Updated: Oct 18, 2022
It’s true that all couples fight, but not all couples know how to do it well. When couples don’t have the skills to fight well, the fights can be explosive, painful, and damaging to the relationship. Things that are said can’t be unsaid, and wounds that are created during a bad fight add an additional layer of pain to whatever caused the fight in the first place.
In addition, couples end up avoiding difficult conversations, because they fear they will turn into a fight, and things will get worse. A sense of safety is missing from the relationship. This is a recipe for distance, resentment, and disconnection between partners.
However, couples can learn to fight skillfully. This means they don’t cause more damage to the relationship during a fight, they stay connected, fights don’t become explosive, and they feel heard even if they disagree with each other. With the necessary skills, a sense of safety and trust builds, which allows partners to bring things up and work things out.
A sense of safety in a relationship invites difficult conversations because there is trust that they can go well. The following are a few key ingredients that you can practice and adhere to, which will promote more safety and trust in your relationship:
1. Always treat your partner with respect. This means no name-calling, no low-blows, and no digs. You can be angry and still speak with respect. If you can do this to a stranger who makes you mad, you can do it for the person you love. You should also expect respect from your partner.
2. Learn to self-soothe. It’s important to use breathing techniques during a difficult conversation to remain calm enough that you can be open to what your partner has to say. These techniques will keep you from going into survival mode. Survival mode includes fighting, fleeing, shutting down, etc., which are not productive in hard conversations with your partner. In survival mode, you can’t hear and process what your partner is saying.
3. Use simple language. Instead of overwhelming your partner with a mile’s worth of words, take a moment to gather your main point, and share that. Your partner is much more likely to hear what you want them to if you speak using simple language.
4. Stay away from blame. Start sentences with how you feel, instead of telling your partner what they did. This way, you take ownership of the feeling, and you’re inviting your partner into your emotional space. When you tell your partner about their behavior or who they are, you’re moving into their emotional space, inviting them to be defensive or shut down.
5. Take breaks. When you notice you’re no longer able to hear and speak from an emotionally intelligent place, take a break. There’s no need to resolve conflict immediately. Some conversations take a long time to be resolved, and that is OK.
6. Be OK with being different. Sometimes couples fight because they feel threatened when their partner has a different experience, memory, or viewpoint. Practice being OK with your partner thinking what they think, and you having a totally different idea. There is room for both of you.
7. Validate. Often the most important thing in a difficult conversation is to feel validated and give validation. You don’t have to agree with your partner’s experience; you only have to care about it and show that care. Arguing about it won’t change it.
It takes time to develop these skills, but with practice, you will find that your fights are less explosive and take less time to recover from. I recommend choosing one of these skills and practicing it during your next difficult conversation. Invite your partner to choose a skill as well. When you both participate differently, you will have a different and positive result.