Constructive fights

When attachment security is uncertain, a partner will pursue, fight, and even bully a spouse into responding to attachment cues, even if this has a negative general impact on the relationship. Sue Johnson

Unable to stop fighting

Anger is neutral but can be expressed in destructive or healthy ways.

Negative self-talk projected onto the other + anger = toxic cyclical fights. For example, ‘you always think I’m …..’.

Most fights are repetitive patterns with a familiar beginning, middle and end where one or both people do not feel free to apologise and change their regretful behavior.

Fight problems arise when one or both partners fail to assert their own feelings and wants constructively, while at the same time maintaining a genuine caring and respect for the other.

To move toward constructive fights I recommend you make a plan to establish good fight manners collaboratively, and before the next fight.

Predict how even with the best of intentions these plans will fail. Build the antidote to that into your agreement.

Use the fair fight principles to guide your knowledge of where you might sabotage the plan. Build that knowledge into the plan as well.

Principles of fair fight, constructive arguments:

    1. Establish the ground rules and honour them.
    2. Self-soothe and support calm deliberation rather than emotional escalation.
    3. Express feelings with words, story and ownership i.e. ‘I statements’ and not with actions.
    4. Be specific about what’s bothering you and concrete about solutions proposed.
    5. Deal with one issue at a time.
    6. Don’t hit below the belt nor aim to wound.
    7. Avoid accusations and righteousness.
    8. Don’t generalize or pile on unrelated issues.
    9. Stay real, avoid make believe.
    10. Collaborate to prevent stockpiling, brooding and recycling issues.
    11. Cooperatively manage patterns of withdrawal or clamming up, of stonewalling, of expressing contempt, making negative interpretations and wild generalizations.
    12. If you are fighting to destroy every last real feeling you have for each other, forcing the other into the position of leaving, then you have probably shredded almost the last vestiges of your own dignity and self-respect.

From this place one can learn humility and forgiveness but it takes a big and tender heart.

  1. Lay down your weapons; think and wait.

Fighting for consensus

Consensus is a process.

Each stake holder matters.

Consensus requires:

  • truth with oneself
  • quality time
  • honest dialogue
  • even fierce conversation with neither being a part of the issue nor another person marginalized.

It’s hard work.

No wonder we prefer majority rules and group think.

With a couple ‘majority rules’ is kind of crazy. A majority of one? And yet troubled relationships sound like a competition for the ascendancy of one person, or of one way.

They have become a strategic (exchange) relationship rather than an intimate (communal) one.

That is one form of the power struggle at turning points in a close relationship, be it partnering or parenting.

Empathy is the most effective method for sharing that power and rebuilding trust.

If you have come from a family, school and work environment where you were not encouraged to think for yourself, this process will involve more growing up.

Likewise if you have spent your life thinking for and pleasing others and not attending to your own thoughts and needs.

Consensus embraces dissent and difference. That inclusiveness gives confidence in bearing the cost of change.

Lacking consensus we cannot make important decisions jointly.

For example a decision to, stay in this dialogue until both of us feel understood, is a big ask without consensus.

Compromise, burying or forcing then become the rule rather than the exception.

The one who cares the most is most likely to compromise, bury or bend to the other’s will.

This only works for so long. Then gridlock and impasse take over.

As a result more time and effort is spent on blame, distractions and appearances.

At about this time, some threaten to leave. Others renovate their home or apartment. Some have moved into the dream house only to discover it is filled with the baggage from the old one.

Some bring on the next child.

Some divorce.

It all gets messy.

Sometimes some of these methods repair the problem – the right outcome for all the wrong reasons.

I must have saved clients collectively, millions of dollars over my 40 years as a therapist in their cancelled apartment and house renovations.

They grew something within themselves that they liked more.

The extra space is within.

The only thing we ever own are our actions.


Emotions are multi layered

Both the reactive ones and the ones underneath them.

Anger, for example, often has fear behind it, despair has loneliness behind it. Few feelings arise alone, mostly they are a mixture of feelings more accurately called an emotion. Love is an emotion.

When your partner says they are feeling happy, sad, upset, excited (or the poorly differentiated version, ‘you make me’ feel happy, sad etc) … ask kindly, ‘how do you know you are feeling that’ or ‘what is happening in your head that tells you this’ or ‘what are the body sensations leading you to that conclusion’.

Sensations that are interpreted as anger, for example, may include hot, cold, fidgety, itchy, trembling, dry mouth, a sense of bursting, wanting to get out, to run, to fight, suffocating, drowning, etc?’

Then share with your partner the thoughts and sensations you have when you experience that same emotion in your body.

How could each convey and read this from body language alone? Remain mindful of your body sensations, which later coalesce into a feeling.

Pause a moment and think before reacting to your partner.

For example:

I always assume you won’t understand, that you will jump to conclusions before you hear me out and have prepared your rebuttal before I finish speaking. In my movie we have our backs to each other turning snow balls to later throw. Every time I turn around your back is to me. I feel like screaming and in my movie I do until my legs give way and I fall into a heap on the ground and still you don’t face me.

The other might share this,

In my movie you just go on and on, repeating what you have already said but more stridently each time as if I’m stupid. I assume this time is no different. I want to get away from you almost before my movie starts rolling. I imagine myself strangling you if I allow the movie to run its course. So I try and wrap it up quickly and get away or find a quick fix. In the end I imagine I am alone.

Without blame, own up to your assumptions about what you think is in the other’s movie or what they are thinking, feeling or doing at the present time or during a recent event.

Do this before you react to your assumptions about what they are saying or doing at the moment or have just told you they had said, felt or did in a recent situation.

Describe the inner movie that informs your assumptions or pre-suppositions about their behavior.

Reason on its own, leads only to a conclusion not to movement. It is our emotions and the language we use to describe them that prompt action.

In almost any significant relationship decision (or indecision), emotion will always win out over reason when the two conflict.

Gently begin a conversation about the head and heart decisions that underlie your relationship’s journey and its everyday life.

Do it in a way that shows respect and due care for the quiet emotions behind each other’s choices. If you can’t speak them, write them; draw; dance them; sing them; watch a DVD movie that resonates with them; find a poem or a play that speaks to those emotions.