Tell me if this sounds familiar. You bring up a point to your partner, something like, “why don’t we have that spark anymore,” “I feel lonely in our relationship,” or “I don’t feel appreciated.” Really, it can be anything that you’re upset about and want fixed. Only, instead of your partner listening to your concern, they respond by getting defensive and saying something like “well you never initiate sex either and I can’t read your mind,” “we do have sex so what is your problem,” or “I do appreciate you, here’s some examples of why you’re wrong about this.” So now it feels like your partner just isn’t listening, so you need to hammer home the point you’re trying to make, and at the same time you’re feeling upset and more emotional.
So, you might try to prove your point by saying “you never listen to me,” “you’re wrong, it’s not normal to only have sex once every 2 or 3 weeks,” “you’re so selfish, why don’t you ever think there’s something wrong with what you are doing,” or “here’s all the reasons why I feel this way, which includes that time a few years ago when you…” At this point, emotions are high and one of you won’t be able to take it anymore. The stress response will kick in and one or both of you will want to get away from the other, shut down and just stop talking, or start screaming and throwing things. The next couple days are tense and you’re both angry at what was said. You might not even remember why you starting fighting, but now the focus is on what was said during the argument.
Researchers at the Gottman Institute in Seattle have found that most couples engage in this way of fighting at varying frequencies. The frequency of how much you do this will determine how well you and your partner can handle conflict, anywhere from minor annoyances to perpetual and unresolvable issues. The pattern above is called “the Four Horseman” and it’s very important to understand the toxic role it plays in a relationship, because if you don’t stop it, it will poison the relationship. It starts with criticism, or perceived criticism, then goes to defensiveness, then contempt, and finally stonewalling. If you can see the clues and know when you or your partner are doing this, then you can stop it, take a break, and start again, but this time doing it differently.
Instead of criticizing, which is blaming and puts the other person on edge, you can complain. You still need to get it out, but you can do it in a soft way that doesn’t cause the other person to get defensive. Use “I” statements, never say “you,” and own your feelings. Your feelings are not caused by your partner, they are caused by your interpretation and how you take what your partner says or does.
This is a big topic in and of itself, and I can’t do it justice here, but just recognize how when things aren’t going well with your partner, your interpretation of what they do is dramatically different than if they did the same thing when things were good. Staying out later than expected when you’re in the honeymoon phase doesn’t cause much strife, but doing the same thing when you haven’t had sex in a month has a whole different meaning. So, state how you feel about something without blaming to give the discussion any chance at succeeding.
Now, instead of feeling blamed for how you feel, your partner can validate, empathize, and understand what you are saying, instead of being defensive. Say “that sounds difficult, I can see how you make those connections and feel that way.” Use these three elements to be curious about what your partner is saying to convince them you understand: reflect meaning, reflect feeling, and paraphrase. “So what does that mean to you?” “How did that make you feel?” And if you can’t do either, just try and put what they said into your own words and repeat it back to them, and then say “do you feel like I’m getting it now?”
Remember, you don’t have to agree to understand. Once the person feels understood, only then can you move into problem solving territory if needed. Do not attempt to solve the problem until the complainer says that’s what they want. Trying to fix it before they are ready sends the message that they are too dumb to figure it out on their own, and is a common avoidant tactic to stay clear of emotions.
This stuff takes practice. You won’t be able to change your automatic responses overnight. Just start shifting the ratio of the unhealthy dance to a productive dance over time. It will build trust, intimacy, and commitment.
10 Fair Fighting Rules
- No blaming the other person for how you feel
- Even if you don’t agree with your partner’s perspective, you can still try to understand it
- Never tell your partner that how they feel or think is wrong and argue about “evidence”
- Only one complaint at a time. If the other partner has an issue, they need to wait.
- No name calling or saying “always” or “never”
- You need to be on your partner’s side, even if you think you know how to fix it for them
- If you become overwhelmed, ask for a break and a time to talk again
- No assumptions or mind-reading – ask what your partner is thinking, don’t tell them (you can only describe what you directly observe, which means you can’t describe your partner’s thoughts, feelings, intentions, or motivations)
- Don’t move on to problem solving unless the complainer is ready and feels understood
- Pick a time to practice that sets you up to succeed (not just before bed or during the Oilers game)