Dr. Sunita Osborn
You're Going to Fight. Fight Smart!
“Wow, we never fight. We are so mature.”
Can you hear my bubble about to burst? Yeah, me too. I vividly recall having this thought during an early relationship that was months old but felt like decades to my younger self. Yep, spoiler alert: I was quickly kicked off that pedestal and face-to-face with the reality that conflict is not only inherent in a relationship, but part of a HEALTHY one. Conflict teaches us about true intimacy and can actually leave us feeling closer with the help of new understanding. Following many life lessons and couples’ therapy sessions myself, I have learned that there are intentional ways of approaching conflict that will leave you and your partner feeling heard, more connected, and oh yeah, much more mature 😉
Here's a few pointers after many years of life and in-depth clinical training on all things couples:
Get on the same team
Imagine you are a boxer in a ring. Your opponent launches a powerful hook at you and then a quick jab. What do you do next? You duck to avoid the punches and at the first moment of opportunity, you launch a counter attack against your opponent. Now, what does a boxing match have to do with your relationship? Well, when you and your partner get locked in the argument-counterargument pattern, your relationship becomes sort of a boxing ring. And just like in a boxing match, every time you throw a punch, you are inviting your partner to attack right back.
>>> How to fight smart: Shift from reaction to reflection. Before jumping straight to your counterargument, join your partner for a second, share with them what you have heard and understood and invite them to share more with you. Phrases starting with “I hear you saying…,” “It sounds like you feel…,” and ” You want me to know…” are all great ways to encourage further sharing from your partner and shifts the focus from the attack-defend to expression-acknowledgement.
Stop with the character assassinations
The actor-observer bias refers to our tendency to attribute our own actions to external factors while attributing others’ actions to internal factors. Translated to our relationships this means: “I’m tired, you’re lazy.” Or a common example, when I forgot to take out the trash it was because I had a big presentation that day and had a major headache, but when my partner forgets to take the trash out it’s because he’s selfish and expects me to pick up after him. See how that works? Our brain has all these nifty ways of protecting our self-worth which is great, but this can also prevent us from taking in all the many nuances of a situation when we are royally pissed at our partners.
>> How to fight smart: Ask questions! Before you go off on your partner, take the time to breathe, check your assumptions, and invite them to share with you what happened. Many clients at this juncture will often tell me “I know what she will say” and my response is always “Do you want to know or do you want to be right?” because believe me taking that extra step to hear your partner out may just save you both from a ton of heartache!
Find common ground
Remember those Venn diagrams you used to draw in school? Well, take a second and picture two circles that overlap. The overlapping area is the common ground you share with your partner while the non-overlapping areas are the differences and disagreements. Too often in arguments, our attention is solely focused on our disagreements wedging our proverbial circles further and further apart while that common thread that binds us is pushed to the side. Give space for you and your partner to share your differences in opinion, but don’t forget to acknowledge the often-forgotten overlapping area of common ground built on your shared values, beliefs, and love.
>> How to fight smart: Call for a cease fire and ask your partner: What is most important to you in this? Once both of you have shared your answers, find the common thread even if the only common thread is your love and respect for each other and then work backwards from there using WE language. “What can we do to make sure you are getting enough time to work on your report?” or “What can we do to make sure we are both feeling loved and respected in this relationship?”
Complaint versus Criticism
We are always going to have complaints about the person we live with. These concerns deserve to be communicated, but there’s a huge difference between “It really hurt me when you missed my parents’ anniversary dinner” versus “You never show up for me!” Hear the difference? We’ve been told before to avoid using extreme words like “always” or “never” during arguments and the reason being is that in the second statement, I’ve taken things from being annoyed by a specific action my partner took to criticizing him as a person which can escalate things real quick.
>> How to fight smart: When you are annoyed with your partner, communicate this using Gottman’s tried and true formula: 1. Here’s how I feel (I’m hurt); 2. About a very specific situation (you were on your phone during dinner); 3. And here’s what I need, want, prefer (I would like us to have some technology-free time together).
Strike when the iron is cold
Don’t limit yourself to working on your relationship to stop fights or prevent them from escalating. Use them to deepen your relationship, to learn more about each other, and to continue growing together. Also, it’s a lot easier to practice these skills when you are not in the heat of an argument and practicing them ahead of time will make it more likely that you will be able to use them when the sparks start to fly.
>> How to fight smart: When you are feeling connected with your partner, reflect together on some of the patterns you both notice in the relationship. For example, try describing your relationship patterns by filling in the blanks: The more I_____, the more you________, and then the more I________, and round and round we go.
Don't forget, relationships are DYNAMIC. We each bring in all of our history and unique points of reactivity. This is where the growth comes and truly getting to know your partner. With intention and commitment to the process, you'll be surprised how much you grow with (and not despite) the inherent conflict that comes with love.