Couples Conflict - How to fight fair
First off, my qualifications
Sometimes I think I missed my calling. I've always been much better at diagnosing other people's problems than my own. I majored in psychology in college, then went into advertising/marketing, a field designed to manipulate the psyches of unsuspecting consumers. Along the way, I've actually learned to apply some of what I've learned/observed to my own life. Much of it is plain old common sense, with a dash of consideration and courtesy.
I should tell you that I'm currently married. Previously married. And a parent.
If you believe that qualifies me to talk about relationships, keep reading.
Every couple has its hot buttons
Two people meet. He* brings with him the remnants of every relationship of his previous life. This includes his mother, father, siblings, friends, previous girlfriends, wives, children, even bosses and employees. She* brings with her similar emotional emnants from her past -- both positive and negative. Both bring expectations and hopes, scars and disappointments.
*Concept also applies to gay, bisexual and transgender individuals. For the sake of brevity I've chosen male/female couples as the example for this hub.
Some of this "baggage" gets put on the table early in the relationship. In the process of establishing themselves as a couple, both parties usually will reveal most details of their histories. They look for similarities.They look for patterns. Sometimes they hide or gloss over important facts. They look for warning signs. Sometimes they ignore red flags, choosing to believe love can conquer all. (It can't.)
The core issues that create conflict
When you break it down, there are not all that many sources of conflict between couples. Typically, couples really only argue about three basic issues:
Of course, within each of these broad categories there are numerous sub-categories. For example, "family" can include in-laws and/or children. It can include having/not having/when to have children (which also overlaps into future). Finances is a broad category that encompasses everything from who earns what to how much to save for retirement. This can overlap into what happens if one person's job requires relocating. It can also spill over into concerns about co-workers and workplace temptations.
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The undercurrents of conflict
Underneath these main fight triggers a very, very basic dynamic is at work: power.
Within the couple, you may have:
a) Both partners seeking harmony, stability and stasis
b) One partner seeking domination over the other (or compliance with the dominant one)
c) Both partners seeking -- knowingly or unknowingly -- disharmony and turbulence
In other words, relationships are not static. They live. They breathe. They change over time and from day to day. As they face new challenges in the areas of family, finance and future, couples learn to problem-solve either together or individually. They learn to trust their partner's judgment and actions. Or they learn to distrust them.
Sometimes one partner has a higher sex drive than the other. This can create problems as the couple negotiates when, where, and how often to make love. Also, this dichotomy may shift over time as the couple's life circumstances change with pregnancy, childbirth, job loss, illness, mid-life/menopause, etc.
One partner may have a habit that drives the other crazy. Perhaps she scrimps and saves and he's a compulsive shopper. He arrives home with a beautiful tandem kayak, expecting her to be excited. He sees it as an investment in together time. He gushes, "Honey, I can't wait to show you all the great places I know to paddle." Instead, she sees it as a violation. How dare he spend that kind of money without consulting her? What was he thinking???!!!
Is his rationalization right? Is her fear/anger justified? Yes. And yes.
There is a saying that we give love the way we want to receive love. In this instance, the husband craves shared time in the outdoors he loves so much. But the wife craves the security of a nest egg. And she feels discounted in the decision to buy such a big-ticket item.
Other examples include the classic jealous guy (or jealous gal). When one partner sees the other partner's every interaction as a threat, that's a signal. It means s/he is insecure and needs more attention. Or it could signal an attempt to dominate and control the other person. A lot depends on how the non-jealous spouse handles the jealousy. Perhaps s/he secretly likes this power over the loved one's emotions. On the other hand, s/he may sincerely work to avoid situations that stir the pot, to no avail. Is the jealousy holding the couple together? Or is it holding 1/2 of the couple hostage?
Same accusation, different day
When you're with someone for awhile you begin to notice a pattern. You have the same fight over and over and over. The specific details may change, but the themes beneath them don't. Every couple has their own pattern. The key is to recognize yours (and your partner's). Remember: you are NOT Bill Murray/Andie MacDowell and your life is not "Groundhog Day." You CAN break the pattern!
When you're intimate with someone, you learn what turns them on. But you also learn what presses their buttons. You have a choice. You can use that knowledge as a weapon, or you can use it as a tool.
If you routinely start arguments with the words "You never..." or "You always" you're driving a wedge between you and your partner. If you belittle your partner or berate his/her family members, consider your motives. What are you trying to accomplish? Spewing venom may make you momentarily feel better, but you may be mortally wounding your relationship.
On the other hand, it IS possible to learn how to fight "fair." For the guys out there, this concept should be recognizable from the world of sports. Even in war there are rules of engagement. In boxing, hitting below the belt is dirty and illegal. Why should sparring with your love interest be any different?
Instead of going for the jugular, try using "I" statements. I statements let the other person know how their actions (or inactions) impact you.
Example: I feel left out when you plan camping trips with the boys and don't consult me.
Example: It scares me when you confront your clients. I worry that they might fire you -- and we need that money.
Example: It hurts me when you question my parenting decisions.
Example: It seems like we spend a lot more time with your family than with my family. I don't want to feel resentful of your parents, because I love them and I love you. What can we do to make things more equitable?
Anyway, you get the idea.
Ouch! Love hurts!!!
The #1 benefit of fighting
I don't believe people who tell me they never fight. Either they are delusional or brain dead, or both. As long as couples are populated with human beings, there WILL be conflict. It's inevitable.
The trick is to identify what role conflict plays in your relationship. Is it constructive? Does it genuinely solve problems? Do you and your partner learn from it so you can stop doing the same hurtful or stupid things over and over?
Is it a binding force between you? Sometimes couples are actually held together by negative intimacy. The quantity/volatility of their fights is actually the benchmark of their togetherness. Hey -- if it works for you, who am I to judge?
But there's one universal benefit to fighting with the one you love.
I know what some of you are thinking. Gotta be the make-up sex.
Well yes. Make-up sex is pretty awesome. There's no other sex like it!
But the real benefit of fighting is making things right. Whether you were the wronger or wrongee doesn't matter. Whether he started it or you started it doesn't matter.
If you love your partner, if you plan to stay in the relationship, perfect your ability to say "I'm sorry" -- and mean it. Practice the art of accepting an apology without holding it over the other person's head.
Then go kiss ... and have make-up sex!
But you CAN work it out!
If you need professional help
- Couples Therapy : Couples Counseling, Marriage Counseling, Couples Marriage and Family Communication
Couples therapy and marriage counseling, helps couples - married or not - understand and resolve conflicts and improve their relationship. Couples therapy gives couples the tools to communicate better, negotiate differences, problem solve and even ar