Watching Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn last week, wearing my ‘therapist’s hat’ it was very clear psychologically what was going on. In relational terms (or rather ‘non-relational’ as neither of them wanted to develop a genuine rapport with the other) it was a perfect example of a ‘dirty fight’. Each wanted to score points on the other; each wanted the other to look a fool, contradict them, or make a gaffe – such are the dynamics of this and most elections.
Sadly however, the same dynamic can easily creep into our most intimate relationships and we can end up damaging or even destroying something we really care about.
Disagreements and differences are there whenever two people come close together. Our temperaments, backgrounds, upbringing, abilities and cultures guarantee it. The question then is what we do when those come to the surface. It may be an argument over how to treat or spend money. Or how to discipline the children. Or the state you leave the kitchen, bedroom or bathroom in. Or your expectations about time for yourself. Or whose job it is to put out the wheelie bin. Or how you spend Christmas. Or whatever – the list is, quite literally, endless.
The question then is what we do with those differences. In some cases the advice ‘to walk a mile in (the other’s) moccasins’ – and not to judge until you have done – can be very helpful but experience and research show that that only helps sometimes. Much more useful are the principles of ‘fair fighting’ that have been developed in various therapeutic schools in recent years. Good summaries of these can be found on the Gottman Institute website
Or on the youtube clip below
These recognise that disagreements are part of every relationship and that even what appears to be a minor matter to one or other has the capacity to become toxic if handled badly. Criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling need to be replaced, in Gottman’s terms, by ensuring a gentle ‘start-up’ (by talking about your feelings and expressing your own needs positively); by building a culture of appreciation; by taking responsibility; and very importantly, through physiological self-soothing (taking a break from the argument by doing something soothing and distracting for, say, half an hour, before returning to it).
Huffington Post has 14 tips for fighting fair 14 Tips for Fighting Fair
And Psychologia lists 30 Fair Fighting Rules for Couples
The message of them all is much the same. Arguments are inevitable in any relationship but don’t run away from them or fall into the toxicity of ‘dirty fighting’. Rather learn and practice the principles of ‘fair fighting’. Learn these by starting deliberately with some small disagreements where there isn’t so much emotional charge – then you will be better able to handle the major ones when they come along.
At Coupleworks we often work with couples who come and are so entrenched in their positions that they are really struggling to step back and de-escalate the rows.
What I suggest when I am working with couples..
- Specify the issue – just keep to one topic and don’t bring in lots of things at the same time
- Choose a suitable time and place – not before you are going to bed or off to work and preferably don’t use the bedroom
- Do not interrupt – and if needed determine before hand exactly how long each will have to speak – eg 3 or 5 minutes.
- Use ‘I statements’ – I feel X when you do Y
- Amplify 4 by being clear about the new behaviour you would love to see from your partner eg closing cupboard doors rather than leaving them open
- Listen to each other and repeat back what you have heard without placing any of your own interpretation on it.
- Don’t drag in the past
- Agree to differ
- Agree to compromise. Generally partners feel much more able to compromise when their feelings have been heard and understood. Compromise isn’t one partner always giving way to the other.
While all of this may seem rather programmatic, in my experience if couples practice these techniques regularly, they gradually become the natural learned behaviour of their relationship. The rows do not end and the anger does not disappear but the issues are handled in a much more creative way.