Every time I get into an argument with my partner it gets ugly. It has gotten so that I don’t want to bring up anything that might start a disagreement because I don’t want to risk the abuse and old baggage that gets dragged through the mud again. It’s almost like nothing is ever forgotten, just saved up for the next argument. It is making me avoid conversation, and it seems that the more I avoid it, the wider the wall between us. Is this what the end of a relationship looks like?
Learning how to have fair fights is a critical skill for a thriving relationship. Many couples swing between the two extremes you have described here–either hurtful, negative exchanges with no boundaries or silence. Both extremes do great harm and can precipitate the premature ending of a relationship. Intimate relationships are not supposed to be free from conflict–done right, conflicts help move both partners closer to more workable living arrangements and each other. Approaching conflict in this way: as a means of broadening your working relationship and learning the triggers for your partner, is the foundation of learning how to have a fair fight with the person you love.
The issues in arguing often come long before the partnership. Many people never learn how to fight fair in their original families, and they bring all the bad behaviors and injuries from the past with them. Whether you learned to scream the loudest or runaway from the first sign of conflict, agreeing to develop new skills for airing grievances is one of the healthiest choices you can make in staying together. The most important thing to keep in mind is that arguments that leave one or both parties feeling belittled, afraid or disrespected continue to do damage to the relationship long after the argument is over.
A great deal of research supports the idea that maintaining mutual respect during an argument by not allowing name calling or other hurtful mechanisms into the fight goes a long way in moving towards resolution. Both partners need to agree to give up the intent to hurt the other; meanness, sarcasm and belittling turn an adult argument into school yard brawls.
An equally powerful boundary to establish is to keep arguments in the present tense. Digging up old hurts only confuses what is currently happening and worse still, makes the idea of forgiveness impossible. The weight of carrying all the wrongs and misunderstandings forward is too heavy for even the strongest of relationships. Rethink the idea of not going to bed angry.
Sometimes the best thing we can do for ourselves and our relationship is to give it time and space. Taking a break from the intensity of the interaction, even a few minutes can open you up to seeing or hearing your partner differently. Sometimes a brief respite will allow both partners to let down your defenses long enough to see your own part of the argument. Owning up to where you went wrong in an argument is a remarkably powerful de-fuser and will often be met by the other person’s ability to see their own responsibility. Once you start talking about the issue, don’t derail your progress by adding “but…” to the end of the phrase. Remind yourself that having the upper hand is not worth the cost of putting down the person you love.
Although it might seem counter-intuitive and difficult for many people to get there, physical intimacy can be a great way to feed the part of the relationship that words can’t get near. I have often found that after I share a strong intimate connection with my husband, the issue that we were really needing to resolve surfaces.
Many times the thing we are fighting for and about cuts to the heart of whether we feel loved and appreciated, but comes cloaked in all kinds of crazy getups. When all else fails, a good joke to break the tension–finding laughter together–is a reliable pressure valve that is often underused. Humor can provide distance and perspective too. Getting a glimpse of whether the issue is worth it and comparing it to the value of your relationship is the turning point for many people’s arguments. If you really value your relationship, you want to fight fair and set boundaries around how you disagree because without it, what ends up most injured is the relationship you are trying to grow.