Thursday, August 12, 2010

Fighting Lovingly

Emily says: I dated this guy for a while. We never fought, and everyone thought that everything was great, but what we realized that it was all just simmering under the surface. It wasn't that everything was great, it was that we never talked about it.

Many people have the idea that fighting is a sign of instability in a relationship. It is true that excessive conflict is not a good sign. A couple should not be having arguments on a daily basis. However, for many couples, arguments, even heated ones, are a pressure valve through which issues can be addressed before they become too serious to deal with.

Arguments are only an effective pressure valve if they are conducted in a way that does not cause more serious relationship problems later on. Let's take a look at a few rules of how to argue to make arguments part of the solution and not part of the problem.

The Goal Is Agreement, Not Being Right
Many people go into a dispute with the goal of being right. In How to Win Friends and Influence People, by Dale Carnegie, he discusses the fact that no one ever wins an argument. Either you are proven wrong, in which case you lose, or you prove the other person wrong, in which case they lose face and will be bitter towards you for embarrassing them. You cannot win an argument in a relationship by proving yourself right. This will only create resentment.

If you are arguing about something, hopefully, it is important enough to spend the energy disputing. It is probably because there is a habit that one person has which bothers the other, or an idea which is offensive for some reason, or, often, a misunderstanding when you are actually in agreement after all. Your goal should be to find an accommodation which is satisfactory to both people. Sometimes it takes a bit of shouting to blow off the steam in order to reach the point where a productive conversation can occur.

Remember, the ultimate goal is coming to such a solution. If you goal is to be right then you may well find yourself right... and alone.

Remember That You Still Love Each Other
Hopefully, if you are in a relationship, you love the person you are with. If you love them, then you should love them even when you disagree, even if that disagreement involves shouting at each other all over the house. Sometimes it is hard to remember this when fighting, but it is important to remember that you are fighting for a relationship with someone you love, not fighting against someone that you love.

Sometimes, in the heat of an argument, it is hard to remember that you are both on the same side, even if you disagree, but if you can keep that in mind, then you will stay focused and avoid saying things that might harm your relationship later.

Let Sleeping Dogs Lie
If you dealt with an issue at some point in the past, do not bring it up unless it is actually relevant. Bringing up past issues will only serve to inflame things and obscure the actual issue that you are talking about.

Joe says: I dated this girl once, and every time we fought, it was like she was reading my freakin' rap sheet. She'd remember things from months ago that I thought were settled and gone. Somehow, we never got to the issue we were talking about. It was a great way for her to avoid talking about her screw ups, but it was also a great way to encourage me to get my ass out of there.

In Joe's story, his girlfriend used old offenses to derail arguments. Even if the issue that started the fight was entirely her fault, she would never have to take responsibility for it because she would bring up a past offense of Joe's. This was effective in preventing her from taking blame but ineffective for building a strong and healthy relationship. In the end, she was blameless and single.

Avoid Ad Hominem
Presumably, if you and your significant other are having a fight, you are fighting about something. Name calling and insults are not productive in addressing the actual issue that you are dealing with. It will confuse the issue, and it may create new issues which will be the seeds of future conflict in the relationship.

Generally, when we reach the point of name calling, it is because we forget that we are dealing with a rational, intelligent human being. We are reverting to animal instincts of hurting one who hurt us. By giving in to the temptation to throw barbs, we exacerbate our own perception that we are fighting an enemy and not a loved one.

Fights happen in relationships, but relationships can survive and even grow from fights. Remember that you love each other and that you are in this together, and you can come out stronger and with deeper understanding for the unpleasant experience.

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