Fighting with our significant other is not something with which most people have a positive association. Just thinking about fighting with our significant other can make us recoil in discomfort, distress, and self-protection. Many couples come into therapy distressed about the fights they've been having and desperate to get out of the negative cycle they have been in. After all, most of us want harmony, connection, and ease in our relationships.
And yet, ruptures - disagreements, arguments, misunderstandings, hurt feelings, and points of disconnect - occur in every single relationship. Ignoring this aspect will only mean that we are ill-equipped to deal with the inevitable. In this blog post, I want to give you some tips for fighting well - for repairing, especially when the fight is going south.
The Gottmans, famous psychologist couples who have conducted decades of research on couples in their Love Lab, confirm that the most successful couples are the ones who have the skills for repair, highlighting that there are a set of skills for repair that can be learned by all. Learning is a verb so this isn't a list you'll read and immediately become a pro at but it does mean that with consistent, intentional effort, you can and will improve and if your partner joins with you, now you've got a team dedicated to learning these new skills.
The Gottmans also highlight how the quality of your relationship is not dependent on how often you fight but on how well you repair. That means that fighting more empathically and effectively is critical to feeling fulfilled in your relationship.
Here are a few tips for helping you repair in the midst of a rupture:1. Stop, Drop, & Say Sorry
Don’t wait until the argument has run its long, windy course. If you recognize that you are wrong about something, stop the conversation and apologize right then and there. Sometimes our egos get ahead of ourselves and we are so focused on being right that we don’t see that “winning” is not equivalent to being happy or connected. A true apology when realized takes humility but immediately diffuses the situation.
A good apology takes full responsibility, doesn't blame the other person, acknowledges the impact you had (not your intentions), and commits to a different action next time. It can short and sweet like: "Whoa, I am sorry I just said that. It was unacceptable. It must have been painful for you to hear. I will make every effort not to talk like that to you again."
2. Know your numbers
If you’re at a 8 out of 10 in terms of activation and distress, say goodbye to your healthy communication skills. You won’t be a 2 because fighting with a loved one can be distressing, and that’s ok, but if you find yourself creeping toward 7 or 8, go old school - flash a T for time out and take at least a 10 minute break. You’ll give your body and brain a chance to de-escalate and come back more grounded. It might even be helpful to remember that you’re only getting this activated because the person with whom you are fighting is important. Commit to coming back to the discussion so your partner doesn’t feel completely shut out.
3. Location, Location, Location
Having the same fight in the same place and sometimes the same time? About money, in the kitchen, at the end of a long busy day?
Switch it up. Take that fight into another room, the backyard, or better yet, on a walk. Just changing locations physically switches up our psychological mindset and allows us to be more present focused. Walking together you are side by side - as team members - rather than facing down one another like possible adversaries. This encourages collaboration rather than competition. Switching locations to a place you don't usually have discussions like this also makes us a bit more present-focused as we are not playing out an old, familiar pattern.
Feeling like you two are stuck at an impasse? Try switching positions with you taking on your partner’s perspective and your partner taking on your own. While this begins as a cognitive exercise, to actually make your/their point, you subtly open up more empathy and understanding for your partner’s viewpoint. You begin to inhabit their world and this empathy builds a bridge between the two of you.
A subtle way of doing this, ask more questions to truly understand the other person’s perspective. Summarize what you heard them say to ensure that you are hearing and understanding the full message. So much is lost in translation so this helps to slow things down and increase comprehension so you are actually responding accurately.
5. Respect the Body
We are more susceptible to fighting when we are tired, hungry, stressed, ill, in pain, or otherwise not our best. A real disagreement, an important conversation to hash out, will be there for you after dinner, after a nap, after a run, after a bath, and after whatever else helps you come into the conversation with some more resources. If you are running on empty or dangerously close to feeling depleted, you have fewer resources to use to fight as fairly and empathically as possible. Learn to honor the body’s impact and don’t push it.
I hope you feel a bit more prepared to handle the inevitable bumps in the road, knowing you have more power to repair in ways that will help you preserve your relationship.
About the author: Pauline Yeghnazar Peck, M.A., M.M.F.T., Ph.D.,is a licensed psychologist in CA and NY with a private practice in Santa Barbara. Specializing in anxiety, life transitions, trauma, and multicultural issues, she works mostly with the children of immigrants and cross cultural couples to break patterns of intergenerational trauma and create the love, work, and lives they feel happy to call their own. Read more of her content, or reach out directly, but viewing her Frame profile here.