Fighting is one of those unpleasant parts of a relationship that we wish wouldn’t happen. But what if it was also life-threatening?
A Brigham Young University study, tracing couples over two decades, found that more arguments correlated with poorer health—and concluded that couples who don’t argue actually live longer. While a happy relationship has long been connected to good health, this research shows that arguments could take a serious toll.
But what if there was a technique that could help resolve conflicts between you and your partner? Would you try it—even if it meant temporarily dropping your side of a fight? What if it meant letting go of all that pent-up, righteous rage right at its peak moment? Believe it or not, you can learn to do this. And when you do, not only will your fights lose their nasty, escalating nature, you will feel better and more empowered.
Unilateral disarmament is a tool I introduce to every couple I work with. What it involves is momentarily dropping your side of the debate and approaching your partner from a more loving stance. The idea is that when couples have tension between them, perhaps from not communicating successfully or directly, they start to build resentments toward each other, which often reach a tipping point. An argument begins, then escalates based on an overflow of pent-up frustration and flawed communication. Heated moments are, however, the worst times to try to solve problems or make our points heard. They leave us saying things we regret or don’t even mean.
Unilateral disarmament involves shifting your focus from your partner’s words and behaviors to your own. The only person you can control in a relationship—or an argument—is you. All you can do in a moment of tension is soften within yourself and approach your partner from a more vulnerable and open stance.
How can you do this?
At times when you’re triggered, you may feel yourself start to experience increased arousal, as if you are heating up. At these moments, you may hear your inner critic coaching you to take destructive actions, like lashing out at your partner. Respond by calming yourself down, maybe by taking a series of deep breaths or counting back from 10.
You can get a hold of these moments and learn to pause. For example, you can choose between intimating and violating, between addressing your partner from a loving stance and talking calmly or from an angry, punitive point of view and yelling. Whatever your technique for getting back to yourself with the higher functions of your brain online, perhaps taking a walk or listening to music, find a way to get centered in yourself before you respond. Think about what your goals are for your relationship and make your actions ones that will move you toward those goals.
2. Don’t lash back.
Couples often know what to say to each other to trigger the other person. Resist making these statements or taking the bait. Stay being who you want to be regardless of how your partner is acting. You can take responsibility for your own behavior and not hand over your personal power to your mate, i.e. “she/he made me act like that.” When you do this, you can feel good about yourself, because you did not end up saying a lot of hurtful things to your partner, which may have caused lasting damage to the relationship.
Remember, if your ultimate goal is to be close to your partner, then being “right” and “winning the argument” is not a success. Often, it is more important to be close than to be right. In other words, you can choose in the moment to prioritize staying emotionally vulnerable and open to your partner over winning the argument.
3. Respond warmly.
Try to listen to your partner’s feelings, irrational as they may seem to you in that moment. Then, say something warm and understanding. Stress that it doesn’t really matter who’s right. A recent Baylor University study showed that fights between couples have a lot to do with power. The study revealed that, in a fight, people primarily want their partner to relinquish power. Next, in order of most to least, they want their partner to show investment, to stop adversarial behavior, to communicate more, to give affection and to make an apology.
Laying down your arms does not mean giving up your power, or taking the easy way out. It is actually incredibly hard to do and takes a lot of personal strength, but it is worth it. It means taking a more vulnerable stance that won’t be perceived as threatening and will have a softening effect on your partner. Put a hand on your partner, look them in the eye and say something from your heart, like “I care more about being close to you than having this fight.” Sometimes, a small act of affection is all it takes to disarm your partner. Looking your partner in the eye, taking his/her hand and clearly communicating your goal of being close to him/her is an act of vulnerability that is hard to disregard. Taking this action will often melt your partner's heart and allow him/her to be more vulnerable and open with you.
You can put yourself in your partner’s shoes and empathize with what he/she is feeling. For example, if your partner is jealous, because you stayed out late with friends instead of doing something with him/her, you could say something like, “It seems like this makes you feel insecure. I’m really sorry about that. It is not my intention to hurt you or be untrustworthy. Spending time with my friends doesn’t mean I feel rejecting toward you, or that I don’t care about you. But I can understand how it looked that way from your perspective.”
It’s important to note that the technique of unilateral disarmament does not imply that you are surrendering your point of view, giving in to emotional manipulation, taking the blame or deferring to your partner’s opinion. It simply indicates that you value being close to your partner more than winning your specific point. You can come to appreciate that you are two separate people with two sovereign minds, who may see any event or situation from a very different perspective. Each of your points of view is shaped by your past experiences, and you can have compassion and understanding for both yourself and your partner. Having taken the step of deescalating the conflict by disarming, reaching out and showing empathy toward your partner, you can begin to have constructive collaborative communication in which each of you is trying to understand the other’s perspective and reach a shared understanding.
5. Communicate how you feel.
“Name it to tame it” is a technique by which you label your feelings and actually calm them down. The first step is to tune in to what you are actually feeling in the moment. You can then acknowledge or share with your partner what is going on for you and how you saw the situation. You can take the risk of being honest and open about your feelings. For instance, you could tell your partner, “I felt hurt and put off by your jealousy. It makes me feel bad that you don’t seem to believe how much I care for you, and that makes me feel distrusted and pushed away. My goal is to be close to you, but I don’t want to give up my other friends; they are really important to me”
When you communicate with your partner, be attuned to all the ways you’re expressing yourself, both verbally and non-verbally. What’s going on in you when you talk to him/her? What do you feel? Notice your nonverbal signals, your body language, tone of voice, the timing and intensity of your words. Pay attention to the impact that ways you are communicating is having on your partner. If your body language is different from your verbal message, you are sending a double message to your partner, which is confusing. It would be important to recognize if you have ambivalent feelings and to share both feelings with your partner directly, allowing for honest communication.
The more you communicate in this way with your partner, honestly and directly, yet with compassion, the closer and stronger your relationship will become. Each of you will be less likely to build a case against the other and to hold grudges that are just waiting to resurface during your next conflict. You will be relating as two equal individuals, with respect and caring. And perhaps you will even live longer and certainly with a lot more satisfaction from your relationship.
Join Dr. Lisa Firestone for a live weekend workshop retreat, “Overcome Your Fear of Love: How to Create Your Ideal Relationship” on May 30-June 1 in Ojai, CA.
Read more from Dr. Lisa Firestone at PsychAlive.org