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Turning Fights Into Gold (Part II): Conflict and Attachment in Couples

(3 minute read)

Last week I discussed how humans need love, how we need to feel close to, cared for, and important to another person. I talked about how we respond with fear when we sense that our partner may not care for us as much as we want, or that we may not be as important to them as we’d hoped. And how that fear is covered over with anger, criticism or distance, which in turn provokes fear in our partners, which then is covered over with their own anger, criticism or distance. When both partners have their defenses up, it’s difficult to reconnect and soothe each other.

One of the things that happen in couples therapy is that partners learn to break the pattern I’ve described above. The safety and encouragement given by the therapist allows individuals to forgo their defensive stance and reach out to their partners. These new and more effective patterns of behavior can become second nature and result in far more satisfying and stable relationships.

But it’s not necessary to go into therapy in order to change. Many couples figure out on their own how to short circuit fights and to reassure the other that they are well loved and cared for.

Here are seven guidelines to help do just that:

When you’re flooded with fear and then anger, get out of the situation. You may feel impelled to tell your partner how wrong they are, defend yourself and attack them for being so awful. And that is exactly the time to get away. If you give in to your emotions, you will very likely say something that will make your partner feel more distant from you, which in turn will cause them to say something that will hurt and push you away in a relationship-killing vicious cycle. Far better to say something like “I’m feeling so upset I think it’s better I get away and calm down before we talk about this.”

Do what you need to calm down. Everyone is different — for some people exercise will calm them, for others it’s a talk with a friend who will sympathize, or with a friend who will challenge. Perhaps a call to your mother or father will help gain some perspective. Meditation or yoga can sometimes be very helpful.

Go back into the conversation but only to understand your partner’s point of view. Imagine that you’re a journalist, trying to figure out what has happened. Use words like “How did you feel when I said this?” Or, “What was going on inside you that made you do that?” “What did it mean to you when I did such and such?” The very fact that you’re trying to understand, rather than argue, will change the nature of the fight.

Don’t try to explain yourself. If you plan to explain yourself and justify why you did what you did, then you’ll stop listening to your partner. You’ll be mentally taking notes of what they’ve said so you can rebut them. You won’t be trying to understand — you’ll be gathering ammunition for the next round of the fight. Now, you may be thinking “When do I get heard? It’s not fair!” Your partner will listen to you when they’re ready, and if you force it, you’ll deepen the attachment rupture. If you have really understood your partner, and they feel that you understand them, they will usually want to understand you.

Don’t apologize. If apologies are needed, they’ll come when both sides really understand the other. Which would you rather hear: “Fine, I’m sorry I was five minutes late” or “So I guess when I kept you waiting for five minutes you started thinking about your two previous boyfriends who treated you so badly and also kept you waiting. You wondered if I was going to turn out the same way, and so you got scared and angry and yelled at me. That must have been a lousy feeling for you.” The goal is not to find out who was wrong so that person can apologize: both sides had good reason to behave the way they did, and understanding those reasons is the objective.

Summarize what you’ve heard. We often think we understand what our partner is feeling, but generally it’s a partial understanding. By telling your partner what you heard them say, and how you think they felt, you eliminate misunderstandings, and you ensure that they feel understood. If you ask them whether you have completely understood them, or whether you’ve missed anything, you bring them even closer.

Change yourself — not your partner. If your goal in this process is to try to convince your partner that they’re wrong and they should behave differently, you’ll be fighting a losing battle. You have no power over their behavior, no matter how convincing or loud or angry or emotional you get. You do, however, have complete control over your own behavior, and once you better understand your partner you’ll be in a much better position to short circuit the fights. (Read this for more information on how to focus only on what you have the power to control.)

Now, I’m not going to pretend that any of this is easy. Walking away from a brewing fight and then trying to understand our partner’s point of view runs counter to every natural impulse. But like any skill, it can be learned. For some people, trying this out on a small disagreement is good practice, and as they become more adept at it, they can move on to situations where emotions are running high. For others, the emotions are too overwhelming, and they need the help of a neutral third party — a couples counsellor. However you implement this, I can promise it will pay wonderful dividends.


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