Take the initiative to invite good, solid communication.
A popular book for parents is How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk. Isn’t that title genius? Right there is the invitation to take responsibility for what is happening in the relationship. “But I don’t want to take responsibility,” you might say. “I want to blame my sister, husband, mother-in-law,” (Oops, how did she get in here? You can blame your mother-in-law. That’s OK). In most relationships, it’s wise for us to take the initiative to do things a little differently, to invite good, solid communication. If you wait for the other person to change you’ve got a long wait coming.
Growing up as a Latina female being heard was a constant challenge. You either learned to be assertive or you faded into whatever category the people in power decided to assign you. Lucky for me I was born an Aries, which means I would not be ignored. I’d insist on getting my needs met. The trick was to do it without leaving behind scorched earth. I had an anger issue.
A lot of therapy and self-help went into learning how to be safe with my aggressive impulses. It was in assertiveness training, following the teachings in the classic book Your Perfect Right, Assertiveness and Equality in Your Life and Relationships, that I learned that there are people who have the opposite struggle. They needed to learn how to speak up for themselves and resist the urge to crawl under a rock and hide.
Even though I made a study of all of this I still ran into problems when I got married.
It might surprise you to learn that my husband and I have fights.
Yup. Doozies, too.
In the beginning, they would last for days and they were so very stupid. It was with horror that I heard my mom describe a fight she was having with my dad and I thought, that’s exactly the argument John and I had the other day. We were becoming my parents. That shit had to be shut down STAT!
My parents loved each other with a passion. Their pattern was to be all lovey-dovey, quiet spouses, going about their business in apparent harmony until BAM! Once in a while, that passion transformed into skin-searing fights of nuclear proportions. Educated, intellectual people, they would be appalled to have their relationship described this way but my siblings and I have compared notes and we all agree. My parents were all or nothing when it came to a serious hurt or disagreement. I did not want my relationship with my husband to be that way.
An all-out fight is not communication
I wanted to be able to have a difference of opinion, to have the scary talk, to work out an offense or hurt and still feel heard and loved at the same time. Was that too much to ask? Maybe not, but it sure ain’t easy. As a couples therapist, I kept running into the same challenge. It’s not that people wanted to scream abuse at each other. They were often never taught, either directly or by example, how to really, truly communicate with each other while angry. Because let’s be clear. An all-out fight is not communication. That’s two hyper-aroused limbic systems duking it out for dominance. And yes, that explains why make-up sex is a thing.
So to begin the lesson, communication can only happen when our frontal lobes remain engaged. As long as we’re still able to think we have a chance to follow these four guidelines for how to have a good fight.
How to Have a Good Fight
Be impeccable with your words.
You may recognize this as the first of the four agreements. All four agreements have a place in healthy communication: 1. Be impeccable with your word. 2. Don’t take anything personally. 3. Don’t make assumptions. 4. Do your best. For many of my patients I advise a whole-hearted study of them all. Communicating during a fight means watching your words, how you express them and how you use them. Because words have power for good or evil. Because words can be weaponized which, in the heat of battle is tempting.
You demonstrate control, by which I mean, a thinking brain, by:
• Speaking directly, not passive-aggressively, like, “You’re right. I must be a moron. I should be taken out and shot,” which can be so confusing which is the point. Or sarcastically, as in, “Whoa! Listen to you all of a sudden! Aren’t you smart!” You know, the kind of sarcasm that’s defended by “Can’t you take a joke?” Man, I could write a whole article just on this…
• At a reasonable pitch and volume, not loud enough to be heard on the other side of the house or by ships at sea. Men have those deep voices that can be hardened like a cannonball if they want to dominate. Women tend to raise their pitch as well as volume when feeling threatened. Both are primitive survival tactics developed as humans evolved. They are signs that communication is not happening anymore.
• Avoiding defining curse words. By that I mean that a well-placed “That f@#king hurts me,” gets a pass, but “You are a mother f@#king a%&-hole,” does not. Please tell me you see the difference. All name calling is off the table, come to think of it. It is not communication. The sole purpose of words used like this is to cause pain.
Keep to one topic at a time. No piling on of past hurts.
It’s very tempting when you’re talking about something that happened just that day to bring up all the other times similar things like it happened in the past. If you start up that path you can trigger an avalanche that makes resolution nearly impossible.
I see this a lot in couples therapy where it’s a common misconception that the purpose of therapy is to have the same fight they always have but in front of a therapist. So they really pile it on. “This is just like last fall when you…” If what happened last fall is still an issue, talk about that and only that.
Piling on past transgressions only serves to distract, to diffuse the focus until it’s fog and overwhelm — none of that is communication. Awareness of how the past can sneak into a conversation will keep the fight manageable, like riding a horse at a fast gallop rather than a full-on bolt. Don’t worry if you find yourself yelling about the Thanksgiving of ’09 when the subject was what happened at dinner last night. Just take a deep breath, lower your voice and refocus. You can do this.
Keep it between the two of you. .
Don’t bring in an audience. Keep your family and friends out of it. For real as well as figuratively. It is so tempting to bring in reinforcements, a whole gaggle of character witnesses and ‘experts’. “My sister says you have an issue with strong women.” Really? Your sister? Speak for yourself. Only yourself.
Another way to bring in other people is to say something like, “You’re just like your father and we know what a jerk he is!” If you have an issue with your father-in-law make him a topic of another conversation because what you’re looking for is insight and this isn’t it. This is a verbal molotov cocktail disguised as insight. Insight shies away from knock-out, drag-out fights, generally speaking.
Keeping each other’s confidence is important as well. That doesn’t mean keeping secrets, it means respecting privacy. Don’t gossip with just anybody about your most intimate fights. I cringe when I see a social media post that was obviously written in the heat of an out-and-out fight. Or when I overhear someone in line behind me at the coffee shop describing what should be a private matter loudly for all to hear. If you want to lean on a friend, make it a good, trustworthy friend who will keep your, and your partner’s, confidence.
Use a time out.
What’s good for the kids can be just as effective for the grown-ups. When signs that the argument has gone from green light, (you’re doing OK, you’re upset and handling it, you are still communicating, talking and listening thoughtfully), to amber, (It’s getting hot in here, voices are getting strained, maybe a bit loud, biting of tongues is drawing blood) it’s a good idea to separate to quiet corners and let your body and mind cool off a bit. The trick here is to agree to set time out, a few minutes or an hour or after dinner whatever, but also agree on when you’re going to pick up again. “I need a break. I’m exhausted and I just need a few minutes. Could we get back to this after the kids are in bed?” Hopefully, your partner will agree and give you your space. You will both benefit from some hydration (no alcohol!) nutrition and deep breathing.
Rope-a-dope. This maneuver is reported to me by weary spouses who are stalked around the house like they are prey and told that they are “giving up” when they ask for a break, that what is needed is “more work, not less” and they should hammer at this even if it takes all night!
When they don’t agree or you don’t agree on a time out you’ve got a problem. Don’t chase. Be wary of being chased. You both need to trust each other that you will re-engage after the time out. When you’re afraid that the break will mean no resolution and the problem will go into hiding until it pops up again, the result can be chasing. It’s also a bully’s tactic to wear the opponent down by not allowing a break.
Keeping Your Respect for Each Other Intact.
A good fight is one that resolves with both people’s respect for each other and for themselves intact.
You managed to get down in the arena, used all the tools, not weapons, available to find understanding, empathy, compassion and, yes, love. You placed the problem outside of the relationship, in front of you, not between you, or worse, inside of you, so that you can both look at it, out there, instead of blaming each other.
A good fight can end in the best, awesome make-up sex ever because together you became the victorious veterans of a well-fought battle by hearing and seeing each other through the fog of war.
Elvira G. Aletta, PhD.
Elvira G. Aletta, Ph.D. is a wife, mom to two adults and one horse, psychologist and writer who lives in Western New York where it’s cool to wear a cape and tall boots every day.
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