7 steps to fighting constructively with your partner
A couple I saw recently described their arguments as loud, disrespectful, and repetitive. They felt that fighting was a good thing ("Not fighting means the passion is dead, right?") but they worried that they never actually seemed satisfied after a disagreement, and both described feeling resentful.
It is completely normal for couples to disagree. But what separate the couples who yell, swear, and never seem to get anywhere from the couples who constructively work through their differences?
Safety and vulnerability. When we feel safe to open up and be ourselves, we approach disagreements with greater authenticity. We are able to be vulnerable, instead of defensive, and we are able to listen, think, and take action, instead of reacting.
Here are seven steps you can take to help you more constructively work through your differences the next time you disagree with your partner.
1. Slow down and take a breath. I know, I know, taking a deep breath in the middle of an argument seems next to impossible, but trying to slow down before voices amp up an octave can steer the conversation in a more productive direction. Taking deep, mindful breaths helps us focus, recenter, and be more intentional about the ways we interact. Speaking of...
2. Pay attention to how you sound, how you look, and how you deliver what you're trying to say. A part of our brain called the Amygdala is always on the lookout for threats. When we are faced with someone whose voice is raised, who is gesticulatory wildly, and/or whose face is angrily contorted, our brain picks this up as a threat, and we can no longer truly hear what the person is trying to say. So, when we fight in these ways, we seem like predators to our partner and neither person is going to get what they want. Focus on your own effect first and foremost, and consider taking a break if you're having trouble sounding friendly and compassionate.
3. Accept that your perspective is valid, but there is always a bigger picture. Couples often argue about what did or didn't happen, nitpicking over the "objective" reality of a situation. However, focusing on "the truth" prevents you from hearing what your partner is actually trying to say, which will probably result in more pain for both of you. Instead, listen to your partner's point of view and their emotions that go along with it.
4. Ask yourself what you are feeling and why you feel that way. Conflict in our primary romantic relationships is invariably tied up with our core beliefs about ourselves, the world, other people, and our childhood. Try asking yourself: How am I feeling? When have I felt this way before? Is something about this familiar to me? Consider whether your feelings accurately match the level of intensity of the current situation.
5. Open up and share your feelings. We can't expect our partner to understand our perspective if we don't explain to them what is going on inside of us. Sometimes, we feel strongly about something without really knowing why; engaging your partner in helping you understand where your beliefs are coming from can help you better understand yourself and feel more emotionally connected to your partner. Sharing our feelings can be incredibly vulnerable and scary, but when we do so, we allow our partner to be a part of our internal experience and to connect on a deep, emotional level.
6. Invite your partner to share their beliefs and/or feelings and listen with curiosity and empathy. "I don't really understand why you're feeling that way. Can you help me?" Such questions show your partner that you genuinely want to hear their side and you are not just focusing on winning the disagreement. If you find your brain struggling to listen openly (maybe it's working to come up with counter-arguments), take a deep breath and gently but firmly guide your attention back to your partner. Consider their tone of voice, facial expression, and physical presence as they explain their feelings for additional cues about how they're feeling and how you might be able to help. Listening like this indicates to your partner that they matter.
7. Validate, validate, validate. Validating your partner doesn't require you to abandon your perspective. One of our most fundamental human needs is to be known and loved and extending this gift to your partner allows them to feel safe, vulnerable, and taken care of. Try using statements such as, "It makes sense to me that you...," "Of course you feel...," and "I think I'm starting to understand why this is important to you, because..." You don't have to agree with their perspective, but try to see the very good reasons why they may feel the way that they do.
Discussions that follow these 7 steps allow a relationship to grow and flourish as each person learns more about their partner and adds this understanding to their "owner's manual" for their partner. Even if the issue is not resolved, both you and your partner will benefit from self-reflection and respectful disagreement. Try to keep in mind that if you "win" and your partner "loses," that both of you will end up suffering in the long-term. While these steps can be difficult (especially when the conflict is close to your heart), even attempting them will likely deepen your connection with your partner and prevent large, blow-up fights.
Charlotte McKernan is a couple and individual therapist in Fort Collins, CO.