A few years ago a colleague of mine told me to stop writing blogs. She said, “They won’t buy the cow if the milk is free.”
I ignored the advice because I highly value blogs, especially where therapists are concerned. Blogs are a way for you to get a feel for the kind of approach I take and the kind of person I am. There are a lot of wonderful therapists out there but there are also destructive therapists and therapists who will waste your time and money. Sometimes a blog is a good way for you to determine whether you and your potential therapist might be a good match in terms of personality and philosophy.
This ‘Free Cow Milk’ blog intends to take you through the steps of fighting with your partner in a way that doesn’t damage your relationship but instead makes it stronger. These techniques are what I teach my counseling clients and I’ve seen these techniques work wonders for people. I’ve seen couples who came to me while in the process of separation or divorce and, through hard work, and learning how to fight fairly, I’ve seen them fall back in love.
Onto the topic of fighting.
In the therapy world we call fights ‘conflict’ and we don’t fight, we ‘resolve our conflicts in a healthy way’. In the real world, and particularly in long-term relationships, we fight. All couples fight. Loving, healthy couples fight. Bad fights can be ugly and do serious damage to relationships. My goal is to give you techniques to fight with your spouse so that:
You feel like the other person heard you
Whatever you are fighting about is resolved so that it doesn’t continue to cause problems. If you are struggling with an issue that is not resolvable, you are minimally able to come at the problem as a team, rather than feeling like you are against each other
Both partners feel like they were treated with respect throughout the fight
Both partners trust that they can talk to the person they love and not wind up in a war zone or suffering the silent treatment or worse
You both walk away feeling closer to each other, rather than feeling angry and resentful
If you are currently destructively fighting with your spouse, these goals may sound like fantasy but I promise you, this is not fantasy fodder. My couple’s counseling clients would tell you that the first step toward saving their relationships was learning how to fight without doing damage. Imagine a continuum with an unhappy marriage being a -5 and a ridiculously happy marriage being a 10 on the scale. If you stop mean-fighting and instead work through things without hurting each other, you will see your unhappy -5 marriage go to a 1 or a 2 on the scale. If you are mean-fighting or barely speaking, you are in the negative. You are likely miserable. Healthy fighting won’t take a miserable marriage from a -5 to a 10, but it will at least stop the worst of the pain you are both feeling. Once you have stopped hurting each other, you can work on falling back in love. I know this is true because I’ve seen the results of this approach while working with lots of couples over the last few years. If you do nothing else, but learn to fight fairly, you will have turned your relationship around.
There are a few things that are required in order for you to work through fights in a healthy loving way:
Both partners must be committed to changing the way they fight. If your partner is bull-headed, sociopathic, arrogantly convinced that they know everything about everything and don’t need to change, cruel by nature, or has one foot out the door and wants to be hurtful more than they want to be loving … you’re not going to have a happy relationship and I probably can’t help you.
Both partners have to be willing to change their behavior before they notice a change in their feelings
Both partners must be willing to put their guard down and trust that the other person will not intentionally hurt them
Both partners must be able to give their partner the benefit of the doubt (which is why this won’t work if your partner is a destructive, cruel person—you’d have to be a fool to trust someone and give them the benefit of the doubt if you know they will intentionally hit you below the belt while you’re vulnerable
Both partners must be willing to be ‘wrong’. Neither partner can care more about being right, than about being loving
Both partners must come to the argument with the goal of solving the problem, not winning.
Here is the toughest and most important piece: While steeped in feelings of rage, resentment, frustration, anxiety, fear etc … both partners must continuously focus on the fact that they love each other
The first ‘rule’ of a healthy loving fight is this: DO NO HARM. If you can’t be loving, at least don’t do harm. If you can muster it up, try to be loving.
When I counsel couples, I teach them to say a mantra in their heads during the entire course of a fight. The second you feel a fight coming on, you say to yourself, “I love you. I refuse to hurt you”. This is in the forefront of your thinking throughout the entire argument. “I love you. I refuse to hurt you”.
You will be surprised by how much this one small thing can change the way you engage with your partner. It works because it is extremely difficult to focus your thinking on this mantra, while also thinking horrible things about your loved one. It also reminds you that you aren’t at war—you love the other person. Before you say anything you consider whether or not it would hurt them. This works. It has worked for countless couples, even when they previously fought with swords drawn. This mantra also tends to slow a fight down—which is a huge advantage for both of you. The mantra requires that you think about each thing you say before you say it. The slower, and more thoughtful a fight is, the less damaging it is.
In the middle of a fight, you might think, “You are such a piece of crap. I can’t f’ing stand to look at your stupid face” or, “Why did I marry you?” The second those thoughts pop into your head, you think, “I love you. I refuse to hurt you”. I realize that these negative internal thoughts may sound harsh to you right now as you read this, but let’s face it—when we’re in an ugly fight we’re rarely thinking loving thoughts.
In a fight, just as in a marriage, the first step toward a healthier relationship is: do no harm. This means that even if you’re right, even if your partner is totally wrong, even if they ‘deserve’ your wrath, you zip your lip rather than saying something mean. You keep it zipped until you can express your thoughts without doing harm.
You may want to lash out so badly you think your head will explode if you don’t. But ask yourself this: if you say, “You’re such an a**hole, I hate you!” Do you really think the other person is going to say, “You know, I never realized I was an a**hole before. You’re right. Thank you for enlightening me. I’m wrong and won’t be an a**hole anymore”? Do you really think they are going to come closer to understanding your point of view? No, they won’t. They’ll dig their heels in and feel even more justified in hurting you. They will feel less open to yielding and seeing your point of view. They will feel unloved and angry and then be non-cooperative.
I’m belaboring this because all of us have been in a situation where our emotions are high and we’re seriously ticked off and we get destructive or we walk away and refuse to talk, or we do or say things that hurt the other. You will have a miserable marriage if every time you fight, you trash each other.
Do no harm. Even if your partner is hurtful, don’t be hurtful back. In fact, if your partner is hurtful, ask yourself what is behind the meanness. Assuming you’re married to a loving person, or minimally a good, nice person, ask yourself why they are so hurt or angry that they would say something mean.
A few weeks ago I had a fight with my husband and we had retreated to our corners (which we almost never do … we really do fight in a loving way—but everyone screws up from time to time). I was upstairs and he was downstairs and we both knew we were angry at each other. I texted him this: “I’m not going to the Mariner’s game with you next weekend. I’m not up for the drive and my back hurts from the surgery. You should ask (insert names of his buddies here) to join you. It’ll be fun.”
So I lied (me not wanting to go to the game had nothing to do with the drive and we both knew it)
I was passive-aggressive
I was taking away something that was really important to him, as punishment, which was crappy of me
I wanted it to sting when he read the text message
Half an hour went by with no response and then he came upstairs and sat on the bed and said, “I was really angry and upset when I saw your text message. I think that’s the first time in our whole relationship that you’ve said something to intentionally hurt me. Once I got over the anger, I realized that you must be really hurting or you would never hurt me on purpose like that. I’m so sorry I hurt or upset you so much that you lashed out like that. I love you and want to make this better.”
Imagine being in my position. He could have come upstairs and lashed out at me. He could have, justifiably, gotten even angrier and invited someone else to the game. He could have called me names (a few would have been fitting). If he’d done that, I would have ramped up even more.
But really, what could I do once he came upstairs like that? He was being loving in the face of my childishness. Instead of hurting me back, he comforted me. He gave me the benefit of the doubt that I must be hurting, to act that way. He totally, completely disarmed me.
(just in case you’re concerned that maybe this fighting style only works if you fight over trivial things like Mariner’s games, I can assure you that we are a real couple with real arguments—I’m just using this as an example)
Once he came upstairs and said those things, my anger deflated. I felt crummy for hurting him. I cried and apologized for hurting him and I was open to lovingly talking about the thing we had been fighting about prior to the Mariner’s text.
We both felt closer after the fight and we worked through the issue that started it.
He employed rule number one: even if the other person deserves a smack-down, do no harm. Be loving.
If you can’t get over the need to win, think about this: if you fight the way I’m suggesting you fight, you will win. You will win your partner’s trust and love and respect. You will increase your odds of getting your way. You will ‘win’ a partner who thinks about your feelings before they speak.
I want to back-track and start at the beginning now. I’m going to go through the steps of a fight and break it down into pieces. The foundation for a fight is:
Do no harm. Be loving.
You or your partner gets angry and feels the effects of ‘fight hormones’ (the brain/body preparing for war).
One or the other of you says something that lets the other person know there is a problem. Once both parties know a fight is starting, both partners will feel these ‘fight hormones’. These hormones are what cause you to want to fight or flee. Some people are flooded with adrenaline and cortisol and other ‘fight chemicals’ and they attack while other people might shut down or flee.
Once this happens, your partner is going to lose some of their ability to think rationally.
This is why it’s extremely helpful to slow a fight down (the mantra: I love you, I refuse to hurt you slows it down).
When your partner comes to you with a problem that would normally turn into a fight, or you sense a fight coming on, calmly say something like, “You sound angry/upset. I don’t know what to say. I’m not giving you the silent treatment, I’m just thinking. Please give me a second.”
Take as much time as you need. Fights are not a race. In fact, the slower you engage, the less painful the situation is going to be.
If it takes a while, keep reminding your partner that you are trying to figure out how you’re feeling and you are trying to understand where they are coming from; you are not shutting them out.
When you figure out where you think your partner is coming from and you are calm, you can ask them questions.
You might ask for more information by saying something like, “Can you tell me what you want, or what is upsetting you? Do you have any ideas for how to resolve this?”
Try not to be defensive. Your only concerns are these:
Do no harm
Understand where your partner is coming from, try to see things from their point of view, without preparing a defense or thinking about yourself or your position at all.
It will be extremely difficult but try to forget about yourself and put all of your energy into seeing the situation from your partner’s point of view. Our natural reaction when we feel attacked is to try to defend ourselves. Defending yourself won’t help you. Take everything you know about your partner: their personality, history, temperament etc. and use that information to help you understand how they are feeling.
None of this advice applies if you are with someone who is simply abusive. All of it applies if you are with a decent human being.
Once you believe you understand where your partner is coming from, ask them for more information. As an example, you might say, “You just shouted at me for leaving my clothes strewn all over the place. Are you feeling like a maid? Are you doing an unfair amount of the housework? If not, can you tell me what you’re feeling? I love you and want to make this better.”
(again, it bears repeating, even if your partner is being hurtful, don’t be hurtful back)
If your partner responds by saying something like, “I do ALL the housework and I AM the maid.”
Apologize. I’m not suggesting that they are right and you should simply capitulate every time, regardless of the situation. You love your partner. You are sorry they feel like a maid. You are sorry that your joint communication is so poor that they have felt this way and didn’t feel like they could come to you and make it better. You love them and are sorry that they feel like a maid. This doesn’t mean you agree that you treat them like a maid.
(next, think sincerely about this and decide whether their argument is valid. If it is, take steps to change the situation. Nobody wants to feel taken for granted). If it isn’t valid, you have a problem to work through. You can offer to sit down and make a list of chores that each of you will do or you can keep talking about the situation to try to come up with a compromise.
If your partner lashes out at you and you sense that they simply want to fight, you can defend yourself without being mean back. You do not deserve to be abused. If s/he comes to you and says, “You didn’t pay the house payment on time and we got a late fee. I hope you’re happy. You’re a child. Now I can’t even trust you to make the friggin’ house payment …”
It’s not harmful to say, “I would like to talk to you about this when you can do it without calling me names or being mean. I love you. Please let me know when you’ve calmed down and can talk to me.”
It’s not ‘stonewalling’ or giving the silent treatment to someone who is being abusive, if you say how you feel and walk away. If your partner is simply being mean, you can (without being destructive) say, “My feelings are hurt. I love you and want to talk this out but I don’t want to be called names or yelled at. When you calm down, let’s talk about this.”
As much as possible, you focus throughout the fight, on seeing things from your partner’s point of view. If you have wronged them in some way, apologize. If they point something out that you weren’t aware of, let them know that you hadn’t thought of that. Once you show that you are trying to see things from their point of view, and you aren’t being defensive, and you are taking responsibility for things you’ve done wrong (accidentally or on purpose—it doesn’t matter, just apologize without making excuses) you will see that your partner yields. Their anger will dissipate. They will be far more likely to afford you the same grace you are extending to them.
Things to avoid:
Stonewalling or giving the silent treatment (refusing to talk)
Bringing up unrelated things (if you have a grievance, save it for another time—otherwise it simply diverts you both from the issue at hand)
Pointing out the faults of the other person
Throughout the fight, you are repeating your mantra in your head (I love you. I refuse to hurt you). Each thing you say is said with love (or not said at all). If you can maintain eye contact, try to do so. If possible, face the other person. If possible, comfort them—because they are extremely stressed, too.
This approach may sound simplistic but it is extremely difficult in practice. I’ve worked with highly motivated couples who struggled to learn how to fight lovingly and for whom it took six months or more to learn how to fight without doing damage. I hope you will try some of these things. If you try but find that things fall apart when your emotions are high, you might consider coming to counseling. A skilled therapist can walk you through the process and help each of you in areas where you are struggling.