I’m looking at the relationship talk feedback and noting that someone was looking for more details about, essentially, how to fight with their partner.
A difficulty in giving relationship advice is that it’s actually very simple to say, while it’s often very (and sometimes very, VERY) difficult to use.
Example: preventing escalation in an argument is quite simple. You just stay nice to your partner. Simple.
Yet not always easy.
In a previous post, I write about the importance of being nice to each other, and I said that the biggest reasons we sometimes fail to be nice to our partners is that we get stressed out, which shuts down both our capacity to listen empathically and our senses of humor, which are totally necessary in order to be nice. So to fight effectively, you just be nice, which is approximately the same as saying, you just stay calm. As in:
1. Start out gentle.
2. When you feel criticized, take time to relax.
3. End with positive stuff.
Now, this all feels pretty simple, I think, but it’s quite contrary to what a lot of people think of as “a fight.” Like for a lot of people a fight starts with something like, “Dude, you’re late again; you’re always late.” That sentence has no sense of humor, it’s already stressed, it’s critical and even contemptuous.
Why not say instead, “I’m really grateful for how you always call me when you’re on your way home to see if I need you to get anything. There is one thing though, that I’d like to ask for your help with, and that’s being on time. Can we talk about that?” a gentle start up helps your partner stay calm, so that they can continue listening.
Even “I” statements, which every therapist on earth will tell you are A Good Thing, don’t necessarily cut it. “I really need you to be on time” is certainly better than “You’re always late. Stop it.” But tone of voice makes all the difference. “I really need you to be on time,” spoken in a demanding, judgmental, non-negotiating tone of voice just shuts down the discussion. An “I really need you to be on time,” in a gentle and supportive, almost questioning tone helps to prevent the other person from feeling criticized.
You might even say, “I really need you to be on time,” in a tone that pokes gentle fun at your own not-necessarily-ideal need for precision. On-timeness is not a universal need, you see, culturally or individually, so it’s equally valid for your partner to say, “I really need you to relax about being late.” Wouldn’t you rather they said it in a playful, relaxed, gentle way than an aggressive, demanding way?
So what makes it hard to keep stress out of your fights? What makes people resist such simple (if not easy) advice? Seriously, WHY NOT start up gentle?
Well, something I’ve noticed among my students, at any rate, is that they find that Being Nice fails to provide adequate opportunity to express their sense of injustice, anger, and hurt, all of which are absolutely, unquestionably WELCOME in an honest, fair argument. Effectively communicating with anger and hurt about an injustice (e.g., “I was waiting for you for two hours, with grumpy kids, and it’s not fair that I was stuck that way, expecting you to be back to HELP ME!”) requires that your partner be able to listen while ALSO being nice.
But of course your anger could all too easily trigger them to defensiveness, which would lead to escalation.
Being Nice, you see, requires a whole lot of listening and understanding the other person’s story, when quite a lot of what a person wants in a fight is for their OWN story to be understood! “You don’t understand! You’re not LISTENING to me!” is a common battle cry.
ONE OF YOU, either of you, has to back down, sit down, stay calm, and LISTEN to the other one. Let’s call the person who does this Person A.
Here’s the big part: if you find yourself in a position where both of you feel that to be Person A is to “lose,” then you’re in a dangerous position, vis a vis the stability of your relationship. The notion that Being Nice = your partner wins and you lose is a zero-sum construction and it’s an indication that things are QUITE sticky in your conflict.
“I can’t be nice because THEY aren’t being nice!” is a toxic dynamic in the relationship. I’d recommend that you talk to your partner about it (“Honey, I’ve noticed that we’re having a hard time being nice to each other because we’re afraid that if we’re nice the other person will take advantage of it”) but that’s not very useful because, hell, the whole problem is you can’t talk about shit without being defensive.
Well. To keep this post under 1,000 words, I’ll use a shortcut idea – not the only idea by any means (and therapy is always an option!), but a fairly simple one:
Go through your Story-of-Us with your partner. Talk about when you first met and how you got together. Look for fondness and admiration in the narrative. Look for “we-ness,” a sense of us-together, even us-against-others, and look for awareness of each other’s needs and values (“love maps”), and look for a sense of purpose and meaning in your various struggles together. Does it just seem like one random fuck up after another, or have you been collaborating through challenges in a way that helps you each to grow, and helps you grow together? Are you disappointed with your life and your relationship, or do you feel that where you are in life indicates a positive movement toward the life you’ve wanted for yourself and your partner?
If your Story-of-Us is serving its purpose in your relationship, you’ll find that reviewing it helps you to remember that it’s not really a zero-sum; being nice doesn’t mean you lose. Being nice means you BOTH WIN.
And if your Story-of-Us is not serving its purpose? Well. That’s another post.