­ings,” and she could have re­sponded, “Sorry, I’m just so tired.” Any com­ment that re­flects on what’s hap­pen­ing—“that came out wrong” or “Can I take that back?”—helps to cool things down.

After a fight, re­pair means ac­knowl­edg­ing your own part (“I’m sorry I said that”) and ex­press­ing some warmth. In my ther­apy prac­tice, the least hope­ful cou­ples are those who can’t re­pair. They are too ashamed or de­fen­sive to ad­mit their ba­sic hu­man fal­li­bil­ity. They are more in­vested in be­ing right than in be­ing close.

Soothe your­self, soothe each other.

Re­pair at­tempts go un­no­ticed be­cause peo­ple lit­er­ally can’t hear them. That’s be­cause their adren­a­line is pump­ing and their heart is rac­ing. Agree to the ground rule that ei­ther of you can take a breather. Phys­i­o­log­i­cally, it takes 20 min­utes to calm down as long as you are not men­tally re­hears­ing your griev­ances. After you’ve taken this break, come back to­gether and start over. If the topic is still too heated, talk about the ex­pe­ri­ence of get­ting flooded with emo­tion it­self and how you might bring up is­sues dif­fer­ently next time. Keep in mind that fights are some­times dys­func­tional ways of ask­ing for com­fort or sup­port. If Amy or Liam had been able to say, “I need a hug be­fore we talk; it’s been a rough day,” they could have avoided their cas­cade of mis­un­der­stand­ing.

Fight fair.

Study after study re­veals that cer­tain ac­tions lit­er­ally poi­son a re­la­tion­ship, with af­ter­ef­fects that out­live the fight it­self. Name-call­ing, in­sults, and phys­i­cal threats are ob­vi­ously off-lim­its. But re­search has also shown that a re­cur­rent pat­tern of four spe­cific be­hav­iors—global crit­i­cism (“You never ... ”), con­tempt, de­fen­sive­ness (“It’s not me, it’s you”), and tun­ing out—can do ir­repara­ble dam­age. Amy got upset be­cause she felt Liam had got­ten “ugly.” When we dis­cussed it, he said that his tem­per flared be­cause Amy de­val­ued him by im­ply­ing he wasn’t al­ready do­ing enough.

“Just don’t do it” should be your motto. If you find that im­pos­si­ble, try to fig­ure out why. Do you have anger­man­age­ment prob­lems? Anx­i­ety or de­pres­sion? Part­ners do some­times need to make spe­cific com­plaints, but if your fights re­sult in chronic put-downs and with­drawal, you may need pro­fes­sional help.

Fight­ing well de­pends on be­ing able to hold on to two things in the heat of the mo­ment: con­cern for your part­ner’s feel­ings and some aware­ness of your own be­hav­ior. Amy learned to tell Liam, “I was tired, and that dis­torted ev­ery­thing,” and Liam was able to say, “I’m sorry I was so harsh; I was feel­ing at­tacked my­self.” Tak­ing time at a calmer mo­ment to un­der­stand each other’s trig­gers and fears will be worth its weight in gold the next time you find your­self get­ting fired up.

your gloves Hang up break a and take in your cor­ner.

Daphne de Marneffe, PH.D., is a psy­chol­o­gist in the San Fran­cisco Bay Area and the au­thor of The Rough Patch: Mar­riage and the Artof Liv­ing To­gether. Fol­low her on Twit­ter @Daphnede­marn­eff.

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