For many couples, what starts off as a simple miscommunication often evolves into a disagreement. Before long, it turns into a dispute, followed by a full-blown fight. By the time it is all over, there is yelling, crying, anger and resentment – and sadly, many hurtful comments which can never be unsaid.
While this may be a normal part of any relationship, what blows my mind is that in most cases, the conversation ends with, “I don’t even know what we were fighting about in the first place.”
How is it possible that two intelligent people, who love and respect one another, can head down a rabbit hole of bitter misery – and not even know how or why they got there?
In my own life (both personally and professionally), I have experienced this numerous times. I recently wondered, what would happen if the entire fight were recorded and then played back frame by frame. What would this reveal about the dynamics of the argument, and how it could have been avoided in the first place?
By looking at the instant replay, you will immediately notice that emotions start to flare up and the conversation quickly shifts, taking many unexpected and unnecessary turns. As this happens, fuel is thrown onto the fire by introducing old points of conflict, and soon the initial topic is forgotten altogether.
One thing to note about the human psyche is that new pain brings up old pain. If I were once stung by a bee, then I might anxiously jump when a ladybug lands on my arm. In order to protect itself, the mind learns to be afraid of anything which resembles a previously stressful situation.
Thus, when a couple begins to disagree over something trivial – such as where to go out for dinner, the subconscious mind begins to search for other stressful situations which might include similar feelings of friction. Therefore, instead of looking for solutions, the mind is racing to identify related problems, so that it can be prepared to protect itself from past traumas.
Suddenly, out of the blue, a couple might enter a devolving game of ping-pong, throwing out many unrelated statements:
“and you never pick up your socks”
“well, you’re always on your phone”
“you don’t appreciate anything I do”
“I’m the one doing everything”
Very quickly, the conversation goes from bad to worse. Yet, these statements are not intended to be hurtful, they are actually defense-mechanisms, where the mind is saying, “hey, I’ve been burned before and I’m carrying around other painful feelings that have never been resolved.” These statements are indeed important for exploration in therapy, or during a calm conversation. But during a fight, they should neither be said nor entertained.
What is the solution?
Here is my four-step approach:
Instead of reacting and escalating the fight, try to just listen. Start by recognizing that these comments emanate from a place of prior pain and trauma, and thus, arguing the points will be futile. It does not matter whether the comments are, in fact, truthful. If my partner feels this way, to him or her the pain is real – and that is something I should honor and respect.
2. Remember the goal.
The purpose of a fight is not to win, but to strengthen the relationship, enhance the communication and reinforce the love and respect. If your goal is to win the fight, the relationship will lose. Too often, like a dagger, one person feels the need to insert the last word, and instead of calmly ending the fight, will reignite it. That is the most important time to swallow one’s pride and look forward to the impending calm, joy and peace that is about to follow.
3. Stay on point.
Don’t change the topic or argue about additional things. By staying calm and focusing on resolving this, and only this dispute, a couple can prevent themselves from creating a spiraling mess. I know how difficult it can be to stay focused in today’s world-o-distractions, but it is critical to resolving fights peacefully.
4. Beware of the dangerous buzz words.
When you hear the words, “always, never, anything and everything” they are telltale signs that the conversation is getting out of control and entering the world of extreme exaggeration. Statements involving these words are usually inaccurate. After all, does a person NEVER pick up their socks? Are they ALWAYS on their phone? Of course not. Therefore, making those statements only magnify the fight and polarize the couple.
Disagreements are a healthy and natural part of every relationship. However, arguing with respect and maturity can be the difference between a relationship simply being good and making it truly amazing. Next time you feel a fight coming on, take a deep breath and strive for a picture perfect, frame by frame peaceful resolution.