FACT: Nobody can make you want to throw a punch quite like your partner. Why is that? How do the people closest to us seem to know exactly how to push our testiest buttons and make us want to stand up and fight? Whether the cause is something dramatic or just routine everyday disagreements, these are the moments we can explode, when we’re likely to shoot ourselves in the foot, and in the process, watch our relationship crumble just a little bit. Whenever you’re in that shaky space where anything—even a raised eyebrow—is enough to launch another battle, what do you do? You use fighting to strengthen your relationship, that’s what. How?
Revisiting moments of disconnection and conflict can be a gift, a passageway into healing, provided we do it wisely—meaning explore what happened with an eye toward the future and the past, an ear for both words and feelings, and an ever-growing awareness of blind spots, hot buttons, and mistaken assumptions. Fights about money, in-laws, sex, work, friends, children, and lifestyle often disguise deeper pain. “I feel lonely, like we’re not a team anymore. Do you still care about me?” or “I feel useless, like nothing I do is right. Do you still respect me?” If you fight well, you’ll learn about the hopes and fears that drive your partner’s frustration, awaken your compassion, and help you console one another, turning moments of conflict into moments of connection—something we can all get better at.
Below are 5 tips to help you become Conflict Masters, partners who fight well and help their relationships grow.
5 Ways to Fight Your Way to a Stronger Relationship
1. Optimize your opening.
The easiest way to clean up a mess is not to start one, and you can count on blame to make things messy. When you have a complaint that needs attention, focus on the complaint itself by asking for what you want. “I’d love it if we spent more time together” is a whole lot easier on the ears than “You’re never available anymore.” If you start with a negative tone or use words like always and never, a reasonable request may sound like a personal attack and spark defensiveness. Bad openings spell bad outcomes.
2. Let your partner have the last word.
Most of the time, when you just “have to” say one more thing, don’t. No matter how valid your observation, less is better when you’re going the rounds. Rather than stoking the fire, gently suggest a break, and try this: Inhale deeply as you tell yourself, “This is probably okay. We’ve been here before. We’ll figure it out.” Exhale slowly and continue to reassure yourself, “I don’t know everything about everything. My partner has a point of view too. It’s going to be okay.” If you do this for 20 to 30 minutes, you’ll be your Self-at-Best and have a more receptive audience when you resume the discussion.
3. Use touch to stay engaged.
My husband and I have an unpleasant cycle involving irritability that…WHOOSH…seems to come out of nowhere. When my husband is in that negative space, my response has often been to withdraw, as in, “Out of the office until further notice.” Nowadays, I notice my impulse to pull back and instead gently touch his arm, saying “I miss you,” or softly asking, “Is anything going on?” When the timing is right, the negativity vanishes, and we go on to have a helpful conversation.
4. Joke your way to moving on.
There’s nothing like humour to break the tension, but if your partner isn’t ready, it could make things worse. If it’s too soon to joke, you might be able to move on by recognizing that whatever happened is no big deal. Say your partner doesn’t pitch in to help you with something. Instead of telling yourself your partner doesn’t care about you (no doubt, an exaggeration), recognize the behaviour for what it is: the kind of preoccupation we all succumb to on occasion because we want to keep doing what we’re doing, including binge-watching a TV series. Take a deep breath and tell yourself some version of, “This isn’t so bad. It’s an ordinary, everyday occurrence of conflicting desires.” Then make your request again, emphasizing how much you’d appreciate your partner’s help.
5. Listen well and do the S.U.R.E. thing
To lessen negativity, keep reminding yourself that your partner has an understandable point of view—even though you don’t agree with it. Hear your partner out before you mount the soapbox. On second thought, forget the soapbox, and try the S.U.R.E. thing:
- SLOW your breathing and calm your brain so you can think more clearly.
- UNDERSTAND your partner’s points or feelings by deliberately focusing on what makes sense (you may not like what your partner is saying, but it still makes sense).
- REFLECT back what you hear to show you’re tuned in, “It makes sense to me that you…”
- EMPATHY time. “This has been difficult. I’ve made it worse, and I’m sorry.”
Witnessing each other is calming as opposed to infuriating. If you hold back on speaking until your partner shows signs of feeling heard (e.g., shoulders relaxing or a deep exhale), you increase your chances of actually being heard.
Diana Shulman, J.D., Ph.D. is a Los Angeles psychoanalyst and author of The ABCs of Love: Learn How Couples Rekindle Desire and Get Happy Again.