Good Fighting

So, now that you find yourself married, the question that should be on your mind, given the incredibly high failure rate for marriages and relationships, is:

Do we want this relationship to grow?

Hopefully, you have answered in the affirmative and you are ready to commit yourself to doing everything you can to make it happen.

As you are undoubtedly aware (if you have read my earlier articles) and, at the risk of repeating what I consider a key element in developing a strong, growing relationship,

Good fighting is ingredient number 1 for growing a strong marriage.

No matter how much you feel you love each other, there will be times when your differences will create issues between you. Since you will never find your "idealized love image" and you are neither clones nor Siamese twins, you must learn to work out these differences through compromise. The ability to speak your truth to your mate, to hear theirs and to negotiate the differences is what I call "good fighting".

Regardless of whether an issue that troubles you is of minor or major significance, you need to have the inner strength to be totally honest and open with your partner. This honesty forms the foundation of a relationship between equal partners, a truly "We" relationship.

As couples establish their lives together, they will inevitably discover that some issues arise like a flash fire and others smolder. For this reason, I want to divide the discussion of good fighting into two parts: the first being about how to handle the issues that, left unaddressed, smolder under the surface, weakening the marriage's foundation, and leading to a collapse that often seems to come out of nowhere. The second, the flash fire, is usually very obvious and, given attention and acknowledgement, can lead to a strengthening of the relationship.

Working together to keep the relationship strong and to help it grow requires the tools for good fighting. Perhaps we should take a look at how to deal with why issues go underground. Too often, individuals wishing to avoid conflict attempt to conceal their hurts, irritations and discontents. The issues never get dealt with... and never go away. Instead they accumulate and erode the relationship. This avoidance of the topics that are of concern creates distance between the two individuals as they try to convince themselves that, as long as they are not expressing angry feelings, things must be okay. The opposite is true. The unexpressed anger actually creates the very thing the person is trying to avoid... a rift in the relationship.

To avoid this, it is essential to prioritize the marriage and set aside time together so you can deal with issues instead of avoiding them. Your willingness to put other things aside will be a clear demonstration of your commitment to the growth of your relationship.

All too often people become so involved with the demands of their careers, the creation of a home and raising a family that they forget or are too busy to spend "quality time" with each other. They gradually lose what they had when they were dating: interest, curiosity and sexual desire for each other and that very important three letter word "fun". When you make a point of setting aside time to be alone together, you are making sure there is an opportunity to discuss activities, interests and what's going on in each others lives.

Make time to talk when you are not distracted, tired or rushed. "We need to talk!" can be followed by deciding together when that will be. Then, without the distractions of others (kids, cell phones, Blackberries, ball games), you can demonstrate your commitment to the building of your relationship. In order to feel able to accomplish something through these discussions, you need to be clear about your agenda and stick to the issue at hand. By doing this, you avoid some of the pitfalls of poor fighting (to be discussed in a later article) and can stay focused. Staying with the issue isn't always easy so both members of the couple need to take responsibility for recognizing when the discussion is drifting off the topic.

Validation, another essential component in "good fighting", allows you to be sure that you really understand what your partner is saying. All too often, couples don't really "get" what their partner's issue is. Misinterpretations and distortions result in frustration, irritability and, ultimately, anger. To avoid feeling misunderstood, many of the couples who have been my patients have taken my direction to repeat to their partners, in their own words, what they feel is their partner's position. If the other feels heard, then the issue can be discussed and, hopefully, resolved. This style of listening and making sure that you interpret your partner correctly occurs between partners who are determined to show that they are really engaged in the discussion and not just going through the motions.

It is vitally important to appreciate and respect your partner's point of view even if you disagree. Try saying something like, "I hear what you are saying, but I don't agree with you for these reasons." You have every right to disagree, but don't diminish your partner's opinions.

I suggest to both partners that, in presenting a point of view, in order to avoid being seen as opinionated, self-righteous or rigid, they consider using the expressions "I think" or "I feel". Feelings are feelings, neither right nor wrong, and to dismiss feelings as wrong is simply illogical. As you acknowledge the feelings, your partner will feel understood.

Essentially, all fights in the marriage need to be entered into with the goal of creating closeness and reinforcing the foundation of the relationship. Remember, the goal of good fighting is to help make the marriage stronger - not erode it. With that as a given, there can only be one winner ... the "We". This is worth repeating.The only winner in the fight must be the "We".

Throughout these planned discussions there may be ample opportunity for the heat to get turned up... for one or both of the partners to feel that they need to take a break, cool down and try to digest what they have been discussing. To deal with these moments, couples have found that my suggestion that they establish a 24 hour rule can be very helpful. Simply put, if one of the partners feels the need to take a break, they call a TIME OUTand have 24 hours within which they can give the issue more thought and reopen the discussion. It is the responsibility of the person calling the TIME OUT to reintroduce the discussion.

There is another benefit that comes from taking the chance and expressing a wish or desire even though you may anticipate that your partner's opinion will be different from yours. Even simple decision making can challenge some couples when they aren't clear about how they feel about something. As an example, consider the couple who are planning to go to the movies. One wants to see a sci-fi thriller while the other has been looking forward to seeing something light and funny. Frequently, one partner defers to the other without finding out how intensely they feel about their preference. One couple I treated years ago came up with a solution that has helped many of my patients. By using a scale of 1 to 5, they rated their level of interest. If one had a higher number, they would go with that choice. One time, they both assigned 5 to their movie. They went to a local Multiplex where the times coincided. Each went to see the movie they had rated 5, and they got together afterwards. They reported that they had a great time describing their movies as they sat together over dinner.

This rating system can be used for more important issues, too. It gives couples a way of assessing just how important things are not only to themselves but to their partner.

There is a legend about a child, Achilles, whose mother wanted him to be safe from harm. She was told to dip him in the River Styx and that would keep him safe. She did as she was advised, holding him by his heel. As a result, every part that was dipped was protected, but his heel became his one vulnerable spot. We have come to refer to a particularly vulnerable issue as ones "Achilles' heel".

If you didn't know someone had a sunburn and inadvertently touched their sun burnt back and caused them pain, they would say OUCH! You certainly didn't want to cause them pain and truly regret hurting them. Just as you would avoid touching their sunburn again once you know that will hurt them, you must be vigilant about avoiding your partner's OUCH! An OUCH is a sensitive area, perhaps an Achilles heel. Once they have let you know that there is something that hurts them, you have to take it seriously. It doesn't really matter if that would or would not hurt you. It is their OUCH! Once they have "expressed an OUCH!" you need to respect it.

Regardless of how close a couple has become, there may be times when emotions are high and they feel concerned that they won't be able to contain their own anxiety and really listen to each other. Too often, during a verbal discussion, the partner is busy preparing a rebuttal rather than truly listening. Sometimes, they may feel embarrassed or have difficulty organizing their thoughts. In cases like this, many couples have found that writing out their thoughts and presenting them to their partner is very helpful. Now they become more confident that they will be understood and will not be interrupted.

Finally, there is a discussion that few people make the time to enter, but it has the potential to root out small issues before they grow into big problems. I suggest, even for couples who describe their marriages as successful, that they set aside time to discuss "What's missing?" In discussing "What's missing?" they are acknowledging that they want their marriage to continue to grow. They aren't afraid to admit that there is always room for improvement. As a result of this sort of conversation, they may discover that there are activities and new experiences that they can enjoy together. This sharing can lead to feelings of fulfillment and closeness that might not have otherwise occurred.

Good fighting reduces the differences and strengthens and reinforces the positives that two people bring with them into the relationship. As a couple continues to treat their marriage as a work in progress, they discover that they grow both as individuals and as a "We".

copyright 2007 - Dr. Gerard Bomse - All Rights Reserved - duplication and re-publishing prohibited without consent from Dr. Bomse (