Every couple fights. Love would be easy — or easier — if it weren’t for the arguments and resentments that build up over time, becoming simpler to avoid than to work through. However, good conflict resolution is the backbone of your relationship. Ultimately, it’s how you fight that makes the difference.
I tell couples this every day: You must fight to love, not to win.
Here’s the difference: When you fight to win, you get wrapped up in who’s right and who’s wrong. You keep tally of past wrongs, missteps and hurts. You go for the jugular with unkind words. You start to care more about your pride or your power, instead of your relationship. Fighting to win, rather than resolving what you are fighting about, is the biggest mistake couples can make. It’s also the most common — especially when in the midst of a passionate argument.
Fighting to love puts the focus on the relationship. Instead of getting sucked into the tornado of your own hurt, you take a step back and realize your relationship is only as strong as your partner is happy. Like sex, healthy fighting is about finding an approach that leaves both people satisfied.
Of course, it wouldn’t be called conflict if it was meant to be enjoyable. However, there are some tried-and-true methods to make sure your fighting is productive, rather than destructive.
The most deceptively simple practice is to avoid the buildup of anger, resentment or negative thoughts about your partner. Many times, couples fall into the “my partner is a mind reader” way of thinking, which paves the way for those little fights over nothing. Take these examples: You haven’t gone out to dinner in weeks, but instead of asking for a night out, you mope or complain to your friends! Or: He thinks you spend too much time at the office and therefore ignores you when you get home, instead of planning some quality time together.
Rather than hoping for telepathic communication, you have one of two options — either bring up what’s bothering you or let it go. Even if you have discussed the very same issue or behavior before, by not giving him the opportunity to discuss the problem, you remain in a vicious cycle of resentment and misunderstanding. Likewise, if you do decide to keep quiet and forgo a confrontation, you must not hold a grudge! Adding to your list of “what drives me crazy about my partner” does nothing but get you deeper and deeper into the divide. You are in control of your expression. Make it clear what you need and let your partner know when you feel things are slipping.
When you do make your complaints known, start your statements with “I feel” instead of any sentence beginning with “You.” Take responsibility for your feelings, asking clearly for what you need from your partner and responding to his cues. If your partner has a tendency to stonewall or get exasperated, walk away temporarily. Pleading with him to talk to you when he doesn’t want to is a losing game. Try approaching him later, preferably within a few hours, to set up a time to discuss it. This is also a good technique for fights that have spun out of control, since it cuts down on those impulsive, hurtful words that can never be taken back.
The point is that fighting should always be about what’s best for your relationship, instead of what’s best for you as an individual.
Your relationship is not a battleground. It should be your safe haven.
Laura Berman, LCSW, Ph.D., is the director of the Berman Center, a specialized health care facility in Chicago that's dedicated to helping women repair their sex lives and find relief from menopausal symptoms. Dr. Berman is also an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry and obstetrics/gynecology at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University.
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