We were in the middle of a fight. I felt it brewing and it started the same way it always started—with a word that landed the wrong way. It felt like a gut punch to my stomach and, suddenly, I was questioning his intention behind what he said.
This time, I had an out-of-body experience. I was mentally watching myself say the same words, the same way, and seeing us both react to each other defensively. Something whispered to me, “You are not going to win this. Stop.”
I stopped talking. And I walked away. He was left dumbfounded.
That day, I decided there had to be a better way to communicate. I analyzed the argument, trying to figure out what triggered me.
I realized that his body language had a lot to do with the tone of the conversation. As we were talking, he leaned against the counter, folded his arms, and rolled his eyes in a defensive and dismissive stance. That sent my fire surging through my blood. I felt the need to defend myself.
I could physically feel him shutting down even while standing before me.
I also realize that my own tone was threatening and my stance was aggressive, which contributed to the defensiveness between both of us.
We both had to learn how to fight fairly.
I didn’t know how to fight with a goal in mind. I took a fight like a boxing match. Verbally, you were my opponent and I was there to decimate you. He danced in his own corner, but he had been taught not to hit back so it wasn’t a true match up. He could jab here and there, but mostly he blocked, bobbed, and weaved trying to last the rounds, or until I tired myself out.
When I understood we were getting nowhere and doing damage to our relationship, I read every self-help book I could find and we eventually went to counseling where they gave us tools on how to communicate with one another in a way that makes the problem the central focus instead of attacking each other.
What Exactly is the Problem…
I had to get very clear on what my problem was. I thought my problem was the toilet roll when it really was the lack of consideration I perceived at not replacing it. I had to talk about what I felt rather than dictate or interpret the action.
My first step was when I felt triggered, before I brought it to him, I had to sit with it and figure out what I was really upset about. Let’s be honest, it feels good to be able to blow up on someone, but it’s counterproductive if you want to have a loving, emotionally-safe relationship.
On a Scale of 1 to 10…
The second thing we agreed on was when we came to an impasse where we couldn’t agree, then we have to assign a level of importance to the issue. So, let’s say we found ourselves arguing over if we should do something. One person doesn’t want to and the other does. We would both say, “On a scale of 1 to 10, how important is this to you?” His response was, “It’s an 8 for me.” My response was, “It’s a 3 for me. Okay, you win. I will do it.”
Knowing how little I cared about it compared to him, or vice versa, helped us to stop fighting to win. If the number was higher for me and he could care less, then he wouldn’t fight me on it. If neither of us was high on the scale then we dropped it altogether. We simply didn’t do it.
How You Say It…
One day, we were having an ineffectual conversation and I was trying to get him to do something for me. But, he was extremely irritated. Finally, I asked, “Why does it bother you when I ask you to do something?”
He said, “It’s not really you asking, it’s how you say it. It makes me feel like you are telling me what to do.”
I saw he was being vulnerable and transparent. I didn’t launch into why I disagreed. I didn’t judge his feelings, instead, I was curious.
I inquired, “How can I say it better so you don’t feel like I am demanding?” I said it in a kind way as if talking to a friend.
He stared at me for a minute as if he wasn’t prepared for me to ask. I watched his body soften and he leaned against the counter while he thought about it.
He answered, “If you said, babe, I need your help. Or, babe, I would really appreciate if…and ask me for the thing.”
I nodded. I said, “I will do that from now on.”
And, by golly, it worked every single time.
The point isn’t to use what worked for me, but to ask what works or what words don’t trigger defense. Be grateful that you have been given the key and use it in the most lovingly way possible.
We took it a step further and he told me the things within an argument that made him shut down. We agreed not to use curse words against one another. We stopped threatening to leave. We made certain phrases off limits. We agreed not to cut each other off. Sometimes, I had to put my head down and let him get a whole paragraph out before I would lift my head and say, “Is it my turn to speak?”
Teammates Instead of Opponents…
The biggest change that came in our communication style happened during therapy. The therapist looked at how we were fighting and reframed it for us that we weren’t against one another. We were both trying to make each other better team players.
Once we understood we weren’t on opposite sides but on the same side, and trying to achieve the same goal, we began to approach arguments from a place of how can we get through this rather than how can I win?
And each argument was training for future issues. When we faced a new issue, we used what we knew worked from the previous argument until the arguments became shorter and less necessary because we both knew how to listen to other. We both knew and followed the rules.
And we also both remembered we loved each other.
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