Why is it that we fight the most with those we love the most? Is it just because we’re two people with two completely separate minds spending so much time together that we’re bound to not see eye to eye once in a while? Or, is it something more profound, something deeper?
Unfortunately, it’s usually the people we’re closest to who trigger us most emotionally. Our reactions, or overreactions, can therefore be much more tied to our personal history than even to what’s going on in the present moment. Every one of us brings a lot to the table that contributes to the degree of conflict we experience with a partner, including our early attachment patterns, psychological defenses, and critical inner voices about ourselves and others. That is why the key to getting along with our partner is rarely as simple as it sounds. However, the good news is we have a lot of power when it comes to making things better.
Here are some efforts we can take to ease tension and keep feeling close to our partner:
A study from researchers at the University of California Berkeley and Northwestern University found that “the length of time each member of a couple spent being upset [when in conflict] was strongly correlated with their long-term marital happiness.” This is no great surprise. However, most of us don’t challenge our tendency to ruminate in feelings of being enraged, wronged, or treated unfairly. We may even be drawn to build a case against our partner rather than attempting to understand them, move on, or accept an apology. While we may have a point or be right at times, this drive to wallow in our misery often comes from an unconscious desire to maintain an old, bad feeling about ourselves and our relationships that, although uncomfortable, also feels familiar.
Take the time to calm down
In the heat of the moment, it’s very hard not to be reactive. However, there’s a good reason that five minutes after a fight, we feel more rational and regretful. When we feel triggered by someone in an intense way, this is often a clue that something deeper is being surfaced. The wrong word or a simple look from our partner can tap into old, negative feelings we have about ourselves that make us angry, ashamed, or on the defense. We then react in ways that don’t always fit the situation, and in fact, often escalate it. If we can get ahold of ourselves in that moment of intensity, take a walk or even just a few deep breaths, we can gain some perspective and return to a more rational state of mind. We can remain in the moment, rather than trailing off into our heads, and choose how we want to respond with more awareness and sensitivity to the other person.
Be attuned to yourself
In addition to taking pause, we can try to be curious about what’s going on in our minds and bodies in a moment of tension. There are two exercises that can be helpful in this process (which are made a bit easier to remember by the acronyms SIFT and RAIN). Dr. Daniel Siegel uses SIFTing to describe tuning into the Sensations, Images, Feelings, and Thoughts that we’re experiencing. This helps bring us into the moment, and it’s part of an important first step in what Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn calls RAIN. The steps of RAIN are to 1. Recognize what is happening, 2. Allow or accept what’s going on, 3. Investigate the inner experience (what’s being triggered in you?), and 4. Non-identification, which means not letting yourself over-connect with the experience. This mindful approach allows us to be present and curious toward ourselves and our reactions without letting these reactions take over. In a moment of conflict, we can use this mindfulness exercise to feel calmer and reconnect to ourselves, investigating our reactions but without judgment.
Change from a defensive to a receptive state
When we work on tuning in and calming ourselves down, we can then extend a more curious and compassionate attitude toward our partner. Instead of being focused on defending, reacting, or counterattacking, we can listen and attempt to understand the other person. “When our entire focus is on self-defense, no matter what we do, we can’t open ourselves enough to hear our partner’s words accurately,” wrote Siegel in Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation. “Our state of mind can turn even neutral comments into fighting words, distorting what we hear to fit what we fear.” The more we can remain in a “receptive state,” being present with our partner and imagining their experience through their eyes, the more we can relax in ourselves and connect to them. We can actually use the experience to feel closer rather than pushing them further away. As Siegel wrote in The Developing Mind: How Relationships and the Brain Interact to Shape Who We Are, “For ‘full’ emotional communication, one person needs to allow his state of mind to be influenced by that of the other.”
Reject the filter of your critical inner voice
Part of the reason we’re so reactive in a given moment is because we often hear or see our partner through the filter of our “critical inner voice.” This “voice” represents a pattern of negative thoughts and distorted ideas we developed about ourselves and others based on hurtful experiences from our early lives. As we grow up, we may expect relationships to mirror those of our past and project our “voices” onto others, especially those closest to us. “All misperceptions or projections, both positive and negative, will generate problems,” wrote Dr. Robert Firestone in The Ethics of Interpersonal Relationships. “People want to be seen and acknowledged for themselves, and distortions cause pain and misunderstanding as well as predisposing angry reactions.” So often, when we’re especially triggered and heated, we are filtering our partner’s words and behavior through our inner critic. For example, when they say, “You haven’t been around lately,” we may hear, “You’re not doing enough. You’re so lazy.” We distort our partner’s point of view to fit with an old image of ourselves, and we react accordingly. That is why to really break a destructive, argumentative cycle, we have to challenge our critical inner voice.
Drop your half of the dynamic
Dr. Lisa Firestone, co-author of Sex and Love in Intimate Relationships recommends what she calls “unilateral disarmament” as a tool couples can use to defuse arguments and be close again. “What it involves is momentarily dropping your side of the debate and approaching your partner from a more loving stance,” explained Firestone. “The idea is that when couples have tension between them, perhaps from not communicating successfully or directly, they start to build resentments toward each other, which often reach a tipping point. An argument begins, then escalates based on an overflow of pent-up frustration and flawed communication. Heated moments are, however, the worst times to try to solve problems or make our points heard.” By dropping our half of the dynamic and saying “I care more about being close than winning this argument,” we express a vulnerability that often softens our partner and allows them to feel for us and let their guard down. We can then have a more effective conversation about any real issues in a less intense moment when we both feel more ourselves.
Feel the feeling, but do the right thing
Calming down or dropping our side of a fight in a tense moment doesn’t mean burying our feelings. In fact, Dr. Pat Love author of The Truth about Love suggests we feel our feelings but choose our actions. There are healthy avenues for expressing anger or sadness but also exploring these emotions to understand where they may come from and what they may mean. Emotions offer us clues into who we are. However, in the messiness of a fight, we rarely take the time to sort through and recognize our emotions much less express them in ways that are adaptive or helpful. It’s best to choose our actions, so they align with who we want to be. But we should certainly be curious and accepting of our emotions.
Be vulnerable and express what you want
Les Greenberg, the primary originator of Emotion-Focused Therapy, distinguishes between primary and secondary, adaptive and maladaptive emotion. He points out that often, when couples react to each other, they aren’t necessarily aware of the primary emotion like sadness or shame that maybe triggered, for instance, in a moment of feeling hurt, rejected or not seen. Instead, they experience a secondary emotion like embarrassment or anger, and they act out toward their partner accordingly.
We all experience these types of reactions, and unfortunately, these maladaptive emotional responses don’t get us closer to what we want. However, as Greenberg has suggested, if we can tap into our primary emotion and express the more vulnerable want or need behind it, we show much more vulnerability to our partner. We can communicate that “we want to feel loved or seen for who we are.” Our partner then has an opportunity to know us better and feel for us.
As challenging as it can feel to be vulnerable and let our guard down in a moment of conflict, the more mindful we can be toward ourselves, our emotions, our thoughts, and our actions, the better able we are to interrupt destructive cycles and achieve closeness with our partner. By using these tools of self-reflection, we truly take control over our half of the dynamic and create a safe, welcoming environment for our partner to do the same.
Here are some takeaways that we can apply the next time we enter a conflict with our partner:
- Take pause (do something else, breathe, meditate, take a walk)
- Avoid rumination
- Pay attention to what’s going on inside your body
- Don’t over-identify with negative thoughts
- Try to adopt a “receptive” stance
- Notice any critical inner voices intensifying your response
- Acknowledge your emotions
- Explore whether the emotion may be primary, secondary, adaptive, or maladaptive
- Choose your actions
- Be open, vulnerable, and direct about what you want