Couples do not break up because they fight, but because they do not know how to argue, relationship therapists say, underlining the functional components of the differences between partners.
To ensure the stability and durability of a couple’s life together, conflicts in a marriage must go beyond the stage of open battles, in which opponents resort to toughness to win the day. In a healthy relationship, contradictory discussions seek to clarify differences of opinion and focus less on justice, resulting in the mere silencing of the ‘loser’, until a new opportunity for revenge arises.
Even though, traditionally, fighting carries the negative connotation of an intense confrontation, which encourages the expression of reproof and dissatisfaction in a way that brings pain to the participants, there are alternatives to this dysfunctional approach to conflicts in a relationship. In other words, fighting can be done intelligently.
“If partners in a couple manage to stay emotionally connected to each other, and if they do not punish themselves emotionally, the quarrel becomes an exercise through which they learn to live with the differences between them,” says psychotherapist Andrada Cosma for paginadepsihologie.ro.
For some people, solving their differences “by the book” comes naturally, without the person in question needing to have gone through entire textbooks of psychology in search of ultimate truths. They have a naturally high emotional intelligence, perhaps supported by certain life experiences, which enables them to properly manage emotionally tense situations. Other people still need to learn the skills required to turn an argument into an opportunity to strengthen, rather than weaken, their relationship with the other. Most people fall into the second category, given the general tendency to find excuses for ourselves and criticisms for our partner.
Summarizing what the new science of adult love relationships teaches us, Gaspar Gyorgy (clinical psychologist and relational psychotherapist) talks about four steps to resolving pro-relationship conflicts:
Step 1: It is the tone that makes the music
A discussion that has started off on the wrong foot will not have a happy ending. This is the conclusion of a longitudinal study that established that the first 3 minutes of a verbal confrontation between partners decides not only the outcome of the discussion (whether or not it leads to an agreement), but also the future of their marriage. Most of those who had a negative start to their debates divorced sometime within the study period, which lasted 6 years.
The first step to take when we want to draw attention to something that bothers us is to adopt a gentle tone, avoiding criticism, attack, or rebuke. For this purpose we can resort to some useful methods:
- Express dissatisfaction without making verbal or nonverbal accusations through mimicry and gestural language.
Example: “You said you were going to clean the room, but I see it looks awful” vs “It bothers me that you didn’t clean, as you promised. Would you please take care of that?”
- Start arguing in the first person, so as not to put the other in the position of defending himself.
Example: “You throw money left and right as if money grows on trees!” vs “I think you should be more thoughtful about spending; we’re not doing well with the savings.”
- Express your thoughts and feelings without making worthiness assessments based on exaggerated generalizations.
Example: “You never make good decisions!” vs “I think it would be good to consider other options before making the final decision.”
- Be kind, not sarcastic. The best ratio of positive to negative interactions during a conflict is 5:1.
Example: “Of course you haven’t taken the trash out again” vs “I would appreciate it if you took the garbage out. Thanks!”
Although they might seem trivial, communication cues play an extremely important role, perhaps even more important than the message itself. Debates that might trigger a storm in a relationship usually revolve around the same topics (money, children, parents-in-law, privacy), both for people who are happy with their partner and for others. It is not the topic of the discussion that brings people closer or farther away from one another, but how that topic is addressed, and how an overall sensitive discussion is packaged.
In an online presentation on “smart fighting”, Belgian psychotherapist Esther Perel confirms that form beats content when it comes to having an emotionally fair dialogue for both parties.
Step 2: Stop, pause, and start again!
The second useful step in conflict management is related to the level of emotional involvement and the ability to control oneself. A tumultuous start can trigger uncontrollable reactions, which, by virtue of the domino effect, will amplify the negative dynamics of the interaction.
In such moments, a temporary withdrawal from the discussion is the best solution. Psychologist Gaspar Gyorgy calls this approach a “psychological brake” and likens it to a sudden pressing of a car’s brake pedal, an action, when promptly performed, that can save one from a potentially fatal collision.
The psychologist recommends “respectfully expressing the need for a break, specifiying its duration.” According to studies, an interval of about 20 minutes is enough to recover from an emotional storm if it has reached its peak. During this time, breathing exercises, music, movement, reading, other favourite activities, or just resting accompanied by meditation help restore our inner balance and prepare us to press the start button again, now calmer and more forgiving.
Step 3: We either choose justice or we choose the relationship
Apparently, conflicts reflect the partners’ inability to harmonize their opinions. Essentially, they signal the loss of emotional connection. Sometimes recovering it means abandoning justice in favour of love, indulgence, and wise compromise.
Commenting on the story of a follower irritated by her husband’s lax behaviour towards domestic responsibilities, the same Esther Perel asks her: “Do you want to be right or do you want to have a marriage?” Without suggesting that the only way to survive together is to trivialize the other person’s mistakes, the question contains an important truth: even when we might have a reason for rebuking our partner, discussions meant to put them against the wall will do nothing but alienate us from them.
The health of a relationship transcends the claim for justice to be invariably recognized, and getting a confession of guilt out of one’s partner, at any cost, does not guarantee the happiness of the relationship.
The rule applies especially in the case of repetitive, difficult to solve problems, where the main antidote is compromise based on an understanding of your partner’s needs.
Step 4: Accepting the limits
The need to live according to a predetermined scenario, and the belief that only reaching an ideal will bring us fulfilment, predisposes us to disappointment and, implicitly, to dissatisfaction with our relationships.
A partner’s inability to rise to the height of another’s inflexible expectations can be a permanent source of arguments and accusations. Too often we demand that our husbands or wives adjust their behaviour to our desires without thinking about how we ourselves can adjust our desires to the reality of their imperfections. We prefer, for instance, to constantly complain about their lack of punctuality, rather than understanding and accepting their personal rhythm.
In the context of looking at our own flaws and our partner’s flaws, confirmation bias also plays a role. This is the tendency to always look for evidence to support our own, pre-existing perspective on people and life. If, for example, we are convinced that our spouse excels in procrastination or self-indulgence, then we will interpret their actions exclusively in terms of the label in question.
We will even dig insistently for evidence to support our theories. Additionally, confirmation bias fuels the logic of the double standard. It justifies our personal mistakes (we are late due to traffic), but attributes to the other serious errors of judgment and behaviour (they are late because they do not manage their time properly).
Statistics show that 70% of relationship conflicts can be traced back to one’s inability to accept their partner’s mistakes, and that people who shape their expectations according to the dynamics of the relationship, looking gratefully at the qualities and leniently at the flaws of their “better half”, have a higher degree of marital satisfaction. Accepting your partner’s imperfections is, therefore, a requisite condition for wisely approaching relational misunderstandings.
The four horsemen of the Apocalypse
Aside from these four steps that urge us to be meek, self-controlled, tolerant, and flexible—essential skills for transforming a battlefield-argument into a smart fight—relationship experts also describe four styles of communication that do the exact opposite. Using a metaphor inspired by the biblical book of Revelation, they talk about the four horsemen of the relationship apocalypse. These are criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling.
In order to avoid these toxic forms of communication, we must exercise both our will and our ability to rationally filter out those impulses that make us reject the power of diplomacy.
In their capacity as relational assassins, each of the four horsemen also has a competent rival who saves the day.
- Criticism, or verbal attacks on one’s partner, can be partly combated by always expressing the sincere intention behind it.
Example: “You always leave your things scattered around” vs “I wish you were more orderly.”
- Contempt, or looking down on the other and disregarding them through insults, ridicule, and abuse, can be combated by assessing your partner’s behaviour based on qualities, not flaws.
Example: “You have no idea how to make good food, you are no good” vs “If you knew how to cook as well as you drive a car, it would be great!”
- Defensiveness, often triggered through responding to criticism with criticism, can be combated by taking responsibility.
Example: “It’s not my fault I didn’t turn on the GPS; you said you’d remember the road, but then we got lost” vs “I should have turned on the GPS anyway, it wouldn’t have cost me anything to do that.”
- Stonewalling is the refusal to communicate against the background of emotional exhaustion. It can be combated by a pause in the discussion.
Example: “I’m tired of talking about the same things over and over, I am not listening to you anymore” vs “I think we could find a better time to talk about this, let’s take a break.”
Not all the problems a couple faces during its existence are solvable. Around 69% of conflicts have recurring themes, a sign that the idea of there being a definitive determination of who is right belongs to the realm of fiction or utopia.
In addition to knowing how to fight “intelligently,” research shows that healthy, long-term couples are oriented towards debating topics that have reasonable, concrete, and lasting solutions. The more time two people spend together, the easier it is to realize that certain disputes are not worth the effort and the emotional investment. Wholesomeness and intimacy still exist, even in the absence of a perfect alignment of thoughts, emotions, and behaviours. Agreeing over the choice of battles (which arguments to continue and which to abandon) means more than simply being formally compatible.
Genia Ruscu has a master’s degree in counselling in the field of social work.