Whenever you live closely with someone, things will not always be peaceful. Fighting and anger in small doses are normal and healthy parts of relationships. The bigger question is what do you do with that anger? How do you fight? Do you tear each other apart in a wild free-for-all? Do you say whatever comes to your head, no matter how hurtful it is? Do hurt each other in front of the children? Here are some ideas on how to fight the good fight without causing irreparable damage.
1. Don’t say everything you think.
How many times have you said after hurting your partners feelings, “I am just being honest”? We are taught that honesty is the best policy, but I question that idea when we hurt the people around us. Before you say something to your partner in anger, think about what you want to say, what purpose it will serve and how it will help the situation. If it escalates the argument or if it causes hurt rather than healing, you have to ask yourself if it is really productive. Are you trying to calm everyone down? Will this do it? Are you trying to just say what you want to? Then this might help, but will it help your relationship? Do you want your relationship to get better?
We don’t HAVE to say everything we think. We don’t HAVE to call our partners names. We don’t HAVE to say that we think they are stupid. We can refrain – take a time out and leave the room, go for a run, do yoga. BUT DON’T SAY IT. I am not saying that you should not say anything. There is a way to confront your partner in a healthy way by remaining calm and staying focused on your feelings. “I am concerned about some of your choices and how they effect our home/relationship/children.” “I worry that…” “I am afraid…” I love you more than anything and I want this to work. Let’s try to talk about this calmly.”
2. Listen to the feelings behind the words.
When we talk about communicating, we so often are really talking about the words we choose. However, how we listen is just as important as what we say. When people fight, they tend to hear just the words that are said which can lead to defensiveness and anger. Listening to the emotions that your partner is trying to express can change your understanding of the words that are chosen. Is your partner trying to express feelings of anger? Worry? Fear? How does this understanding change your perception of what you heard? The words “Why did you do that” have a completely different sound and meaning depending on the emotion. So when you hear words that you do not like, take a breath and reflect on what feeling is being expressed and try to connect with your partner on the emotional level. “I don’t like the words that you chose, but I can hear that you are afraid of…”
3. Know your triggers.
There are some things that will always get you angry. These are Red Flag issues that you need to be aware of in advance and tread very carefully around. Often they center around old stuff: jealousy, affairs, relationships with our parents. There are also Red Flag times of day. Common times are first thing in the morning, end of the day, immediately after work, and when you are hungry. Knowing your triggers will help you be particularly aware that you need to be even more conscientious about listening to feelings and being aware of what you are saying. When you come up on a Red Flag Issue, it is time to step back and say, “I am feeling very sensitive about this. Can I take some time to think about it and we can talk about it in 20 minutes?” Then take those 20 minutes to think about it. What do you want to say? How do you want to say it? Go back and talk about why this issue is sensitive and the feelings that get triggered. Stay at that emotional level.
4. Don’t ignore the issues.
Do you find yourself ignoring the issues that come up because you want to keep the peace? This is not a good idea. When we ignore issues, they don’t go away. The get bigger. And bigger. And then they explode in a big, ugly mess. It is so much easier to address the issues when they first come up and are still small. You might find that they are pretty easily resolved at that point. If it feels like all of the issues are Big Issues and cannot be resolved then perhaps it is time to get some additional help.
Making changes in long-standing patterns takes time and patience – both for your partner and for yourself. If you find that you try to make these changes and are still struggling, think about coming in to see me for some more intensive work in Couples Therapy.