The Dance of Connection

Rescuing women and men from the quicksand of difficult relationships.

"My Partner and I Can't Stop the Fighting!"

Are you really so helpless to stop the pattern of painful fighting?

Have you ever gone home at the end of a difficult day and taken it out on your partner? Of course, you have. It’s perfectly normal to take in whatever stresses life brings, and then to take them out on your partner.

After all, what’s a partner for?  He or she is right there on the scene and the one with whom you are least likely to “watch yourself.” And of course, your mate will inevitably do something to provoke you, even if it’s how he holds his spoon or how she flosses her teeth.

Marriage is the lightning rod that absorbs anxiety and stress from all other sources, past and present. When marriage has a firm foundation of solid friendship and mutual respect, it can tolerate a fair amount of raw emotion. A good fight can clear the air, and it’s nice to know we can survive conflict and even learn from it.

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Many couples, however, get trapped in endless rounds of fighting and blaming that they don’t know how to get out of.  When fights go unchecked and unrepaired, they can eventually erode love and respect, which are the bedrock of any successful relationship.

Anger, of course, is an important emotion. Our anger can tell us that something is not right and that we need to make a change on our own behalf. But fighting doesn’t change the problem from which our anger springs. Quite to the contrary: Ineffective fighting protects rather than protests the existing relationship dynamics.

When tempers flare our capacity for clear thinking, empathy, and creative problem solving go down the drain. We get over-focused on what our partner is doing to us (or not doing for us) and under-focused on our own creative options to move differently in our relationship.

We use our “anger energy” to try to change our partner, and, as a result, nothing changes at all. It’s remarkable how many couples can precisely describe their particular pattern of painful fighting, and equally remarkable how many feel helpless to change it. We may act as if the legitimacy of our anger gives us license to say or do anything, because, after all, we’re way to furious to be able to stop what’s coming out of our mouth.

Of course we can stop ourselves and behave better. Certainly there's no  shortage of advice out there from experts about how to fight fair in marriage.  My best advice can be found in The Dance of Anger and Marriage Rules.  It only takes one person to calm down, reach for their best self, and take responsibility to do new steps in the old dance.

Remember that happy couples are not couples that don’t fight. Rather they’re couples that fight fair and take responsibility for their own words and actions, no matter how furious they may feel inside. 

It's abundantly clear that we can't control our partner's reactions. But the choice to not change ourselves is a surefire way to keep things in the same place or move the relationship from bad to worse.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Harriet Lerner, Ph.D., is best known for her work on marriage and family relationships and the psychology of women. Her book The Dance of Anger has recently been reissued.

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