With all the ups and downs in life, even the best relationships knock heads once in a while. Cyber talk is streaming a pop culture belief that long term relationships are just not viable. In this shifting climate, can we reliably build the skills to weather the natural storms of everyday life and still come out on top? With all the temptations, struggles and conflicts, can we maintain a loving relationship in the current environment? Let’s face it – most serious relationship problems occur because people just don’t know how to fight fair. They take the gloves off or walk away when the going gets tough.
Good fights require rules of engagement. So what might those be? Well, first off, it’s always a good idea to cool off first. Take a good 20 minutes and agree to come back to the table. John Gottman writes, in The Science of Trust, that when we are upset our blood pressure spikes and we stop thinking rationally. The best trick I know besides when to keep my mouth zipped is to acknowledge and validate first, before I make my point. What does that mean? It means taking a moment to let the other person know that they were heard and understood. This does not mean agreement but letting them know they got through. Then make a plan, find a solution, make it work then turn the conversation into something constructive. This may sound simple but it’s not. It takes time to make this stuff work, but it’s the bare bones of conflict resolution 101.
How about those rules?
1. No hitting below the belt. In the midst of an argument is not the time to bring out your list of injustices and misgivings about your relationship. “Well, maybe we should just end it right now” is not a good problem solving technique. Make a pact to not throw down the end of the relationship card during an argument. Also, those little secrets that were shared at tender moments, family, friends, old history are big no no’s during a skirmish. Saying things that are intended to hurt the other person is called hitting below the belt. Keep it simple. What works for me, what I want, what would work next time are the best ways to avoid defensive responses.
2. No yelling, screaming, name calling or swearing. We all know the right and wrong things to do; the trouble is remembering them when we’re angry. Victor Frankl, who wrote Man’s Search for Meaning, said that “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” The goal is to elongate that space by calming down first so we can think about what would be a good way to express what we are thinking and feeling. Usually, there is more than one reason why we are angry. How many of us have regretted what was said in anger? How many arguments are productive when we are upset? The answer is none.
3. Constructive criticism does not work. Criticism is usually not constructive. It’s about our anger and our wish to punish or be superior. Being critical creates defensiveness and, after some time, contempt and then silence. There is a difference between a criticism and a complaint. A criticism is a negative judgment of the other person. It’s like telling them that they are bad, inferior or stupid. A complaint is like criticism but without the bite. It is instead the expression of what we want, need or don’t want. Arguments are best served by putting what we want in a future context. “Next time could we do it this way?” When we are criticized we feel like we have been painted into a corner and we can’t get out. We have done this bad thing and there’s no redemption. Complaints not only tell our partner who we are but it gives them a future context for success.
4. Anger: don’t suppress it, don’t express it. Everyone gets angry. The trick is how to manage it. Anger is a red flag; it tells us that something has hurt us or we are sad, guilty or ashamed. This can be old or new and is either about something that is happening in the moment or is from a long time ago or both. If we use anger as a way to see what is happening to us, then it offers some choices and can be very productive. The best thing to do with anger is to listen to it, find out what is being stimulated and then come back to the table and talk about what you want next time around.
5. Compassion, understanding, respect and empathy. If we are not actually expressing one of these then we are usually way off track. In relationships, kindness is the key to resolving conflicts. Loving kindness along with what I term the C.U.R.E. as in compassion, understanding, respect and empathy are the processes to use in our interactions. My nephew Rob Richman asked me to define respect. What I said to him was that respect is about not wanting to hurt someone because we respect their right to be treated fairly. To do no harm. Empathy is often misunderstood. It can be defined as “vicarious introspection” like seeing from behind their eyes. Empathy is the way we connect. Connection should always come first.
6. Needing to be right or win the argument. It is important to remember that an argument is an opportunity to create good feelings by expressing concern for the opinions of the other person. Needing to be right is the wish to not be wrong or feeling like being wrong is an indication of your inadequacy. You may win the fight but lose the war. What we create is usually contempt and disrespect. With all that we know, how can we miss this one? Yet there we are trying to win or needing to be right. It takes time and work to understand how to stop and listen. The most important relationship skill of all is the ability to step back and try to see what our part in the conflict may be. You never know, you might just learn something about yourself. We all have blind spots and we are blind to them. It takes someone who really cares to tell us the truth. The least we can do is to take it seriously.
At the end of the day, what has to be number one is the atmosphere we live in with our mate. If we want to maintain that space between us that is filled with good feeling, fun and support then we have to fight fair. If connection is the most important value then everything else is less important. Going for the harmony and creating a more loving relationship requires that we are willing to own up to what we have done to upset our partner and then do something about it. Fair fights that end positively even humorously are the most critical skills for long lasting relationships. If to know you is to love you then what they know has to be lovable.