Let’s face it conflict is part of all intimate relationships. Parents get angry at kids. Wives get angry at wives. Brothers get angry at sisters. When I hear of a couple or family that “never fights” a red flag gets waved for me. And, I am quite assured that they don’t have true intimacy. When two separate people join together for common life goals, clashes are inevitable. But the presence of conflict alone is not an indicator of a relationship’s health. I prefer to focus instead on the ?nature of how couples and families make repair. How do couples make up after a fight? With apologies, contrition, consoling and even laughter? Or is the aftermath of anger marked by silence, distance and a new rule to never speak about the subject of the fight?
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Learning how to have healthy conflict is crucial to having emotional intimacy. But what exactly is healthy conflict?
Well, for starters, fighting fair means using words that identify your feelings rather than blame and point fingers. Easier said than done. Even though psychotherapists stress that we should focus on our feelings rather than level accusations, even the most educated of us resort to blaming sentences that begin with the word YOU! That alone doesnt indicate a bad fight unless it is also followed by vicious name calling. Name calling is a bad sign. It indicates that one partner has temporarily forgotten the others identity and has substituted it by a skewed stereotype. Its hard to drop those evil caricatures once our minds have created them. If you see him as a loser and tell him over and over, you are also rewiring your brain to believe this is true. One other thing to consider is the amount of voice time alloted each arguer. If the yelling is terribly lop-sided and one partner gets more air time, then something else is going on. Either intimidation by the loud mouth, or an emotional retreat by the other. Both things are not fighting fair.
As injurious as a fight can be, the biggest determinant of whether it is a good fight is the way repair is made afterward. There are many unique ways that couples come back into relationship after a fight. Notes left by the morning coffee pot, flowers at the office, and my favorite ? off-the-charts make-up sex. But the important thing to remember is that love and respect can return.
Dangerous aftermaths include icy treatment for days on end. Little jabs thrown into unrelated conversations. Passive aggressive, retaliatory behavior. And worst of all, a fight that morphs into other fights that get flooded with material from old injuries. Remember the time you..
The best way to learn to have good fights is to establish ground rules before any fighting begins. Men love rules of the game. It reminds them of sports and makes fighting a healthy challenge rather than a confusing battle with a scary, invisible opponent. Some ground rules might include, no name calling, no stonewalling, no fighting in front of the kids, no going to bed mad, and most importantly, scheduled make-up time the next day. It is also important to understand that each person has their own fighting style that must be respected. A man who walks out the door for brisk walk during an argument may not be rejecting you, he may be protecting you from a shift from words to action. Some people need a time-out to regroup and think during a fight. The time to talk about fighting styles, of course, is when you are not fighting.
Studies on couples conflict style show that the two most important ingredients to healthy fighting are empathy and humor. When you are feeling unheard, disrespected, or on the losing end of a power struggle, try as hard as you can to put yourself in your partner’s schools. Imagine you are on the other side of the dynamic battling with the likes of YOU. Best of all, is to find comedy in your tragedy. If you can muster the brain power, step outside your fight and imagine you are a fly on the wall. Reframe your dialogue as a script from a Saturday Night Live skit or a prime-time sit-com. Now look how silly you sound!
The most important ingredient during an conflict is the knowledge that love can return and that spirited negotiation is all part of building intimacy. When I once commented to my favorite bickering couple that I notice that there is love behind their arguments, the husband winked at me and said, “Not love. Sport.” Even in conflict there can be a bond and a secret agreement to respect each other.
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