Beware of entrance to a quarrel. ~ Shakespeare
All couples belong to what I call the Fight Club because they all fight. Couples that don't fight are the ones that therapists worry most about. In fact, couples who do not fight have double the divorce rate of those who do. Loving couples do air their differences. But they follow three certain rules to make sure that their disagreement does not turn into World War III with mutual assured destruction.
Fight Club Rule #1: Anger and Criticism Do Not Take Over.
Anger and criticism lead to "flooding," a stress explosion in which the heart beats more rapidly, blood pressure soars and adrenaline surges. The whole body tenses up as fear, confusion and then more anger take over. Reason goes out the window. In experimental studies of conflict, even when couples are asked to calm down, men simply aren't able to while women can. Biologically speaking, men are wired to react more quickly and for a longer time period, probably for vigilance and safety reasons. So that's why it's best to start an interaction that could become a fight in a soft, sweet, or affectionate way with Positive Shaping Talk. While a man can often be triggered by mere criticism, it usually takes contempt or strong denigration to flood a woman.
Loving couples tend to avoid flooding and practice Positive Shaping Talk with each other. They keep anger/upset levels down. And if anger swirls out of control they may use breathing, time out, humor or other Fight Club Rules to defuse the situation.
Fight Club Rule #2: Agree to Disagree
A healthy couple agrees to disagree, discussing differences with respect and self control. They often show each other that they understand the other's point of view. The partners realize that ultimately they both want the same thing: closeness and a sense of shared love. If they feel heard and understood, like their opinion matters, they can often let go of the issue, back down and reenter into an intimate connection. In loving couples, who is right and who is wrong matters much less. In fact, these couples operate out of a fundamental paradox: "I accept you as you are," on the one hand and on the other, "Now will you please change." This paradox is so well known, that it became the title of a long-running Off-Broadway show written by a long-term couple called, I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change.
Fight Club Rule #3: End Conflict in a Win-Win Way
There are several ways you can help end conflict on a positive note. I have often used the "Take Two" technique with couples: either of them was able to call out "Take Two" when a fight erupted and they would start their "scene" all over again, but from a loving place. Couples do this naturally when one of them says something like, "Can we talk about this in a different way?" Or perhaps one partner affectionately teases or soothes the other who is in the midst of flooding and the fight is over then and there. Or they might compromise. The couple may follow a rule, like, Don't let the sun rise on your wrath. Of course, one key to ending a fight is that a partner realizes they are wrong, apologizes and/or makes it up to their Beloved.
In general healthy couples fight, but their fighting is less out of control and ends on a sweet note that carries them back to laughter, closeness and intimacy. Here is how Gina, a therapist herself and former student of mine, describes how she uses Fight Club Rules with her husband:
"He gets so wounded and growls a lot if he thinks I am criticizing him. So I usually bring stuff up when we are lying in bed, feeling close, with our feet touching. It's funny, but doing it this way means we fight a whole lot less."
Remember, practice doing whatever it takes to come out of your anger and create a dialogue. In the midst of a disagreement, take a break, breathe, soothe or calm yourself and try on the other person's point of view. Ask yourself honestly, do you need to back down or make an apology to your partner? When you are fighting, which is more important, being right, or being close? And if your spouse gets flooded with anger, practice using humor, giving them space or soothing them in some way so that they can calm down.