Tired of Having the Same Fights With Your Spouse?

The fix might be easier (and more fun) than you think with these new tools.

Posted Oct 20, 2019

Have you ever thought to yourself, "Here we go again!" when your spouse starts an argument? Have you ever rolled your eyes in frustration? Or have you ever been tempted to tune him or her out because you're "over it?"

If you said "yes" to any of these questions, you're not alone.

Most couples do have the same fights over and over (and over) again. Even if the reasons for fighting vary, the fights are the same. Why? Because the problem is not what the couple is squabbling about (i.e. the details of the fight). Where couples mess up is in the how  (i.e. the dynamics of the fight). Because couples bring the same tools to the argument, they get pretty much the same results every single time.

"What makes conflict so painful is that we are desperate to be heard but too upset to listen, desperate to be understood but too upset to be understanding, desperate to be validated but too upset to be validating. What can help you get what you need is willingness to stoke even a small ember of empathy for your partner's experience." —Dr. Alexandra Solomon, author of Loving Bravely

How We Learn to Fight

Believe it or not, we gain most of our tools for living (and fighting) by the time we are between 5 and 7 years old. Tools like name-calling, shouting, and yes, hitting (luckily, most people outgrow the latter). Many of the sensations we have during an argument are throwbacks to childhood wounds as well—feeling unloved, uncared for or a sense of, "it's not fair!" for example. Finally, children lack brain maturity to see the world in anything but black and white, so people who haven't developed a tolerance for gray, tend to see their mate (or life events in general) as all good or all bad. 

Unless we take a class or have the good fortune of being taught new tools at some point along the way, we will keep using the same childish tools. This isn’t our fault, but it is our responsibility to make it right. "When you know better, you do better," to quote Maya Angelou.

Although anyone can do better, most of us will need help. The average person will actually have to unlearn tactics they've been using their entire lives first before they can start to use new tools.

As Charles Duhigg points out in The Power of Habit, “Change might not be fast and it isn't always easy. But, with time and effort, almost any habit can be reshaped.” Duhigg discovered that there are three parts to any habit, whether it be a good one or a not-so-good habit: cue, routine and reward.

“This process within our brains is a three-step loop. First, there is a cue, a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use. Then there is the routine, which can be physical, mental, or emotional. Finally, there is a reward, which helps your brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering for the future: THE HABIT LOOP.” 

Duhigg concludes that  "...to change a habit, you must keep the old cue, and deliver the old reward, but insert a new routine.”

How to Change Your Bad Fight Habits and Create a Healthy New Routine

The solution to ending unhealthy disputes is simple but not easy. 

Where most couples get into trouble in their disagreements is in one or all of these three areas:

  • Tone of voice
  • Body language
  • Word choice (this is where the flashcards come in handy)

Learning the right words, tone, and facial expressions to use for effective, adult communication after a lifetime of using childhood phrases, is not unlike learning a foreign language. When I was a Spanish teacher in New York City in the mid-'80s, I became very familiar with the concept of flashcards as a tool for learning. I brought this practice into my work with couples over two decades ago. 

For years, I’ve written down—and had couples write down—conflict catchphrases and calming words to replace outdated and often inflammatory communication habits they were stuck in. I then instructed them to put these "flashcards" around their house to memorize, so that when their emotions were heated, they would have the new terms etched in their brain, or at the very least, at their fingertips.

Putting flashcards of kinder word choices on the fridge, the medicine cabinet, or on the steering wheel of their cars made a huge difference and it's something I still recommend.

New Tools for Change

I decided to research what tools might be out there, and I was pleasantly surprised to see that there are several. I will highlight three here and if you know of one, please leave a comment below in the comments section. I'd love to add it to my repertoire.

Heart Cards

San Francisco Hold Me Tight Workshop facilitators Sam Jinich, Ph.D., and Michelle Gannon, Ph.D., developed a tool for couples called Heart Cards.

With sayings like, "Even when I am upset and angry, I still care about you,"  the cards are designed to foster emotional intimacy and caring. Cards like, "We are OK even if we want some alone time or quiet time," serve more as affirmations, and simple statements like, "I love you,"  are good reminders for each person in the couple that their mate has an open heart toward them and wants to connect.

Ultimately, these cards are designed to foster secure attachment within a couple.

Psychobabbel Cards

What is delightful about Psychobabbel cards is not only that they help couples have kinder and better disagreements, they also add a touch of levity that can change the tone of the dispute. Even the name pokes fun of the therapeutic interventions contained in the cards. 

Often, when couples get dysregulated (upset or highly emotional), they pick up old childhood tools that don't work—tools like, "Why do you always say things you know will hurt my feelings?" The cards would have couples say instead, "Can you use different words?"  Or, if a conversation gets off to a bad start, one person may have the presence of mind to reboot by using the card that says, "Can we stop and start over?"

Ultimately, these cards are designed to improve "hearability" so that when one or both people are upset, wants, needs and emotions can be expressed in a way that doesn't cause their partner to stop listening and go on the defensive.

Can We Talk Cards

These 50 cards are designed to spark conversations between mates. So many of us come home in the evening after a long day at work and get on our devices. We connect to the impersonal while disconnecting from the personal. 

With Can We Talk cards, each person in the couple can ask questions of the other or make it where both have to answer the question. Questions like, "What about me makes you smile?" or, "Name a way you've grown in the past year."

What's nice about these cards is that, along with the deck for couples, there are versions for kids, colleagues and another deck for everyone.

Why Not Give the Gift of Healthy Communication?

The cards make a great gift for Chanukah or Christmas but, given how tense holidays can be in general, you may want to give these cards to loved-ones as a pre-holiday present and start changing habits early. Of course, they make a perfect New Year's gift as well. Why not get off to a good start for the upcoming year? For that matter, Valentine's Day is in February... Actually, these cards are an appropriate gift at any time of the year. Use them for yourself or buy them as a gift. 

If you are among those of us who can use new tools in your relationship communication toolbox, I recommend checking out one of these products. Start having better connections, more productive disputes, and deeper conversations today. 

“If you believe you can change—if you make it a habit—the change becomes real.”  —Charles Duhigg

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