One of the most common complaints I hear from couples I work with is “We fight too much..” or “all of our arguments tend to escalate into blow-outs…” Too much fighting and arguing can drain the life out of a marriage, it’s true. But, arguing with your life partner is a given. It’s inevitable. So, the question is, how do you make the most out of your arguments, to make them productive instead of draining? How can couples fight fair?
First of all, it is important to remind yourself that your partner is not the “enemy.” You may feel that way especially over heated matters, but remember, you are on the same side! Play, fight and work together like you are on the same team, because you are.
Second, try to figure out what is the deeper issue at stake for you. Ask yourself “Why am I so upset over this?” Are you really angry because he left the dirty laundry on the floor again instead of in the laundry basket or is it something below the surface? What most couples discover is that it’s never about the dirty laundry, its something bigger at stake for each.
Timing is everything. Steps one and two should be done way before you even open your mouth to speak to your partner. This is very important! That being said, don’t let things build up over time. Make sure that you find the time to discuss important matters. I recommend a once a week couples meeting to discuss concerns so that resentments don’t start to grow. Also, it is not recommended to bring up a concern when your partner just walks in the door from work, or when he or she is already heated. In other words, “strike when the iron is cold.” When your partner is calm he or she will be in a better state of mind to actually hear what you have to say.
Finally, bring up the concern when you have good timing, you know your core need and what is at stake for you. But be sure to use good communication skills!
Practice Non-Violent Communication skills or NVC for short. I teach these communication skills to the couples I work with but in a nutshell there are 5 simple steps.
First, an example of what not to say:
“Ugh, again! Why do I always have to pick up your dirty socks? Can’t you just simply put them in the laundry basket? I swear I do all the work around you and you do nothing! ”
Instead use the NVC way!
1. State the facts of the situation using “I” statements. “I noticed you left your dirty laundry on the floor today.”
2. State the assumption or “story” you tell yourself about the situation. “The assumption I make when I see your dirty clothes on the floor is that you take for granted that I will pick up your dirty clothes and wash them.”
3. State your feelings using “I” statements. “I feel unappreciated and taken for granted..” Remember, here is where you need to dig deep to find out what is the underlying feelings you have about the upset.
4. State your need using “I” statements. “I need to feel appreciated and not taken for granted.” Again, the issue is not the dirty laundry, state what your core need is.
5. State your request. “Can you help me feel appreciated by acknowledging all the work I do around the house?”
Hopefully, your partner was able to really hear you and understand what is at stake for you. This is no small task! Most of us are not good listeners especially when we feel we have to be on the defense. What we tend to do is think about our side of the story and what we have a gripe about instead of really hear the other person. That is why it is important and I teach how to be an “Active Listener.” But let’s say your partner already has that part down. The goal is that he or she will understand your need and find a way to meet your need in some form or capacity.
Knowing what your needs are and your partners needs are and how to meet those needs is at the root of most arguments. Sticking to one need and issue at a time is also key in keeping peace in the marriage. In other words, don’t bring up dirt from the past! It’s also important to know some basic rules about fighting fair:
1. No name calling
2. No belittling
3. No over-generalizing statements like “You always…” or “You never…”
4. No threats
5. No physical violence
When or if things do escalate, it is important to know to take a “time out.” Take time to cool off, go for a walk, take a hot bath, do something to self soothe in order to be calm again. Know when to call a time out when you notice your partner is escalating way before things get out of hand. And finally, if you and your partner are not able to calmly discuss an important matter, bring it to your next couples session. Asking for help from a professional marriage counselor is always a good idea when matters are not getting resolved on their own at home.