The Upside of Fighting — Part Two
When I wrote Part 1 of “The Upside of Fighting,” I used the example of a mother and child to explore how the process of rupture and repair can serve as the basis for building a solid partnership. But I also wanted to look at how this can work in adult romantic partnerships. Here, I present some tools you can use with your partner to experience repair now, so that fighting won’t have a chance to destroy your relationship.
The upside of fighting is that if you do it within an environment of commitment, trust, and vulnerability, it can give you a way to build brick by brick (i.e., fight by fight) a relationship that feels like home. But that begs the questions: How do we find each other after fights? How do we repair after a rupture? In many ways, it’s much easier to repair with our kids than with our partners. One reason for this is that our partners become proxies for our previous primary relationships. What this means is that we project our histories with our parents onto our partners automatically. Put simply, if you had or have a challenging relationship with either or both of your parents, then those hurts accompany you in your adult partnership. You will relive old pain when your partner upsets or disappoints you. Navigating this can be delicate and challenging, but the upside is that it can also lead to deep healing. Our partners can, and hopefully do, provide us with a different experience than our parents did, and that can help to heal old wounds.
When I support couples in my psychotherapy practice find their way through these deep and muddy waters to healing and repair, I like to provide them with guideposts and tools. One tool (which I learned from relationship expert Stan Tatkin) called leading with relief. In other words, making sure the first (leading) thing you do after a fight is provide reassurance (relief) to your partner. Partners need reassurance they are safe before they can delve into conflict. There’s a biological reason for this. Our brains are wired to fight, and when we’re fighting, sometimes we don’t have access to the executive-thinking parts of our brain. When this is the case, no successful outcome is biologically possible. So we need to lead with relief to make sure that our executive brain stays online.
Here’s an example. I want to tell my partner that I’m not happy with some parenting choices he made. To avoid getting into a no-win fight, I’m going to start by saying gently and with a warm, friendly face, “I love how you bring fun and play into our son’s life. You are such a great dad!” Then I’ll pause and smile genuinely, thinking about what a great dad he is. It’s not a lie. And then, after I’ve signaled that we’re friends and I respect him and his parenting (I’ve led with relief), I can say, “I just don’t like it when you keep him up so late after his bedtime. It makes it hard for me the next day because he’s cranky and challenging.” My husband may not like my request or may have his own thoughts about it, but because I’ve led with relief, chances are we will be able to talk our way through this conflict, rather than us spinning our wheels, with him defending his parenting to me.
We all need relief and reassurance. Our kids need it, and we need it, too. It’s a need we never grow out of. It’s so important to practice giving and receiving relief and reassurance with our partners. The old saying “You catch more flies with honey than vinegar” goes a long way in marriage/partnership.
A second tool to recover and deepen trust in partnership is the art of the apology. Apologies are much more complex that simply saying I’m sorry. Adding to that complexity is timing the “I’m sorry.” Some people feel relief (put down their warring brain) if they hear “I’m sorry” right away. Others don’t like hearing “I’m sorry” till they feel you truly understand what you’re apologizing for. I suggest that you and your partner talk to each other about your apology preferences when you’re not fighting. It’s key to know what soothes you and know what soothes your partner when it comes to apologizing.
Also, if you want your partner to truly forgive you, you have to offer a full apology. Your partner needs to feel that he or she is truly heard, understood, and respected. For this to happen, you have to take full responsibility for whatever missteps occurred, as well as for the steps to be taken so this rupture won’t happen again. This is a true apology.
Here’s your apology to-do list.
- Learn exactly what you did, said, or didn’t do or say that upset your partner. Listen to the hurt and be with whatever feelings are coming up for your partner. This may require lots of listening and reflecting before asking clarifying questions to truly understand and empathize with him or her.
- Take full responsibility for your actions. This is can be tough but is absolutely necessary. Own your mistake. This is cleansing for your and your relationship and gives way to forgiveness. Without owning your mistake or hurt, you’re not truly apologizing.
- Finally, come up with a plan your partner is on board with so this hurt won’t happen again. This will involve creative problem solving. For example, you may agree that you will work on your temper so you don’t say hurtful things in the future. The plan may include therapy, journaling, meditation, or learning to pause before speaking.
This is tricky and emotionally sophisticated stuff. And it takes lots of practice to learn. But the good news is that it can be learned. Think of this as building a new skill set — the skills of apologizing and mending fences in a way that is tailored for your partnership. You have an opportunity to help your partner, and yourself, heal and grow during conflict. Allow each other to make mistakes and be forgiven and forgive. This creates a relationship that can feel like a home you want to live in always and forever.