How To Fight With Your Partner, According To Conflict Experts

How To Fight With Your Partner, According To Conflict Experts
Photo: Shutterstock. Art: Cierra Miller

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One thing that’s immediately obvious to anyone who knows me is that I would rather step on several Legos than engage in conflict of any kind, for any reason. I don’t like confrontation, I don’t like tense conversations, and on more than one occasion, I’ve tried to convince my therapist that I might just be the first person alive who can exist in a conflict-less state forever. I know I’m not the only one who detests confrontation on a molecular level, so I decided to seek out some expert-level tips on the inevitability that is a fight or two every now and then. My query: if we must argue, what’s the absolute best way to do it? Does anyone actually know how to fight with your partner?

Why Do We Fight The Way We Fight?

I started out by asking the pros why exactly so many people find conflict so uncomfortable. Dr. Emily Cook, a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in Bethesda, Maryland, chalked it up to a lack of proper communication skills. “Perhaps [these people] don’t feel confident in their ability to communicate what they need,” shared Dr. Cook. “Or they don’t feel like they’re good at accepting feedback, or they get defensive, and they’d really benefit from some how-tos.” It turns out, much of our approach to handling conflict stems from the examples we witnessed in childhood. “This all has roots in our past: what was modeled for us about conflict, what’s our programming around anger, disappointment, power. What was modeled for us in our parents’ marriage, in the way they did conflict,” says Cook. Looking back can provide a lot of insight for those of us who aren’t top-tier communicators.

If you’re particularly conflict-avoidant, Cook says there are likely a few good reasons. At some point, in some context, be it a tense home life or difficult school dynamics, some people learn to avoid conflict altogether as a survival technique. “You learn that you avoid conflict to survive. So often we bring these skills of our younger selves into adulthood, and they can start to cause problems for us,” says Cook, who notes that you can change this behavior, and recommends becoming aware of what approaches from your past you apply to present-day conflicts. “A lot of my work is helping people understand their programming. I explain it to people as a rule book. If conflict is the game, what are the rules? What happens next? Do I have relationship lessons that set me up with expectations about how conflict is going to go? Does that keep me from being in the present moment with this partner?” Evaluating your approach and not relying solely on your programmed understanding of conflict can be a game-changer in handling confrontation properly.

It’s Never Just About The Toothbrush

Example time! Let’s say you’re in a fight about something minor with your partner — chances are, there’s actually something deeper going on. “You think you’re fighting about the toothbrush or the dishwasher, but those issues are rooted in deeper content, like power, love, and needs,” Cook says. “Part of what’s useful when you’re teaching conflict resolution is to look underneath. If we peel the onion back a couple of layers deeper, what will we find? What’s the unmet need in this conflict?”

Chandrama Anderson, a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in Menlo Park, California, adds that it’s important to focus on solving conflict when handling confrontation, not just trying to win the fight. “We’re arguing about something that happened, but what we’re really arguing about is, ‘I’m upset, I’m hurt, I don’t feel seen.’ There’s usually something much more fundamental that’s going on. So we’re arguing about a content issue when there’s actually a process issue.” Understanding the deeper issue, how it connects to your past, and being open about it is the only way to actually reach a resolution.

It’s All About The Right Balance

If you’re wondering why you and your partner aren’t communicating properly, don’t freak out. It doesn’t mean you aren’t a great match! “We exist as individuals with different experiences, we had different childhoods, we have different relationship goals and skills, and we have different needs,” points out Cook, who urges people to ask their partners, Can I still be me with you being you? “All of these things that make us unique and independent individuals, we need to hold onto that without disrupting our connection. And that’s hard,” she admits. Cook identifies two unhealthy coping strategies people struggling with this balance tend to rely on. They either self-betray, ignoring their own needs in order to belong with their partner, or focus entirely on retaining their individuality, in which case, a balanced relationship is almost impossible.

When handling conflict, balance truly is key. “The work is to come back to the center. How do you find a way to do both, to be you with your partner being them?” asks Cook. “Through these differences, we might find connection and trust rather than stress and conflict and disconnection. Conflict in and of itself isn’t the problem. It’s the story we tell about the conflict.” Karen Koenig, a psychotherapist, M.Ed, and Licensed Clinical Social Worker in Sarasota, Florida, agrees: “The goal is not to have no conflict, but to be able to value what the other person has to say, and try to do what’s best for the couple.”

Listen And Be Heard

It can be tempting to want to be the loudest in a fight, but when it comes to properly communicating, it’s about so much more than your words. “Talking to another human, there’s so much information that comes across: your body language, your tone of voice, your eye contact, how the energy feels between us, and then the words,” says Cook. “Then, there’s what we bring to the table in terms of knowledge. ‘What do I already know about you, what do I think I know about you based on the assumptions and the expectations that I have.’ So all of that is this big chaotic mix.” Becoming a good listener is the game-changing practice that can make handling confrontation a breeze. “Therapists have to go to school for a long time to learn how to be good listeners,” shares Cook. “It’s a skill that a lot of us don’t really practice in life.”

The goal of communication, Cook says, is comprehensive understanding. She advises going into all arguments with the following kept top of mind: Can I set aside my own preconceived notions and judgments and assumptions and really listen with an open heart to what this person is telling me? Can I stay present with them at this moment as a listener? In knowing how to ask questions, communicating when there’s a misunderstanding, and being curious about the other person’s perspective, conflicts can be properly and efficiently handled. Cook reads me quote off of the bulletin board in her office: Being heard is so close to being loved that, for the average person, they are almost indistinguishable. “There is something so fundamentally powerful to being heard and understood,” she insists. “So much of our conflict stems from being misunderstood.”

how to fight with your partner

Shutterstock. Art: Cierra Miller

Try To Limit Storytelling and Mind Reading

While communication with others plays a major role in confrontation, letting your imagination run wild can just as quickly create conflict. “Say my boyfriend says he doesn’t want to go out Friday night, he just wants to stay in. And that’s the text that comes through my phone,” Cook gives an example. “I am so likely to misunderstand what he means because I’m going to tell my own story about it. I’m going to decide that means he doesn’t like me, or he doesn’t like my friends, or he’s seeing someone else. And he didn’t say that.”

Raise your hand if you’ve ever experienced this — real talk, my hand is way up in the air. “If I start believing that’s what it means, and I start responding from that story, if I get reactive, we have just miscommunicated,” says Cook. “He tried to give me a message about his energy level, and I responded to a message about his desire for me.” She says humans are natural storytellers, designed to interpret signals and patterns, and it’s extremely easy for us to run away with an interpretation of an interaction that isn’t based on reality.

Wait For The Green Light

Conflict tends to feel the most intense in the heat of the moment, and often, this is actually the worst time to work towards a resolution. “You can’t solve anything if you’re in fight-or-flight mode,” Anderson says. “I talk about this concept of traffic lights. When we are calm and we can talk to each other, we’re a green light. When we start to get triggered, we’re a yellow or orange light. When we get completely triggered and our heart rate goes crazy, 95 beats per minute or above, we’re a red light.” As soon as someone reaches yellow, she says it’s time for the conversation to switch away from the content at hand. When you’ve calmed down and get back to green, the conversation can continue.

“If a person goes all the way to red, we need to take a break,” Anderson insists. “Physiologically we’re triggered, and now the body needs twenty to thirty minutes to calm down. The person needs to take a time out. We only want to be having content conversations when we’re green.” Koenig agrees that being able to walk away from heated moments is an important skill. “Say, ‘We’re too excitable to talk about this now,’ and then agree on a time to come together and be active listeners,” she advises. “Not focusing totally on what you’re going to say, but really trying to understand with curiosity and compassion without judgment what your partner is saying. Create trust, know they’re not going to blindside you in an argument.” When both parties feel comfortable expressing themselves, the conflict turns into a conversation.

It’s Okay To Have A Script

If you don’t know where to begin, Anderson has a go-to script to get the conversation going: When ____ happens, I feel ____. What I need is ____. “You’re using ‘I’ statements. You’re saying how I feel. People can’t argue with you, they can’t say, ‘no, you don’t feel that way,'” she explains. “What we don’t want to do is blame or use ‘you’ statements. You’re just escalating, we’re not teaching anything, we’re not sharing how we feel, we’re not being respectful. We want to ask civilly and explicitly for what we need.” Koenig adds it’s important to lay down ground rules for how you and your partner speak to each other: “No cursing, no bad-mouthing. We’re setting rules and holding each other accountable.”

You’re Allowed To Suck At This

Knowing the right approaches won’t automatically make conflict easy to solve, so as you learn to handle conflict, try not to let feelings of discomfort overwhelm you. “Of course it’s uncomfortable,” Anderson says. “That’s okay. You’re going to survive it, you just have to breathe. It’ll be okay.” Anderson points out that, while conflict is difficult, the alternative of zero communication is far worse. “There’s this idea of shoving things under the rug,” she says. “How big of a pile does it have to get before you’re going to deal with it? Wherever you go, you take yourself with you. And your issues are going to be there with you.” Avoiding feelings of negativity or pain isn’t a winning strategy, so handle conflict head-on and don’t let it get to that point.

It’s okay to struggle with conflict, and it’s even okay to dread it. As you learn to understand your emotions and improve your communication skills, the key is focusing on the end result. The better you are at handling confrontation, the more positive and open your relationships can be. “When conflict is done in a healthy way, from a sense of self, we don’t have to be afraid of it,” says Cook, and it’s this perspective that makes a fight here and there a bit more bearable.