All couples fight— in fact, the process of rupture and repair can actually be strength building. The key as to whether an argument or difficult conversation makes a pair stronger lies in HOW a couple fights.
Adaptive Disagreement Strategies
S L O W D O W N
Take a breath. Don’t act and react on impulse. If you need to, take an agreed upon period of time to collect yourself and your thoughts so that you can communicate properly. What is the point you are trying to make? What do you need your partner to acknowledge so that you feel heard, understood, and cared for? Take a moment to regulate your nervous system (which is often impacted by the stress of conflict) and lean into your insight. If you don’t know what you need or what you’re wanting to communicate, how will your partner be able to respond to you in a way that feels satisfying and productive?
Challenge yourself to really take in the constructive criticism your partner had to offer. Even when communicated in a loving way, any form of criticism from a partner can be difficult to hear, and even more difficult to reflect upon. However, if you are able to soften and consider your partner’s sentiments of hurt and upset, you are demonstrating great care for your partner; you are showing your partner that you value their needs so much that you’re willing to be temporarily uncomfortable, in order to better yourself as a partner (and individual).
Say what you mean and mean what you say
Fighting dirty just makes a mess. Maybe you’re feeling so hurt that you want your partner to hurt too. Unfortunately, this causes more damage that will eventually need to be repaired. The alternative is to truly communicate. Think before you speak: “Is what I’m about to say conducive to us working through this issue or am I out for blood?” Communicate your sentiment as peacefully as possible. Moreover, set an intention and institute it with your partner; together, establish what you are attempting to accomplish within this difficult conversation and say only what is aligned with the intended outcome.
Offer suggestions and compromise
To tell your partner something upsets you is one thing, but to offer alternatives, which include compromise, sets your partner up to succeed. For example, to angrily exclaim to your partner, “I hate that you never put the laundry in the dryer” is far less adaptive than “I feel overwhelmed when you don’t put the laundry in the dryer because then I need to re-wash and dry the clothes. Maybe next time you could set an alarm so you don’t forget? Or maybe you could let me know when you’re doing laundry so I know that you’ve put it in the wash and it can be my job to put it in the dryer? What do you think?” Open up the lines of communication and create the opportunity for both partners to problem-solve together.
Humor, when used appropriately, can diffuse some of the building tension within an argument. In the midst of a fight, every topic or additional piece of information can feel very serious and overwhelming, but when appropriate, don’t forget to laugh together. Couples who are able to together acknowledge the nuggets of humor within an argument are often far better equipped to delve into the most challenging, but necessary, discussions.
The ultimate takeaway! Reflective listening is a communication strategy/activity that both partners can participate in. Reflective listening demonstrates that each partner is paying attention, listening, and truly taking in the sentiment of what each person is saying. Reflective listening looks like this:
Partner A: makes statement – “it hurts my feelings when you hang up on me because it makes me feel like you don’t care about what I have to say”
Partner B: reflects statement in a way that confirms the sentiment has been heard – “when I hang up on you, you feel like I don’t care about what you’re trying to tell me”
Partner A then either confirms that partner B “got it” or adds additional information
ex: Partner A: “yes, and that experience hurts me.” Then, you switch.
Partner B: makes statement – “I feel frustrated when I express to you that I need a moment to collect my thoughts so that I can communicate what I am feeling, but then you keep talking over me. That makes me feel like my needs are being disregarded.”
Partner A: reflects statement – “When I talk over you, you feel like I’m disregarding your needs and that is frustrating for you.”
The purpose of this activity is to demonstrate that you are understanding what your partner is thinking and feeling, without talking about yourself or giving advice. Easier said than done! But perhaps after enough time spent consciously practicing reflective listening it will eventually become second nature.
And remember, don’t lose sight of what is most important. Yes, there may be moments of turmoil, but most likely you’re fighting because together you and your partner have created something worth fighting for!