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Fighting With Your Partner

Many couples fight occasionally with no harm done; others fight "all the time."

There is an inside joke famous with psychotherapists called “Effective 3 Second Therapy.” When a client complains of wanting to stop biting his nails or watching pornography or is struggling with any other unwanted behavior the therapist says s/he will now apply Effective 3 Second Therapy by looking the client directly in the eyes and saying sternly “Stop it!”

Wouldn’t it be lovely if that were all it took!

When unhappy couples come in to consult me I often hear “We fight all the time.” Immediately I am sorely tempted to apply the mythical Effective 3 Second Therapy. If even one person in the couple stops participating in fights the fights will stop. Problem solved.

Of course, there are more issues involved. Is one of the two just an argumentative person? Is one of them focused on always being right? Is one person or both angry about some unresolved issue that’s not being addressed? Do they just flat out not like each other?

A therapist friend of mine has given quarreling clients of hers the strict proscription of absolutely no fighting for a week until their next meeting with her; if one starts a fight the other must respond by leaving the room. Does this work? It’s unlikely to for the whole week but if it does even a few times over the several days it will become evident that fighting can be avoided by this simple expedient.

Sometimes all it takes to stop a fight in its tracks is for one person to turn to the other and say sympathetically “What’s really bothering you? This isn’t actually about who let the cat out, is it? Something seems to be troubling you. I want to hear it.” And then listen and don’t interrupt until your partner is through speaking; listen and don’t leap to defending yourself. “Uh huh” or “I see” is all that’s needed. Not being heard is one of the most frequent complaints of quarreling people. “She always has to have the last word no matter what I say” or “He just ignores me when I express my feelings.”

Can the couple sit down at some point and see if something can be worked out to avoid future squabbles? If the fights always seem to be about the same issue can the couple seek some temporary resolution, maybe with the help of a counselor? If they fight about when to eat dinner can they agree to eat separately, or to vary dinner hours? Can one person agree to stop doing that annoying thing, whatever it is, if their partner agrees to change some other annoying habit?

As a psychotherapist specializing in sex therapy, many of the fights I hear about are often about sex – when, how frequently, and in what way. If partner X prefers sex in the evening and partner Y only wants to indulge in the morning, suggesting sex at noon will please neither one of them. Sometimes meeting in the middle is not the solution. In that case, a real brainstorming session is needed to see what might work “at least for the time being”. I always assure clients that no solution is necessarily forever, but anything is worth a try if it reduces or eliminates fighting.

Research into couples’ relationships has shown that there are issues in most relationships that never do get resolved. His annoying brother is always going to be part of your family and she is always going to like movies without guns or car chases, your favorite kind. Whether the issue is a serious one or minor it’s still going to be there and not going away. How will periodic fights about that same thing help in any way? Since they won’t it’s best to agree to disagree and come to some resolution that might work for now like the fact that he spends time with his brother on his own and she goes to movies she likes with a friend and you do the same.

A search of the Internet will find many articles suggesting fair fighting rules. Some are obvious such as “Never get physical” and “No name calling.” All of the rules you find are worth trying if they de-escalate friction in your life and allow you and your sweetie to get along more harmoniously.

Many happy couples never fight. If that’s not believable in your case let me also say that many happy couples do fight, but it’s not “all the time” and when they do fight the issues are resolved and the hard feelings evaporate. If you are involved in a contentious relationship try some avoidance methods or, failing them, some fair fighting rules. Are things happier? My guess is that they are or soon will be.

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