"You're fighting? How great!!!"
Wise Married Friend wasn't kidding.
My boyfriend and I had had a blowout two days prior and I'd not yet resolved whether he was soon-to-be-Ex-Boyfriend.
I thought she was nuts.
One look at me, still pale and vague 36 hours post-brawl, should have illustrated how not great fighting is. She was nonetheless insistent.
And, annoyingly enough, she was right.
Granted, big fights aren't pleasant, but they're an essential part of a long-term relationship and a prime indicator of how "long-term" the relationship will be.
CAN'T AVOID THEM
Some psychologists say they can predict which couples will last from watching 10 to 15 minutes of arguing.
Crazy as it sounds, arguing is an opportunity. Obviously, it is a method to resolve conflict, but it's also an integral part of getting to know one another. A productive fight can -- and should -- actually bring you closer together.
Disagreements occur when you expose yourself and your expectations of the relationship. In a way, your deepest vulnerabilities are revealed.
How many times did you make what you thought was an innocuous statement or action and -- boom! -- all heck breaks loose? Your word or act treaded upon some hot button.
Understanding that vulnerability, once the dust settles, is an act of discovery.
As you resolve the conflicts, though, you're called upon to protect those vulnerabilities, even though you might be angry.
That's where "productivity" comes into play.
ESTABLISH GROUND RULES
The idea of "winning" needs to be tabled. Your goal is to resolve conflict, to understand where your partner is coming from, and make him/her appreciate your viewpoint. Not to be the victor.
A set of ground rules can help.
Take "time out" if you feel the conflict escalating, or if either of you is getting too angry or upset to discuss it rationally. (Be careful not to use this technique to avoid resolving the issue.) Return calmly to resolve the issue after cooling off.
Respect your partner's need for time to think it out. Issues may come up during your discussion that he/she needs to mull over. Don't expect that everything will be resolved in one fell swoop.
STICK TO THE TOPIC AT HAND
Resolve issues as they come up. Don't start harping back to when he left the toilet seat up six months ago if you're really angry because he forgot your birthday yesterday.
This also means that you have to know why you're angry.
Don't air every grievance you've ever had and keep it as non-accusatory as possible.
EXPRESS FEELINGS, NOT BLAME
Express your feelings, not your complaints. Stick to "I" language and avoid characterizing with phrases like "you always" or "you never."
For instance, say "I get hurt when our plans get cancelled because of work," not "you always cancel our plans." As you talk, you may realize that what you're expressing is that "I am hurt because I feel that your work takes priority over me."
Helpful hint: "I feel that you are a fathead" would fall outside this realm.
Don't blame. You need to resolve the issue and take responsibility for your actions, but finger-pointing doesn't help anyone.
Try not to jump to conclusions or solve the problem prematurely. Half of resolution is trying to understand where your partner is coming from. Always hear him/her out, even if you think you've accepted the issue.
A beau once jumped down my throat as we left a social gathering. I perceived him attacking me about something I had said at the meal after a friend of his had made me uncomfortable. I was totally perplexed why he was so angry with me. It took me nearly an hour to realize that he was actually trying to take my side and resolve something that was bothering me. I totally misunderstood him.
WORK ON IT WHEN YOU'RE NOT FIGHTING
Work on developing conflict resolution skills when you're not fighting.
Psychologist Lisa Aiken recommends "listening exercises" when you're not fighting. For instance, you practice telling Girlfriend something and she then has to tell you what you just said, until you agree that she understands the point you were making.
With effort, you can learn your partner's emotional language. Everyone has different ways of expressing themselves; feeling words mean different things to different people. (One boyfriend might say that he's "angry" at the drop of a hat, while another would only use that word if he was about to blow his stack. Pay attention.)
With time, you'll learn the most effective ways to communicate with your partner. Be sensitive to his/her needs. For instance, if you know your partner feels boxed-in easily, approach him more gingerly.
NEVER, EVER GET PERSONAL
In essence, you're called upon to be your most careful while fighting. Never lash out or resort to insults or casting aspersions.
Some folks erroneously believe that a good relationship means you can be "totally yourself" and don't have to monitor what you say. Wrong!
When you're angry or feel cornered, it's easy to say something you will regret, and after you apologize profusely, your beau may try to forgive you -- but whatever damage the comment caused is usually irreparable.
GET OUT THE FILOFAX, IF NECESSARY
In other sensitivity issues, realize that there are better and worse times to have an argument.
Don't start fights late at night or when you or your partner is tired or just walked in the door. You both need to devote your complete attention to working through conflict. You can't do that when you're tired, hungry, etc.
While shuttling between our families on a trip, I drove Boyfriend crazy by starting discussions every time we got into a mode of transportation. Since we were with our families the whole time, we didn't have much private time, so I was eager to discuss things as soon as we were alone -- usually in a car, train, plane. He, quite rightly, felt that I was beginning arguscussions when he couldn't really focus on them. (Imagine, he wanted to be able to focus on the road...)
I also once started a major discussion at 12:30 at night as he was dropping me off at my apartment at the end of a long holiday. He had to be at work early the next morning. He looked over, pleadingly.
"Do we have to do this now?" he implored.
It wasn't fair. Deduct good girlfriend points.
Silly as it may sound, there is nothing wrong with scheduling fights.
Find a time when the two of you will be emotionally and physically able to focus on resolving whatever issue is on the agenda.
One time, when I arrived for our scheduled spat, he slyly insisted I have a glass of wine.
I don't drink. I got giddy. And the issues didn't get resolved.
IN IT TOGETHER
Focusing on the resolution is key.
Fighting is a process. It reveals a tremendous amount about your relationship and your attitude toward it. If you're in it for the long haul, be willing to invest time to make you both "better" arguers. If you need help, get a third party involved. Look to a rabbi or counselor as a guide, but not as a referee.
You're in this together.
PROTECT EACH OTHER
The people you love are frequently the ones who can hurt you the most -- and the ones you can most easily hurt.
It's a heady realization when, mid-spat, you realize that the words on the tip of your tongue have the power to devastate the person sitting across from you. You've discovered his/her sensitivities and vulnerabilities. A loving significant other will work his/her hardest to protect those exposed spots.
Trust is something that takes a long time to build up -- but it can be dashed in the time it takes to utter a few words.
Remaining conscious of your partner's vulnerabilities -- even when you're furious or hurt -- is essential. It is the calling of real love.