You and your partner (P1 & P2) are sitting on the couch after dinner and one asks the other –
P1:“did you get the dry cleaning like I asked?”
P2 “what dry cleaning?”
P1 “what dry cleaning? The dry cleaning I asked you to get!”
P2”why are you yelling? Its just dry cleaning”
P1“BUT I ASKED YOU TO GET IT”
P2”AND I WILL GET IT TOMORROW!”
P1 “You never listen to me!”
P2“you are always yelling at me!”………………………………….and so it begins… the “fight”
In my work with couples the “fight” is often the tip of the iceberg and the couples are unaware of what lies beneath. There is a conflict over what appears to be a minor issue, however based on the escalation, quite possibly is about something else. The difficulty many couples have is their inability to “fight right”. There will be conflict in almost every relationship…but with conflict comes the opportunity for conflict resolution – that place where each may have a better understanding of the others needs and make attempts to meet them. In the work I do with couples, this resolution is the missing piece – leading to the belief that “all we do is fight”.
In my work with couples I have come across different “styles” of fighting. I have labeled them below and how they ultimately lead to brick wall.
All talk no listening
In this style each individual in the couple has something to say, wants to be heard and needs to be understood. If we look at the example above – there are two issues that have been identified but remain ignored. Both individual take a defensive stance, only thinking about their need, their feelings, and their truth. Neither takes a moment to consider what the other maybe saying – defensive remarks are formulated before the other is even finished talking – therefore nobody is being listened to and each blames the other for not listening. In healthy communication between couples that there has to be active listening on both sides. In this practice you stop, you listen to the others words and take yourself out of your own self. Consider what is going on for your partner, get clarification if needed. The idea is to listen and respond, rather than to react and defend.
The Mind Readers
In this style each individual decides what the other is thinking and feeling and emotionally responds to that – before it even happens. Take the example above. As soon as the individual heard that the dry cleaning was not picked up – there was something that she reacted to internally – whatever story she told herself in the moment – perhaps that she is annoying him, that he thinks her needs are not valid, that not picking up the dry cleaning means that he does not care about her anymore…if in fact, these words were said… her reaction may be understandable – but because they are only in her head – her partner has no idea as to what her emotions are about and he makes up a story in his ahead about what is happening – maybe she thinks she can tell me what to do, she thinks I am her errand boy, she is yelling at me like I am a child….if those things were actually happening, his response would be understandable and this goes the cycle……
If each individual stops and asks themselves –what am I telling myself right now? What am I actually reacting to? What is really happening? It could help to alter the reaction to fit the situation and even open the door to further deeper discussion.
Keep Calm and Avoid the Conflict
In this style – one person in the couple carries the emotions for the couple – the other is an “observer” does not really take a stance, agrees with whatever needs to be agreed with at that moment so that a conflict wont happen. More than likely the conflict avoidant individual has a deeper issue routed around conflict and needs to avoid what this triggers for him/her. The issue then turns into one partner doing what the others says, getting angry that they never have a voice; however, never clue in their partner that they want a voice, or need a say, leading to building resentments which play out in different forms in the relationship – passive aggressive statements, staying out late, rebelling in other ways (not getting the dry cleaning). Each individual in the couple has different ways of communicating and it is the responsibility of the partner to learn their partners style. We all do not “feel “ in the same way, express in the same way, or communicate in the same way – if you learn your partners language, you can then engage in a conversation based in truth.
These are a few of the dynamics that I encounter in my work with couples. The good news is – there is a solution…the bad news? Well….it won’t be easy or comfortable, but change rarely is. Seeking therapy as a couple is not a sign that something is “bad” – it is actually a sign of two people wanting to make something work. Therapy is a place where each partner is forced to look inward and stop pointing the finger. If consistent attendance, engagement and work takes place – the relationship will break out of the continued cycle of fighting you may find yourselves in.
If we learn to “fight right” then the door to resolution is wide open. Fighting right includes: active listening, considering the others thoughts/feelings, learning your partners way of communicating his/her feelings, thoughts, needs. We cannot eliminate conflict all together, but at least we can learn to do it “right”.