All intimate partners have conflict from time to time. When people blend their lives together, they are bound to see some situations differently and need to resolve those differences. Disagreements are stressful for everyone and, depending on how partners treat each other during conflicts, they will either bring a couple closer together or increase the emotional distance between them.
Disputes that lead to greater understanding and new perspectives can actually increase excitement and continuing discovery in a committed relationship. Romantic partners who have learned how to argue productively while maintaining respect for each other can create a new emotional universe that neither could have created alone.
In contrast, many partners fight in ways that consistently hurt their relationship. One or both become need-to-win combatants, establishing a superior position at the expense of their partner’s. As disagreements escalate, they use any behaviors and strategies they can muster to win the argument. The result of these adversarial styles is often mutual isolation, unresolved anger, and painful wounds.
Need-to-win fighting styles are often unconscious behaviors learned in childhood that continue in subsequent relationships. Many are not even aware of when or where they learned to fight this way, or why they continue to do so. They can easily see that they are having difficulty resolving their disputes, but they have not connected their need-to-win fighting style with their lack of successful outcomes.
In the four decades I’ve worked with couples in relationship distress, I have witnessed this destructive fighting style in many forms, but 10 appear most often. When I point these out to couples as I see them emerge in their interactions, they are often surprised to see that the way they fight is the actual reason they fail to resolve their disagreements. When they understand that a different way of handling disputes can turn them from combatants to an effective debate team, they are often enthusiastic to learn how. And as they become a mutually supportive team, they begin to come up with innovative solutions to problems they had never been able to resolve.
The 10 Most Common Need-to-Win Fighting Styles
1. The Silent Treatment
Often accompanied by crossed arms and a supercilious expression, the silent treatment is one fighting style designed to get the other partner to expose his or her thoughts and feelings without doing so yourself. As the silent partner stays disconnected, the other’s distress tends to escalate, giving the winning edge to the one who stays hidden.
When feeling attacked or unnerved, many people fight back by challenging and devaluating any reasons the other partner has for feeling the way he or she does. These focused fighters often bring in other people’s confirmations of their own point of view to beef up their position, or go after the ways their partner has failed in the past. The goal is to create self-doubt in the other person.
In most relationships, one partner tends to be more dominant, more able to be direct and stronger in the way he or she feels and thinks. These people are often in relationships with partners who tend to be quieter, more methodical, and more reflective before they voice their opinions. When these couples argue, the need-to-win dominant partner is highly likely to use powerful and intense energy to escalate the argument into greater emotional intensity. The other partner’s ability to fight back is quickly overpowered.
4. Piling on Other Issues
When need-to-win partners feel that they might be losing an argument, they often respond by diverting their opponents with other issues. They may do so by rehashing the past, talking about other problems, or trying to get the other partner to focus on his or her own flaws. The goal of bringing up additional issues is to confuse the one at hand by overloading the situation with past conflicts that are not pertinent at the time. When this strategy works, the other partner cannot stay on point and is unable to resolve the initial issue.
5. Character Assassination
When they feel cornered and losing, many need-to-win fighters resort to this effective but terribly destructive response. Instead of sticking to the situation at hand, they challenge the other partner as to how he or she is basically flawed in some way, using every example they can to drive home their point. They attempt to convince the other partner that their core personality deficits make them unworthy of challenging the issue at hand, or any other issue. The response of the accused is usually feeling as if he or she is on a symbolic witness stand, defending those painful devaluing judgments.
6. Arguing From a Distance
The farther away partners are from each other during a conflict, the easier it is for either of them to hurl accusations and insults without feeling responsible for the effect on the other. The distance also allows the need-to-win partner who claims it to more easily assess the weakness of the other, and to take a more protected stance. It also can alleviate guilt, because the intimacy of closeness is diluted and responsibility for causing pain is easier to ignore.
7. Hitting Below the Belt
During any disagreement, partners who care for each other know what they can use in an argument and what they should never say no matter how heated the conflict becomes. They trust each other to never use the special knowledge they have of each other’s deepest vulnerabilities to win an argument. The most serious and relationship-destructive conflicts occur when one or both partners break that trust by using the information they know about the other to gain an unfair advantage in a confrontation.
An insidious but often effective strategy to win a fight is to begin beating oneself up on the other end of any accusation or challenge, and then blaming the other partner for the exaggerated self-destruction. These kinds of fighters act as if the other’s accusations were much worse than they were intended in order to make the attacking partner feel guilty and then back down.
In any committed relationship, threats of abandonment, exile, and escalated aggressiveness are needing-to-win fighting styles that are intended to make the other partner feel insecure and fearful of loss. The goal is to use that response to have him or her focus on what could be lost if the fight continues.
10. Feigned Indifference to Outcome
Whether they feel differently inside or not, partners who pretend they don’t care about whether they win or lose can actually win an argument by acting as if they are giving in without really agreeing. The other partners can feel the ruse and know that they have essentially been robbed of power or influence by the “playing dead” posture of the other.
Moving Forward, Together
None of these fighting styles will ever lead to productive resolution of conflict. Rather than listening, respecting, or being open to each other’s experience, partners will continue to see only their own positions and do whatever they can to wipe out the other’s reasonableness. The arguments that ensue from these battles create deepening grooves of resentment that become harder to overcome over time. Once these styles are identified and stopped, couples can begin to deal with conflict in more productive ways. There are multiple sources available to help intimate partners learn how to fight productively. The following is a simple synthesis of the wealth of knowledge in this area.
7 Simple Rules to Begin Changing Negative Conflict
1. Avoid arguing at all if you are tired, frustrated, or there isn’t enough time to adequately resolve the situation.
2. Sit close to one another, preferably physically touching in some way.
3. Listen completely to the other’s point of view. Support does not mean you have to see things the same way.
4. Argue only one issue at a time. If others get brought up, agree to talk about them separately and only after you resolve the one at hand.
5. Don’t add support to your position by using your partner's opinions or past arguments to bolster your argument.
6. Stop the conflict if either of you escalates the need to win.
7. If you cannot stop from employing a needing-to-win style when you disagree, seek out the support of a mutually respected professional or trusted witness to observe.
Following these guidelines may initially seem hard, but it gets easier over time. The compounding rewards encourage most couples to continue practicing them. Disagreements that are handled with mutual respect and support both enhance and strengthen the connection between the partners in committed relationships. My clients who have left a negative combat style behind and practiced this new way of conflict resolution not only have fewer conflicts and more successful results, but heal more rapidly when they do disagree.
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