When intimate partners fight to win, their conflicts can deteriorate into accusations, invalidations, and character assassination. Repeated such disagreements will both increase negativity and endanger the very foundation partners rely on to keep their love secure.
Many couples come into counseling embattled in this way. The level of disrespect and disregard displayed during their fighting shows how far they have slipped into dangerous waters. If they consistently express these adversarial and uncaring needs to win an argument at any cost, their chances of saving their relationship will significantly decrease.
Most of these couples did not treat each other like this when their love was new. They somehow understood then that crossing certain lines of respect for one another during a fight could be too dangerous. They made sure that their responses to each other during conflict did not cross the lines of decency.
Over time, sadly, those commitments can lessen. As couples lose them, they can become repeatedly embattled and lose the ability to feel safe with each other when either is angry. They no longer believe that vulnerability or openness is safe during an altercation, as winning becomes more important than preserving their love. When their love was new, they could argue and care at the same time. Now, once they begin to disagree, they become instant adversaries.
By the time they go for professional help, many such couples have exhausted their capacity to pull out of these negative spirals. No longer able to maintain caring and support for each other once an argument begins, they are cast astray in a sea of unresolvable distress.
These negative spirals are heartbreaking to observe. Yet, even in the midst of what appears to be dooming interactions, I often see fleeting moments of how these same people must have been with one another when their love was new. Sadly, they seem unable to notice them anymore.
When they become aggressive, I ask them to pause their conflict for just a moment to focus on each other’s underlying feelings of vulnerability. I may even ask them to look into each other’s eyes and silently hold hands for a few minutes. Almost invariably, they cannot continue their attacks and begin to soften towards each other. I ask them if this is the way they were during conflicts when they were newly in love.
As they share the differences between then and now, I ask them if they could recall those early interactions when they are in conflict today, to help them neutralize the damaging aspects of their disagreements. Initially, understandably, they wonder how they can do that when their conflicts have become so aggressive and painful. I assure them that it is totally possible, with enough commitment and practice.
The way I start to illustrate the process is to provide five common conflict reactions that many couples regularly experience, and ask them to describe the way they respond when either of them reacts in the same ways. Then, I ask them how they might have responded to those same behaviors when their love was new. When they recall those more caring responses, and keep them in mind when they begin to disagree, they are often both surprised and encouraged at how rapidly that simple concept can change the nature of their conflicts.
Following are those five common conflict responses and reactions that should be familiar to most established couples. After each one, there is an example of a more loving possible response and how using it might have changed the outcome.
1. When Your Partner Turns Away
When couples disagree and no longer hear the other, one partner sometimes stops and turns his or her body away. If you experience your partner doing that, but you continue to challenge or blame, he or she will eventually either discontinue interacting with you, or come back heated and ready to retaliate.
When your partner turns away from you during an argument, ask yourself if you would typically continue to attack. Instead, try to remember a time when you loved him or her so deeply that your first response would instead have been concern. Were you able at one time to put yourself aside and let your partner know how much you wanted him or her to stay connected, rather than further pressing your point?
Would you have said something more like this in the past?: “You just turned away from me. Are you feeling overwhelmed by what I’m saying or how I’m coming across? I don’t want you to disconnect. I’d rather have you here in the room with me. Please tell me what just happened that made you stop; I promise I’ll let you share how you feel.”
Would employing that behavior today make your partner feel cared for and re-invited into safety and intimacy?
2. When Your Partner Seems Hurt
Most hurt comes from feeling unfairly or uncompassionately attacked. A partner who senses a cold and uncaring challenge might feel defeated or powerless, or even experience grief.
The expressions of hurt can range from silence and withdrawal to reactive anger that attempts to hide the upset. However, the facial expression and body language of hurt are unmistakable. If your partner seems stunned, wounded, or begins to cry, do you stop and deal with that vulnerability, or does it make you more defensive and angry? Do you see expressions of hurt as attempts to manipulate you?
Now consider this: When your love was new, would you have seen it the same way? Would you have noticed that moment when your partner reacted as if hit in the gut, and were you able to put your own needs aside and offer compassion instead?
In the past, when your love was new, would you have said something more like this?: “You look like I just really hurt you. I know I was coming on strong and wanted to make my point, but I didn’t want to cause you this kind of pain. I felt cornered and scared of losing, but that was no reason to go after you like that. I just wanted you to hear me. Do you need to tell me what you’re feeling?”
When you’ve done something like this in your past, has your partner been more likely to feel loved and allow him or herself to be vulnerable again?
3. When Your Partner Begins to Lose Control
If you are not consumed by your own distress, you can easily pick up the signs that your partner is losing control and becoming more rapidly upset. He or she will no longer seem rational, and may begin bringing up multiple additional issues, physically flail, or become louder in a desperate attempt to feel sane. More women than men begin to cry when losing control. More men than women escalate and raise their voices. But both enter into behaviors outside their normal ways of being.
Do you remember a time in the past when your partner began to spin out of control during an argument? Would you have been able then to set aside your own agenda to make your concern his or her increasing distress? Would you have recognized the signs of that escalating pain and done whatever you could to help your partner calm down?
When your love was new, might you have said something like this?: “Hey, I’m doing something that is obviously really upsetting you and making you feel like I’m out to get you. Let me stop and help you calm down. What I need to say can wait until you are okay. I was probably coming across like your enemy. I’m sorry. I just want you to feel better.”
If you were able to do that, did your partner feel grateful?
4. When Your Partner Becomes Oppositional
You’re in an argument, and your partner flips your position against you, tells you you’re crazy, or totally invalidates your reasoning. He or she is cornered and trying desperately to throw you off guard. The remarks are exaggerated or irrational, and feel urgent and desperate. Your understandable response is to counter-defend by challenging both the statements and your partner’s right to say them. The more you fight back, the more he or she escalates.
Can you recall an earlier time in your relationship when you didn’t need to immediately erase your partner's thoughts or feelings and instead tried patience and inquiry first? You wanted to make sure he or she felt understood and listened to, even if you didn’t see things the same way.
When you were deeply in love, might you have sounded more like this?: “Hey, sweetheart, you’re invalidating everything I’m saying. Do you feel like I’m not listening? There’s plenty of time here for you to say whatever you need to before I answer. We don’t have to feel exactly the same way about everything, but that doesn’t mean I don’t respect your point of view. Let me stay quiet for a while and just hear you out. Would that help?”
If you responded like this in the past, did your partner relax and appreciate your willingness to back off in the moment?
5. When Your Partner’s Anger Begins to Escalate
It is common for fighting partners' anger to rise when they feel attacked or feel like they need to win. When your partner starts yelling at you in threatening tones, he or she may be unable to stay connected to what you have to say, or even to see any other way. Anger is a “puffer fish” phenomenon. It is the way people make themselves feel bigger and more powerful, and hide any underlying vulnerability that might be exposed if they were to suppress their angry reactions.
When your partner’s anger sharply increases, do you normally move into a more adversarial position, protecting yourself at their expense? When you felt safer and more loved, were you able to diminish your partner’s anger with a more compassionate response?
You might have sounded something like this: "Whoa, babe, you are really getting worked up. Am I saying things that make you want to push me away? Tell me what’s under that anger if you can. Are you just frustrated, or scared that I’ll hurt you? I’m sorry if I did or said anything that got you going like this. I’m sure that your feelings are understandable, but I could hear you better if you said them without being angry.”
If you were able to respond something like that, was your partner able to settle down and share his or her deeper feelings?
As all intimate relationships mature, many partners forget their initial commitments and allow their conflict interactions to deteriorate. The way couples fight is the most obvious sign of that lost reverence. If they can, once again, remember how to treat each other with love and compassion, even during their disagreements, the love they once knew will return.
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