Hadley Finch: Do you avoid fighting with your partner at all costs? Or do you fight often and over the same old issues? You’re about to discover why both extremes are a threat to your relationship. And learn how to stop destructive fighting and put up a good fight to create a positive, passionate connection with your romantic partner when you use these smart fighting tips.
Dr. Ellyn Bader and Dr. Peter Pearson are happily married couples therapists, authors and founders of The Couples Institute, bestcouplesinstitute.com They have appeared on many TV and Radio programs and helped thousands of couples create loving relationships since 1984.
They are unusual among couples therapists, because they are a couple themselves and have confronted many of the challenges they write and speak about. While interviewing them on A Lasting Love radio show, I asked them to tell us how to develop the best fighting skills for a happy relationship.
Hadley: Some couples want to avoid a fight at all costs. What’s the danger in that?
Dr. Ellyn Bader: First let’s define fighting. To some fighting means physical violence. The dictionary defines fighting as defeating your adversary. A better definition of fighting in a relationship is working through issues with honesty and compassion.
Dr. Peter Pearson: Couples who avoid tough issues may cause all passion to erode over time, because neither partner will risk bringing up a stressful topic. Instead, their boring, safe conversations are limited to the weather or the menu and can suck the excitement out of a relationship.
Hadley: What’s the antidote?
Dr. Peter: The antidote is to take a risk and face issues that cause you pain, while you find the solution with mutual compassion for each others needs and well being. This deepens your emotional connection and builds trust.
Hadley: How do some couples get stuck in a fighting rut?
Dr. Peter: When couples are always ready for a fight or they keep having the same fight that doesn’t go anywhere, their brain often is to blame.
People who have been exposed to painful or threatening life experiences in childhood actually store these painful feelings in their inner brain, the amygdala, also known as the emotional brain. Whenever a new experience matches an old painful one, these triggers cause the wounded emotional brain to start a fight and protect you from more pain. It’s helpful to relieve stress to be less reactive.
Hadley: Does meditation or biofeedback ease the stress of these triggers?
Dr. Peter: Yes. But it won’t help you stop a fight while you’re in one.
Hadley: How do you stop a fight quickly and safely?
Dr. Ellyn: If your partner starts a fight, take a breath and say to yourself, “It’s not about me, it’s about them–about something that upset them in the past.” As you consider their old issues, it helps you feel compassionate understanding of your partner.
I also use the “Ouch Exercise” to stop a fight. Couples have to plan this in advance so that you agree to use the exercise. Here’s the exercise:
When your partner is using words that hurt you at the start of a fight, the goal is to calmly say, “Ouch–can we replay it again?”
This is a signal for your partner to stop and calm down. Then you tell your partner the words that hurt you, and you say the words you want to hear instead, because this would help you feel better.
Hadley: This exercise requires a little reflection on topics you often fight about, so you know in advance what words would make you feel better.
Dr. Peter: Yes. Doing this gets you out of the victim brain that lashes out or blames. It is soothing to repeat the words your partner requests a few different ways, to let them know you understand them.
Dr. Ellyn: I also advise people to become curious instead of furious, which gets you out of the emotional brain.
Hadley: I like that. Will you talk us through the OUCH EXERCISE?
Dr. Ellyn: Let’s say your partner comes home, and you ask if they did three errands they’d promised to do. They may start making excuses that upset you. Then you would use the “Ouch-replay” script to disarm the trigger and rewrite the script.
You would tell your partner that you’d feel better if they’d apologize for not keeping their promise, and maybe other promises that they failed to keep previously.
Then your partner will calmly say what you requested. Ideally, this gives them an understanding of how their words and actions affect you, and vice versa. This healthy communication builds a happy relationship.
Hadley: What if your partner refuses to stop fighting, do the exercise or learn the skills to increase healthy communication?
Dr. Ellyn: Then it would be difficult to improve your relationship, which limits prospects for a creating a happy, healthy connection.
Hadley: What if you’re single and seeking love? How do you test your date’s fighting skills before you commit to a serious relationship?
Dr. Peter: Simply ask your date how they’d like to handle disagreements, or how they’d like you to bring up issues that might upset them. Then you can reach an agreement as to how you would deal with these hot-button issues, should you decide to enter a long-term relationship.
Hadley: Thanks for your sharing the best fighting skills and exercises that help us develop positive, passionate communication in a relationship.
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