When my wife and I started couples therapy in the mid 1990s, after 10 years of marriage and almost 50 years of living, our gifted therapist, Sunny Shulkin, described the way most couples fight. She speaks and he listens – but in a special way – carefully sifting her words for ammunition so that, when her mouth stops moving, he can fire back. And as he counter-attacks, she, in turn, is busy collecting her own ammunition so that, when he stops talking, she can return the fire.
The description was sobering, uncomfortably accurate. Over and over, Dale (my wife) and I would take turns explaining why we were right and the other wrong, with our frustration and vehemence increasing with each exchange. The predictable endpoint?
A complete breakdown in communication and mutual misery, followed by reconciliation – not resolution – and, in due course, a repeat performance.
And the years slipped by.
Why was Sunny able to describe the process of this new couple, sitting in front of her, with such eerie accuracy? Because we live in a culture where the relentless message is that successful people are winners; competitors who strive and, ultimately, prevail. With these values permeating our approach at school, work, and so many other areas of living, their habitual appearance in our intimate relationships is utterly predictable.
It is all so sad. We know to a certainty that the great majority of our teenagers will organize their lives around a committed intimate relationship. Nevertheless, there is virtually no effort to teach them alternative skills that would allow them to be more effective romantic partners.
But a better way does exist. And for Dale and me, one of our great joys is to share what we have learned, with others, in our therapy practices. In this Reflection, I offer some guidelines for effective fighting that we have teased out, in our work with couples – and with each other.
Radical Decency is an approach to living that encompasses all areas of living, from the most private and personal to the most public and political. And, needless to say, the same attack/counter-attack habits that couples engage in are practiced with a vengeance in the public arena – with devastating consequences.
In this area, however, the shift to more effective fighting is far more difficult since key qualities that can jumpstart the process for couples – good faith, trust, and a shared desire for a better way – are in short supply. That said, one of Radical Decency’s central beliefs is that application of its values in one area will lead to creative insights in other areas as well. For that reason, I invite you consider how the practice pointers for couples, described below, might be adapted and applied to our efforts to create a more decent and constructive public discourse.
Point 1: You’re not fighting about what you’re fighting about.
Couples bicker about chores – how to handle the children – love-making – money, the list goes on and on. But when a couple shifts to fight mode, the struggle is – almost always – about one thing: Each partner feels unheard and unseen and, with that, fears the loss of the safe, nurturing love that he or she longs for, and depends upon, from the other.
For those of us who instinctually default to the fight side of the fight/flight dichotomy, the typical fear is that the most important person in our life will abandon us. For those on the flight side, the fear is of being overwhelmed and engulfed by that person and his needs.
Because the substantive issue at hand has triggered your partner, it needs to be treated with respect. But don’t dwell on it. Make your point about how dinner chores should be handled, listen to his, and then shift your attention to the real issue: The ways in which you and your partner are not feeling loved and appreciated.
Remind yourself that, notwithstanding her harsh words, you are not at imminent risk of losing her good opinion of you. You are, after all, the love of her life. Instead of trying to prove your worth by “winning” the argument, look for ways to reassure her of your abiding love and respect – by making her feel that her point is really being heard by you.
Note, importantly, that the practical cost in adopting this approach is actually very small. In most cases, the outcome on the substantive issue is of no consequence. Her way of doing it is fine and, so too, is his. Either way, no babies are dying.
The bottom line: Focus your primary energy on your partner’s emotional needs and longings – and yours – and not on the intricacies of how and when to do the laundry.
Point 2: Winning is not the goal.
When your partner yells, or goes cold and judgmental, he has not turned into an unfeeling monster. Despite appearances, he feels lousy and is at his most vulnerable and unsafe. Just like you. Understanding this, it makes no sense to inflict additional pain through a counter-attack, especially since the point you are about make, with such urgency, is almost always a point you’ve made many times before, in past fights.
Not falling into this habitual, reactive way of responding – in the middle of a fight – is excruciatingly difficult. But it is the holy grail of effective fighting: To replace our instinctual fight/flight reactions with loving acts and, equally, to be receptive to our partner’s efforts to do the same.
When emotions escalate, job one is to tend to our physical and emotional safety and integrity. But consistent with that priority, there are many moments, even in the middle of a fight, when loving acts are possible.
Seek to understand and empathize with your partner and, importantly, share these efforts with her in ways that she is able to hear. Let her know, as best you can, that you know what it feels like to be her. Equally, important, strive to warmly accept loving initiatives from her side, even when they are tinged with a residue of anger and resentment. And resist, with all the discipline and presence of mind you can muster, the urge to get in the last shot.
Point 3: Don’t defend yourself.
When a fight starts, one of the first casualties is context. Despite her harsh words and cold looks, you are not an awful person. In fact, you are the most important person in her life; the person she has chosen to grow old with; the person she has stayed with for all these years; the person she trusts with her life – and the lives of her children.
Remembering this, defending yourself is really beside the point; a non-issue. Notwithstanding his momentary annoyance about the clutter you have created in the spare bedroom, you are, and remain, someone he loves and esteems. So, instead of justifying the clutter, acknowledge it and look at the cleanup, not as an annoying chore – or an admission of guilt – but as a ready-made opportunity to love him.
Point 4: Time is on your side.
When we are in the middle of a fight, we too easily think that everything has to be said – NOW. Nothing could be further from the truth. In reality, we have all the time in the world; with any luck, decades.
With this thought in mind, keep the conversation simple and stay focused on the issue at hand. If she complains about your getting home late for dinner, don’t respond by pointing out that she is chronically late when you have plans with another couple. That is changing the subject, pure and simple. She wants to talk about dinner and, ignoring that, you have shifted to a second topic.
This is where the realization that time is on our side is so helpful. Your annoyance about the routine on Saturday night is real and needs to be dealt with. But it’s best to raise it at another time – tomorrow or next week. Why? Because the alternative doesn’t work. When you change the subject and link issues, your partner – feeling unheard – is likely to do the same. This, in turn, will invite further linking by you, and so on, in an escalating, difficult to interrupt cycle.
When you and your partner fight, the goal should be to do less and to do it well. Then, stop and acknowledge your success, knowing that the tools you have used in this “good” fight, today, will help you to deal more effectively with the next issue – tomorrow, or next week, or next month.
Point 5: Scan for the positive.
What gives the guideline, first offered by Terence Real, its power is a simple, underlying truth: Your partner makes sense. Given his experiences, skills, disposition, hopes and dreams, this is how the magnificent person you have chosen as your partner operates in the world. And she is a package deal. The stuff you love and the stuff that drives you crazy are inextricably intertwined.
So when, in the middle of a fight, your partner takes his best shot, “scan for the positive” – for what you agree with – and begin your response there. Let the part where she calls you insensitive and thoughtless slide by, without comment, and agree with her that you did indeed fail to clean the kitchen before the guests arrived.
Doing so will remind you that she make sense; that her needs are real and legitimate. It will also act as a powerful brake on your instinctual, fight/flight driven rush toward defensiveness and reactive counter-attack. And, finally, it will invite her to join you in this shift toward reciprocal acts of understanding and love that are the hallmark of more effective fighting.
Point 6: Measure yourself by your successes and not by your failures.
I close with this thought. Being a good romantic partner, always difficult, is never more challenging than when you are in the middle of a fight. As hard as you try, there will, inevitably, be many moments when you fall short. So always remember to measure your progress by your successes and not by your failures.