By Dr Saira Sabzaali
Couples fight. Whether they have been together for ages or are just in the beginning phases of getting to know each other, couples fight. And it’s okay to fight. I have learned there is only one way to have a productive fight, and that is to fight fair. Generally, when things get heated in a relationship, we tend to do one of three things. Not to say we are animals (well, not on our good days, that is!) but when we are under pressure, we revert to a part of our brain that gives us limited options. What are those options? Fight, freeze, or flee. Once we understand the nature of our response and our partner’s response, fighting can actually be a tool in the relationship rather than something to dread.
Those who Fight
Those who fight may have grown up in a household where standing up for oneself was important. They may have witnessed bullying in their family or community, and somewhere in their history decided that their voice and opinions are important and need to be expressed. Those who fight come in two categories: overt and hidden. The overt fighters tend to raise their voices, get confrontational, and when taken to extreme, can get in trouble when bystanders try to intervene.
The overt fighters tend to look like the «crazy» ones in the relationship, as their rage is obvious and palatable. When overt fighters are not given tools to manage their emotions, they can become verbally or physically abusive.
The hidden fighters are a whole different flavour. These are the people who undermine, ridicule, brush off, or use sarcasm to let their partner know they are upset. The hidden fighters may sabotage their partner’s plans, put them down in front of others, or point our their partners shortcomings to family and friends when the partner is absent. The hidden fighters have learned to use their words and their minds to win the argument, and they are often described as having a razor-sharp tongue. Though they rarely raise their voices, if hidden fighters do not learn tools to help them cope with their irritation and inner venom, they can become emotionally or financially abusive. A fighter tends to be a fighter, so if one style is not working to win an argument, a fighter may try the other. The main motivation of a fighter is to let their partner know that he or she is wrong and why.
Those who Freeze
Those who freeze have often witnessed abuse as children, and have not mastered the tools required to remain present in an argument. As soon as they sense conflict, something inside of them shuts down. For those who freeze, confrontation is to be avoided at all costs, and if someone does engage with them through anger, it will be like speaking to a wall. Those who freeze have become experts at shutting down the vulnerable parts of themselves in order to stay safe. The down-side of this technique is that their partners do not feel heard, and emotions become prohibited in the relationship. Another term for freezing is «stone-walling». No matter how much their partner tries, they cannot get a response. Those who freeze may look down at people who express their emotions, as they have not seen anything positive come out of a fight. These people may feel their feelings at some later time when their partner is no around and they feel safe enough to express. The challenge with this type of response is that the couple stays stuck at an «arm’s length» intimacy, and issues stay unresolved for long periods of time.
Those who Flee
Those who flee leave an argument in the middle of the fire. As things get heated, they physically remove themselves from the fight. Though this can be a healthy response occasionally, when practiced consistently in a relationship, it sends the message that the partner is not important enough to work things through with. Those who flee may be afraid of what they might do or say or what their partner may do or say if things go too far. If someone is consistently fleeing the fight in a relationship, there is a good chance that there are trust issues that need to be worked through.
Those that flee have probably not had healthy models of fighting fair in their childhood households. Removing oneself can activate the partner’s issues around abandonment and self-worth.
Fighting fair is possible, but it takes commitment. Imagine a hidden fighter and someone who flees? Or a overt fighter and someone who freezes? It’s no wonder there is so much fighting going on! But no matter what style we revert to when under pressure, there are some simple ways to stay connected to our partners and ourselves in the middle of a fight.
How old are you?
Most of us fight like we did when we were kids. If you are feeling overwhelmed in a fight with your partner, ask yourself the question «How old am I right now?» If your response is younger than your current age, there is a part of you that is feeling unsafe, and so you will be defensive and probably a little unreasonable. In the mist of the fight, you can quickly imagine yourself sending that child part of you off to the park with a friend so the «grown-ups» can finish the fight fairly.
What are we fighting about?
If you follow your fight pattern, you will find that you are probably fighting about something that has nothing to do with the content of the current disagreement. Are you fighting about trust, equality, importance, time, attention? If you can get to what is lacking in the relationship rather than the event that triggered it, change is possible.
In the middle of the fight, you can honestly ask yourself «Why do I care so much»? Do you care because you think the changes will help the relationship grow closer or are you simply wanting to be right? This is where you get to choose: would you rather be right or happy? If this occurs to you after the fight, it is a great time to say sorry.
How can you help?
If you partner is upset and you have the awareness to put yourself aside for a moment, you will notice that the fight is actually a call for help. This is where you get to be the bigger person, and see how you can help. And yes, in some relationships, one person will be the bigger person more often than the other. That is the nature of human intimacy.
How about next month?
A month from now, will you remember the content of this fight? Probably not. It’s more likely that you’ll remember how the fight made you feel. If you can bring gentleness, compassion, an a listening ear to the fight, chances are it will dissolve and the real issues will start to emerge. And if you have left in the middle of the fight, go back later and work it through.
I know it’s not easy. I know things get said that we wish we could take back. But once you know your styles, it is easier to catch the instinctive behaviour and bring you both back to what you would rather be doing.
And never underestimate the power of an apology!
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