Steven Lake examines practical ways of being that help in managing conflict with your partner. Not always easy, but well worth it.
Knowing how to fight in your relationship is critical to the long-term survival of yourself, your partner and the relationship. Most people don’t have a clue on how to do this. It’s not their fault. I don’t know about you, but I was never taught how to fight fairly when I was a kid.
Well, that’s not totally true. I was taught how to fight physically and how to do that fairly. For example, never kick a person when they are down. When the other is helpless, or giving up, you back off. No biting, scratching or gouging out their eyes. You know, the basics of fair fighting.
I was just not taught how to fight with words. Darn, again that’s not totally true either. I was taught to be quick witted, use facts, make logical arguments, and pounce when the other person made an error in fact or logic.
If I won the argument, try not to act too haughty about it, after all, you might be on the losing end next time. And the best way not to be on the losing side was to never give up or admit defeat. This could be accomplished by twisted logic, making up stuff, being louder, or acting with more conviction.
To be accurate, I was not taught how to fight fairly or effectively with members of the opposite sex (in my case, women). What I did use in arguing with women was what I had been taught, and I can assure you, it was completely useless.
It was fine when arguing with other boys and later with men, but it was an exercise in frustration and futility with women. Using aggressive techniques to prove my point of view did not go over well with my intimate partners.
My ego was trying to win. And when there is a winner there is a loser. Someone is going to be unhappy and the other person is going to pay for that unhappiness. If you have to win at all costs, become a lawyer. If you want a happy relationship, it is imperative to learn, as adults, what we were not taught as children.
Here are ten tips for fighting fairly that were extracted from my book, talk2ME: How to Communicate with Women . . .
1. Become aware of what’s happening.
If you feel yourself going on automatic pilot when arguing this is a warning sign that “it” has got “you.” You are not in control. You turn off the autopilot by taking a big breath, stop talking, re-collect your thoughts, and if you are really brave – tell your partner you were on auto-pilot.
This means you have to let go of trying to win the argument. You must make it more important to discover what is driving your thoughts and feeling – what is controlling you – rather than winning the argument.
Identify the feelings you are having. Am I angry, sad, suspicious, or confused? Whatever it is, identify it to yourself and then to your partner.
When you take these steps, the conversation becomes grounded in reality. The points you were trying to make are unimportant. What are you truly feeling and thinking is important.
2. Acknowledging what is.
This is a tricky process. Acknowledging what is means identifying what you are thinking, feeling, and even deeper than that, what is really driving your behavior. We’re not usually conscious of these forces. It takes stopping what is happening on the outside and looking inward.
You contemplate what has just happened in the past 60 seconds, how your body feels, identifying what buttons were pushed, how you reacted, your behavior, and what were the origins of those sensitivities. This is no easy feat. To get a handle on this process in a real-life situation, try this:
- Stop everything the moment you realize that you are in a reactive mode.
- Tell your partner that you just realized you are reacting.
- Apologize immediately if you have been a dork.
- Identify with her what you are really feeling, for example, insecurity, fear, or overwhelm.
If you can’t identify what is happening, ask for assistance. This might mean going over the past minute or so of the conversation and identifying the precise moment when you reacted, what was happening or being said in that moment.
- Looking at past times where the same thing has happening.
- See if there are similar reactions with other people. Look to close relationships like parents or siblings.
Keep identifying and sharing your feelings as they change. For example, you may be embarrassed as you dig into your reactions and realize that your outburst had nothing to do with your wife, but triggered an old incident with a previous girlfriend.
As you share your uncomfortable feelings, this hopefully elicits caring, compassion, and support from your partner and will further the relationship and self-exploration.
This process can be extremely uncomfortable as we feel that we are in a vulnerable position. Being vulnerable is unpleasant for many men as it can invite attack, and no man wants to be caught with his drawers around his knees.
Therefore, do not do this unless you and your spouse have an agreement not to attack the other person when being vulnerable. Deep and effective communication cannot occur if there is no trust or safety.
3. Letting go.
The only constant is change. In order to grow as a person, and in your relationship, you must be willing to let go of old attitudes, beliefs, ways of behaving, and learn to embrace new understandings of yourself and your partner.
In order to improve your communication, you must peer into feelings and examine what is driving them.
Letting go is easier if you tell yourself that changing your mind, or taking a new your position, is not losing. You are not losing when you’re growing or coming to a new understandings about yourself and your partner.
4. Keeping the goal in sight.
There are number things that may be important to you. Do you want a more loving relationship, improved health, greater sense of well-being, or just less arguments?
The most effective time to remind yourself of your goals is right before you are about to be challenged. Remember the most important thing is an improved relationship, not winning the argument. Winning the battle and losing the war is expensive, both emotionally and financially.
5. Noticing the process.
Noticing the process is difficult but possible. The reason for noticing the process is to make mid-course corrections when reacting while listening to someone else’s conversation.
If you are able to identify when you step into a reactive state, you can stop. You can then take a few moments, or longer, to work out what happened, either in your own mind, or even better, with your partner. Then you can resume the discussion.
Without this ability, you are like a rocket without a guidance system. Who knows where it will land.
6. Admitting what’s happened.
Telling the truth can be difficult. I know, but we are big boys now and will survive whatever is being dished out – even if it feels like hell. It is impossible to have a healthy relationship based on lies. It just doesn’t work. Our partners can smell a rat a mile away, and even if you are able to conceal a whopper, you have to remember what you said. Eventually you will trip up.
Save yourself a lot of time and energy. Deal with reality and tell the truth. “Yes, I went to the bar with the boys for a couple, okay, four hours, after work tonight.”
Will she be upset? You bet. Especially if you didn’t phone. Always phone. It is common courtesy and shows respect for the person.
By stating the truth upfront, not only do you shorten the process, you score points by showing her you are willing to be honest. That demonstrates strength of character – impressive. It shows you are not a little weasel but a man willing to be accountable for his actions.
7. Starting over and back-tracking.
This is a continuation of the concept of admitting what’s happened. In other words, it’s never too late to say, “Honey, I realize that I’ve been ___________________.” This could be lying, stonewalling, talking off topic, reacting – whatever. The longer you wait to state the truth of the experience, the harder it is to admit. You become invested in the reactive defense system you are creating. The only way to break through is to tell the truth.
8. Dealing with vulnerability.
Vulnerability. The word that can make many a grown man cringe in fear. Why on earth would you make yourself vulnerable? It is like going into battle and the enemy says, “Hey, why don’t you drop your sword and shield and let’s talk?” Yeah, right! The most you might get from a guy in this situation is, “You first.” Yet, in an intimate relationship this is exactly what must be done – dropping your guard and letting go of your weapons.
To help yourself in this effort. Tell yourself:
- She is not the enemy even though every cell in your body is screaming to run.
- War doesn’t solve problems, it just makes you feel good in the moment.
- The sooner you start talking, the sooner you will have peace. And with peace comes all sorts of benefits.
Vulnerability is not about being defenseless. It is about being open and honest. It is about identifying your thoughts and feelings, and then communicating. Sharing feelings can be tough when there is so much crap in the way. There is the macho image of men and feelings which just messes everything up when it comes to communication and relationship. Beware of your cultural conditioning.
Simply put, if you get angry and disturbed by someone thinking or acting differently than you, and insist that they change, you have a boundary issue. If you try to physically make someone do something, you have crossed the line.
Your partner is an independent person with his or her own thoughts and feelings which may not match yours. It is okay. If it is a threat to you, this is an indication that something within you is being challenged and needs to be examined.
This approach to boundaries does not justify all thinking or behavior. If your partner thinks it’s okay to have an affair, be violent, or treat you with disrespect, and you don’t, you definitely have the right to state your boundaries and the consequence if they are broken.
Ideally, having a discussion before becoming partners and identifying key beliefs, desires, and goals, so that it is clear what is acceptable and what isn’t, is crucial for creating a foundation for a successful relationship. Unfortunately, this discussion rarely happens.
10. Asking and receiving help.
Another challenge to the ego is asking for help. Again, it is the myth of being totally self-sufficient that we are battling here. Heck, even Sherlock Holmes had help. Asking for help means we need someone. When we are fighting from a place of fear, we forget that the person opposite us is our loved one, and we may need their help and support.
And finally, in order to put ourselves in a position to fight fairly, we must be willing to receive their help. You see, the ego is so big, it will not want to entertain a suggestion that is different from what it already knows. It thinks, everyone else is crazy. Why don’t they do it my way? The ego will get stubborn, resistant, and even throw temper tantrums. Why did this happen to me? You can’t trust anyone these days.
It will consume more drugs or alcohol to avoid dealing with the issue, or will use the addiction as an excuse for lack of action. It will become abusive to others in an attempt to drive them away and avoid dealing with the problem. Our egos are problem avoiders. Remember the ego sees change as death, and that is why it will do anything to avoid change. Who wants to die?
If you take the big step of asking for help, why not try to hear what is being said. Yes, it may contradict what you know, how you think about life, or how your partner should behave, but doing it the old way is what got you into the problem in the first place.
In order to hear and receive, you need to be brutally honest with yourself. As you can see, the real argument is not with your spouse, but with your ego, and your ego is thousand times trickier than your spouse ever could be.
That’s it. Learning to fight fairly is, I believe, one of the most important skill sets you need to create the possibility of a long and successful relationship. There will always be points of disagreement and emotional upset when living with another person. The opportunity is to use these incidents as a chance to learn about yourself and your partner. Who knows, like the photo up top, it might even become fun.
Photo: Flickr/Sangudo/International Pillow Fight Day