Couples fight. And when we do, partners expose our most vulnerable, panicky, hateful selves. Nothing else can open an abyss of confusion and madness like a stalemate half an hour into a fight with our partner. We can find ourselves treating our partner, even when we’re not still in the fight, more reprehensibly than we would a stranger. This is by design, for it is not only our conscious mind that chooses our partner; our unconscious mind has a say as well. There are lots of theories about why our unconscious mind chooses partners for us that are our polar opposites in so many ways, who are destined to push our buttons and entrap us in circular fights. In my work as a psychotherapist, I choose to believe it is so that we can use them to heal both of us from our core.
But first we need some fair fighting rules, tactics that move us forward:
1 ) Develop an Observing Ego
We can get so lost in the moment of a fight. If we had to watch ourselves from the outside, we would probably be mortified. The thing is, we can watch ourselves, right as it is happening. An Observing Ego is a part of ourselves we can train for moment-to-moment self-awareness. All it requires is a deep breath and some perspective.
2) Remember: You are talking to someone you love
You’re mad. You are connected to the parts of your partner that you hate. But that doesn’t mean you don’t still love them. It doesn’t mean they aren’t the same person with whom you have had some of your most tender, joyful, or rewarding moments. Hate and love can be held in mind at the same time, and must be if we are to be in the full truth of the moment.
3) Take a breath, or a 10-minute break, or set up a round 2, or even 3.
Time is your friend. During an argument, the most reactionary part of our brain (the brain stem) is activated, and it only has the options of flight, fight, or freeze. A deep breath can help you ground yourself and give the parts of your mind capable of complex thought a change to chew over the issue. A few minutes apart, for a walk, or just a reprieve in another room, can help greatly. We need a chance to get our defenses in check, to take in what our partner said, to sort through what we are feeling, and to percolate on our next step. Some of our most useful conversations happen a day or two later when we have had a chance to really cool down—so even though you are likely grateful the fight has ceased, it is hugely important to revisit the issues a day or two later.
4) Keep your rage in check
It can feel great to spew out some hate and aggression, but it comes at a high cost. It is going to leave bruises and injuries, long after your apology. Wanting to hurt your partner comes from a primitive place, were old hurts and injustices still live. It is important to connect to those injuries that have been activated, but not to give them control over your actions. Instead, use the injuries that the fight has brought to the surface to understand why you ad your partner are so stuck. Share what has been stirred up in you with your partner. That represents your greatest opportunity for healing.
5) Let your partner go first
The ultimate need for both people in a dispute is to be heard and understood. The best way for you to be open to the other person is when you have had that need met. Listen to your partner, first. Try to understand where they are coming from. Validate them. Trust that you will get your turn. And when it is your turn, you will have a more generous listener.
6) Don’t get lost in tangents, and re-group when necessary
Stick with the first fight. It is so easy to get distracted and start picking a new fight about who did what in the fight, about who did the same thing just last week, about who always brings that up, etc. If this happens, take a deep breath and let it go. Redirect the argument back to the original issue. If something came up as a tangent that is important, bring it up later, when you have resolved the primary issue, even if it is days later.
7) Say you are sorry as often as you can
You can apologize for the parts of the fight and the issue you are responsible for, and even the parts that were unintentional, without it costing you anything. It doesn’t mean everything is your fault, and even if it is all your fault, that doesn’t mean you are a horrible partner who must be left immediately. We all make mistakes, we all hurt each other sometimes. Saying you are sorry is like a salve. Offer it generously and sincerely as often as you can.
8) When couples fight, if your goal is to “win” the fight, you’ve already lost
Fair fighting rules start with letting go of “winning”. “Winning” requires dominating the other, discrediting them, and undermining their arguments. That is no way to treat someone you love. The “winner” needs to be the relationship. Both of you deserve to be heard and understood and to have your needs taken into account.
Sometimes folks worry that the fact of their fighting or that the intensity of their fights means they “aren’t meant to be”. Fighting as a couple is normative, and the fact that fights are intense is appropriately meaningful. This gives both of you access to core issues. With the help of a loving partner, and maybe a little psychotherapy, your fights could lead you to a fuller, richer life.
Smith is an analytically oriented psychotherapist with 25 years in practice. She is additionally the Founder/Director of Full Living: A Psychotherapy Practice, which specializes in matching clients with seasoned clinicians in the Greater Philadelphia Area.
If you are interested in therapy and live in Philadelphia or the Greater Philadelphia Area, please let Full Living: A Psychotherapy Practice match you with a skilled, experienced psychotherapist based on your needs and issues as well as your and own therapists' personalities and styles. All of our therapists are available for telehealth conferencing by phone or video in response to our current need for social distancing.
For posts on similar topics, check out the links below:
Who is Going to Win? You or Your Relationship?
Communication Skills for Couples: Headline Your Needs ( a video blog)
Love is Lovely but Hate Gives Love its Teeth