How can my partner and I stop fighting?
~ Fussin' Fools
You're not alone! In fact, I just wrote a response about cranky couples last week, and while I'm on a fussy role, I will share with you an additional perspective on fighting in relationships, by sharing another article I wrote last week as my response to your question.
"You have got to be kidding, I can't remember the last time we actually had FUN!" is Kate's response to Kim's complaint (poorly disguised as a question), "Do we have to spend every spare minute we have doing something with friends? We have so much to do around the house." Kate, started again saying, "YOU -" when I interrupted her to ask them both, "Do you ever get what you need from each other when you do this?" Determined to finish her thought, Kate turned back to Kim, finishing her jab with, "YOU are such a stick in the mud. All you want to do is work and clean. You used to be fun." And then she turned to me, now willing to answer my question, she said, "Nothing works, that's why we're here."
Kim shook her head in agreement. When it comes to relationships and conflicts, it is best to STOP doing what isn't working, even if you have not yet replaced that behavior with a new and improved behavior. No amount of ineffective reactions, critical behaviors, and hurtful responses will ever add up to something good, or something that works.
It is not really difficult to assess whether or not what we are doing is working. The answer is found in this question, "When I (fill in the blank), do I get what I want?" Sure, Kate may bully Kim into going golfing with friends all day, and Kim may even have fun, but Kate is not likely to win Kim's respect, or her trust by criticizing Kim to get her way. Or Kim might be able to talk Kate into staying home and working around the house, but Kate won't feel like her wants and needs matter if she's only staying home with Kim to avoid a fight.
After stewing on Kate's comments for a minute, Kim reacts to Kate's stick-in-the-mud criticism with a flash of sarcasm, saying, "That's right, Kim, you're on to me. I fell in love with you, stood up before our friends and family, and committed my life to you because I secretly had a plan to systematically rob you of all of your joy, and because I couldn't wait to incite such anger and hostility from you because it feels SOOOOOO GOOD."
Like Kate with her criticism, and Kim with her sarcasm, many of us cling to our old ways of reacting because at some point in our life they worked. We develop coping responses very early in life - and these responses develop out of our need to survive (emotionally and sometimes physically) our childhoods. As a child we learn to do what works - and unfortunately, as we grow, we continue to do what we've always done, even when these responses cease to be effective. Most of us don't stop to think about whether or not what we are doing is working. For some there is a deep-seeded belief that change is not possible, and for others there is an illusion of safety found in avoiding change. Perhaps you've heard your partner defend herself with, "I was like this when you met me," as if broadcasting her lack of personal growth during the time you've been together is somehow redeeming or acceptable; that who we are when we meet is all we are ever required to be in a relationship.
To grow in your relationship you must first stop doing what ISN'T working. If you typically give your partner the silent treatment or the cold shoulder when you are upset, hurt or angry, I'm guessing you don't get what you need by doing that. So stop it. If you typically yell at your partner, sometimes name-calling, or simply berating her, I'm guessing you don't get what you need by doing that, either. So stop it. If you sometimes find yourself laughing, sarcastically, at your partner when she shares her frustrations, I'm guessing that doesn't get you very far. So stop it. If you interrupt, talk over, silence her, or interrogate her with accusatory questions, that probably doesn't work either. So, that's right, stop it.
This may surprise you, but couples who fight are in a good place to change. When there is still enough passion and energy in your relationship to feel hurt, to get angry, to express frustrations, then there's still enough energy to make things work. If you are in constant battle with the most important person in your life, the first step for you is to STOP DOING WHAT ISN'T WORKING. Once you remove the ineffective behaviors, even if your partner does not (though it will be difficult for her to continue without your participation!) you will regain some self-respect and begin to channel your frustrations into solutions, rather than more problems.
- Identify one common behavior that you know is not effective, and in fact, is harmful to your relationship
- Commit to ceasing that behavior entirely, and stopping it if you become aware after you've started in on this behavior
- Be willing to apologize for bad behavior
- Gain new relationship skills: read books, get therapy, attend my couple's weekend
Michele O'Mara, LCSW