Why fighting with your significant other is actually great
"We hardly ever fight," I used to say proudly, feeling sorry for all the couples who do. What I should have said was, "We hardly ever fight because he's a master avoider and I'm an expert feelings swallower." But I didn't know that at the time, and I also didn't know that all that resistance to conflict was going to bite me in the ass one day, hard. For two people with different upbringings, priorities, ideas about marriage, and habits, it is quite unlikely that my husband and I would have just magically blended together into a perfect, harmonious existence without disagreement or conscious compromising. But my beliefs about conflict were that it should be avoided at all costs. I was afraid of what conflict meant and the pain it inflicted. Better to just move on. Andrew also had similar beliefs.
If my feelings were ever hurt and or I was angry, I wouldn't address it directly. I'd maybe stomp around the house or do dishes extra loudly though. If Andrew was upset, he would go into his cave and not come out until he no longer felt the need to talk about it.
But, when everything fell apart (as I talked about in a previous blog post and in the first episode of my WTF am I doing with my life podcast) and we were facing the possibility of divorce, there was no reason to be scared of conflict. It was like, "F*** it, what've I got to lose?"
As we fought for our marriage, there was nothing we weren't willing to address - sex, money, jobs, anger, jealousy.
Wanting to handle it all responsibly, we hired a relationship coach, Aaron F. Steinberg. At first, I was afraid of talking to someone about "my problems" but from the beginning, it was more like talking to a friend... a really f***ing wise friend. What we learned was that words left unsaid and the points of conflict left unattended to, created space between us. We were essentially hiding and lying about who we really were and what we thought. From that place grew resentment.
On this podcast, I interview Aaron about conflict. This is what he says about it:
"It's an opportunity to see the places where you're not aligned and learn how to be better partners. And support each other in the things that you would need to work out for yourself regardless of who the other person was standing across from you."
We experienced this first hand when we tackled a particular point of conflict that came up a lot. Here's the scenario: I would do something really clumsy and stupid like bang the door of our new car on a pole, spill something on my expensive computer, or drop and shatter my iPhone. This happened kind of a lot. He'd get pissed. I'd get defensive.
"You have to be careful! You just don't care enough!" he'd say.
"Whatever, I didn't mean to! I'll pay for it, it's fine!" I'd retort with my arms crossed.
"WE pay for it. We're married!"
After a short spurt of communicated displeasure, we'd go off into our own corners, stewing about how each other was wrong. We'd spend that time disconnected, and then try to move on. This may not seem like a big deal, but really, how big of a deal are most things we fight about with people? Especially married couples. Because we never resolved the issue or got to the root of the problem, we kept having that same argument.
So, how did we solve it?
First, we had to recognize that we all have our own triggers, or things that set us off into an emotional reaction. Then, we had to take responsibility for them, meaning we understood that the things that drives us crazy about the other person, may not even phase someone else. For example, when I do clumsy stuff around Andrew's brother Johnnie, he just empathizes the hassle I will have to go through to fix whatever I broke. When Andrew tells his brother to be careful with his shit, Johnnie just agrees whole heartedly and moves on. But if Andrew tells me that I'm irresponsible with my belongings, I LOSE MY MIND!!! Are you kidding? I'm SOOoooooo responsible!!
Are you taking mental notes of your triggers right now? What sets you off may not necessarily make other people mad.
Most coaches and facilitators agree that our defenses and triggers are pretty well engrained in us by the time we are seven years old. By then, we have made up beliefs about how the world works and how we should react in to situations in order to best survive and avoid pain.
First my thing - I realized that I am incredibly sensitive to criticism. Growing up with a tiger mom, nothing was ever good enough. I got great grades, was nice to my teachers, and crushed at sports, but as soon as I would mess up at something, she was on me like white on rice (I love rice... I am Asian).
As a kid, that would make me furious. "What about all this other stuff I'm doing MOM???? JEEEEEZZZZZ. Lay off!!!" I'd scream. I spent many nights, frustrated, lying in bed, unable to sleep because I was thinking about how to be better so I would never have to hear her criticize me again. That's why I got so mad at Andrew for being angry with me for messing up. WHAT ABOUT HOW GOOD OF A WIFE I AM?? JEEZZZZ.
Then Andrew's thing- He grew up incredibly poor but because his mom drove the bus to one of the nicest schools in town, he got to attend for free. That made the difference in income quite stark, and he got made fun of a lot for his hand-me-down clothes and off-brand sneakers. He remembers being so envious of his friends in nice houses and new gear. So for him, seeing me behave so carelessly with nice, expensive things we bought, was a trigger for him.
I know, that's some deep shit huh?
Learning about where his trigger came from gave me a deep sense of empathy for him, and he as well for me. Now, we are patient with each other in these areas. We hold space for it. If I'm freaking out because I think he's criticizing me, he doesn't take it personally. He sets boundaries as far as how I treat him, but he knows it's not about him. I do the same.
This has allowed us to really look at and heal these wounds from when we were children. That fear of being a misunderstood poor kid doesn't grip Andrew anymore. And my fear of never being enough doesn't control me. Sure, they both come up for us still, but we don't just knee-jerk react to those triggers anymore.
And like Aaron said, this is something I would have had to deal with, regardless of who I was married to. If it wasn't him, I would still be sensitive to criticism and accusatory towards the person I was with because it's my trigger.
What we learned was that just because we disagree sometimes, it doesn't mean that we don't have each other's back. That's what marriage is! It's a team. So that need to "be right" or "win" an argument is just silly, because if he's not winning, I'm not winning. That's how teams work.
Of course, it's not always rainbows and unicorns once you agree to be on the same team, as Aaron says:
"There are going to be times where you totally break this commitment to be on the same team because you're going to be emotionally triggered or emotional charged or however you want to say it, but you have to keep coming back to that. You have to, otherwise the relationship is not going to work. Adversarial relationships just have an expiration date. They are just never going to work."
Now, it actually is true that Andrew and I hardly ever fight. But it's because when we do have a disagreement, we handle it. We tell each other the truth, no matter how hard or how awkward it is. We are patient with each other and we're forgiving. And if all else fails, one of us just says, "Hey! We're on the same team! Let's get over it!"
Listen to my full interview with Aaron below:
Aaron F. Steinberg, MA, CPCC, is a relationship coach from Oakland, CA. Over the past six years, he has helped hundreds of people learn to feel truly free and fulfilled in romantic relationships. In addition to being a certified sex educator and completing a 195 hour transformational leadership training, Aaron earned his MA in Integral Psychology from John F. Kennedy University and his CPCC coaching certification from The Coaches Training Institute. He is the creator of The Honesty Practice, which is a practical approach to conflict transformation and eradicating self doubt, and is the host of the upcoming podcast Love School. Find out more about Aaron on his website, aaronfs.com