by Deborah J Fox, MSW
I often hear we “need to learn to ‘fight fair" - two words which seem terribly incongruent when sitting side by side. What people seem to mean by 'fighting fair' is they believe there is a way to argue without the hurt and escalation that often happens. Once partners become emotionally charged during an argument, their ability to follow any rules of fairness or truly listen to each other is minimal.
Rather than pose the question, “How can we learn to fight fair?” I suggest asking, “What can we learn from our arguments that can help us build a relationship in which we fight less?” Perhaps surprisingly, arguments do offer the potential for a rich source of relationship-building material. There are three steps to take when an argument begins:
1. Stop the argument in its tracks asap. As hard as it can be when you're angry, or you want to have the last word, or insist on being understood, taking a time out is the best option. Nothing good is going to come from continuing to speak at that heated moment.
2. Repair the rupture that's occurred as quickly as you can. Repair begins with an apology, without any explanation.
3. Get to the bottom of the source of your arguments and learn from this. These themes usually repeat themselves in subsequent arguments and become more intense over time.
Why do arguments escalate so quickly?
When we are highly emotional, our central nervous system (CNS) becomes charged. We feel threatened and we immediately attempt to defend ourselves. Attempting to protect ourselves from harm, emotional or physical, becomes paramount and we will employ whatever means necessary. Then our defensive reaction is met with another defensive reaction and the escalation is off and running.
These defensive responses and our charged CNS interfere with our ability to effectively engage with someone else. Some people get angry and some withdraw, but each is compromised in their ability to listen and clearly absorb what the other is saying. Communication breaks down. Each partner has a narrative which contains misunderstandings, assumptions and blame.
How to stop an argument?
Agree on a sign or word that either of you can call when an argument heats up. Then
stop talking. This is hard to do because you want to prove your point or you want to be understood and disengaging feels like conceding or giving up. Consider this as damage control. When tempers are flaring, understanding isn't going to happen. Disengaging gives you a chance to cool off and, hopefully reflect on what happened.
Arguments are inevitable. Learning to repair quickly versus days later, is the difference between an hour or so of misery and days of misery with a chill in the air. Worse is 'never' because these hurts and misunderstandings fester and do not recede - they just wait in ambush until the next time. Repairing is also prevention because healing the rupture goes a long way in creating a feeling of safety and security with each other, resulting in fewer sparks to ignite.
How do you repair?
Repairing is hard. It’s a huge challenge for many couples and it’s an essential skill needed in relationships. The first step is to allow your CNS to settle This may take 20 minutes for one person, for another it may take 24 hours. As long as your CNS is charged, any attempt at repair is likely to restart the argument.
This time out also offers an opportunity to reflect. Ask yourself:
What was the very first moment when you felt hurt, insulted, angry, dismissed, unimportant?
What exactly made you feel this way?
How did you react as a result? Did you express your hurt or attack?
What do you think your partner felt?
What do you feel sorry for in the course of the argument?
Repair is best begun with an apology for what you contributed to the argument, even if you feel you’re only responsible for two percent of what happened. You may feel innocent in causing the argument, but sorry for your part in the escalation. Hopefully, your partner will be motivated to apologize as well.
If misunderstanding remains, then it’s important to fully hear each other out. If you feel you can listen to your partner with an open heart and with the intention to step into their shoes, then offer, “I’m willing to listen without interrupting.” I suggest setting a timer for five minutes. Five minutes is usually enough time to express what’s at the core and short enough to be able to listen without interrupting.
It’s tempting to try to switch places with the speaker then becoming the listener. If there’s any heat at all, end that segment there. Take a break, allow your CNS to settle, and reflect on what you’ve heard first. Then go back to your partner and ask, “Are you willing (and available) to listen to me?”
Hopefully, you now understand yourselves and each other better and will be able to interact differently over time so as to avoid triggering these same hurtful feelings.
Getting to the Source
The majority of arguments touch the same two or three sensitive buttons over and over again. These sensitive feelings are both the root and cause of repetitive arguments. Identifying them is the key to interrupting the cycle and truly working on growth and connection.
Anger is often what is felt first, but it’s rarely the primary feeling. Anger masks underlying hurt or anxiety, but it's so effective in hiding these more vulnerable feelings that you may well not know are there. Some people tend to freeze and shut down their emotions, so being able to access the underlying feelings is very difficult. And then there are those who go quickly into analysis and the feelings get lost in the process.
If this argument can't be repaired and understood quickly, then this current event has hit upon a feeling that is not only quite painful for you to feel, but one you’ve likely felt earlier in your life.
Consider this conversation:
Sara asks, “Will you talk to your parents about that conversation we had?”
Jim replies, “Yes, I will.”
A week passes. “You haven’t talked to your parents yet?”
“It hasn’t been the right time.”
“But you were just with them on Sunday! Why didn’t you talk to them then?!” A heated exchange follows.
What’s at stake here are powerful feelings. Sara frequently feels she isn’t important to Jim. Jim feels frequently criticized by Sara for how he goes about doing things. These feelings have histories for each of them long before they met each other. For Sara, as a child in her family she often felt unimportant. Jim grew up with a mother who was emotionally volatile, so he learned strategies as a young child to attempt to stay under her radar.
Sara was feeling at odds with Jim’s parents and it felt urgent that Jim stand up for her and speak to his parents about the conflict. Sara was feeling anxious about this and a week felt like a very long time. When she found out that Jim hadn’t spoken to his parents, Sara felt once again that she wasn’t a priority for him.
Jim hadn’t forgotten. He was using his best judgement. He wants to feel trusted by Sara that he knows best when and how to approach his parents. Her criticism of him is also reminiscent of his mother’s anger growing up.
They both felt under threat and their exchange quickly escalated into an angry argument. Neither was initially aware of the more vulnerable feelings underneath. Identifying these underlying feelings that set off the argument can be a difficult task. The feelings that sparked the conflict are usually buried in the accusations and recriminations that follow. It’s easy to feel that their anger is justified on its merits. Sara felt justified in being angry that Jim had had both enough time and opportunity to talk with his parents. Jim felt his anger was justified because he was being unfairly criticized.
With the benefit of having unpacked this argument, Sara sees the importance of staying in touch with her anxiety about the conflict and expressing this to Jim. Jim understands that in order to make Sara feel secure, he needs to communicate with her about his intentions and keep her posted on his progress.
In the vast majority of repetitive arguments, the source of the painful feelings is long ago. No one has had a charmed life. Everyone has experienced hurt or disappointment at some point in growing up. When you feel similar feelings in current time, it’s as if there’s an emotional thread that is lit with dynamite and travels back in time in an instant. It dips into the pool of old feelings experienced in childhood and adds firepower to the current feeling, just as reopening an old wound might feel quite painful.
Even though you are now an adult and decades have passed, you will likely feel similar hurt and disappointment in your significant relationship. Consciously we seek to avoid the pain of our past, of course, but we fail. That’s normal and predictable. What’s important to understand is that in attempting to protect yourself from pain and hurt, you continue the cycle of pain in your relationship.
A work in progress – Strengthening your relationship
Learning from your arguments is what can strengthen your relationship. Once you’ve identified the feelings at the root of your argument, your task becomes staying in touch with those vulnerable feelings. Expressing these directly can help your partner to respond empathically rather than defensively. Communicating these feelings can more readily lead to understanding each other better and treating each other differently.
Imagine Jim and Sara having this exchange:
Sara: Did you speak with your parents yet?
Jim: I haven’t. I know it’s important to you and I know that having this just hang in the air is making you anxious. It’s on my mind – I’m just looking for the right time to bring it up so it can go as well as possible.
Sara: Thanks. I appreciate it.
In understanding what’s underneath your partner’s sensitive buttons, you can learn what you can do to keep your partner feeling safe and secure. This always leads to having a more connected and satisfying relationship.