The Fightin' Side of Love

Print

I might do far better

if you reach out to help me

and far, far worse

if you abuse, taunt, or ignore me.



- Nel Noddings


s a psychologist, it sets my teeth on edge when I hear any variation on this statement: "You can tell they have a great marriage because they never fight." I would say that fighting is to relationship as blood is to surgery. It is not your goal when you are in a serious relationship to fight nor is it your physician’s goal during surgery to cause bleeding. But both effective relating and successful cutting are impossible without some painful and messy side effects.

I imagine you’re thinking, “But don’t some people just get along really well?” Yes. When a couple is made up of two extremely even-tempered folks, their fights won’t look much like fights from the outside. But they are. She may just arch her eyebrows or he may simply tighten his lips, but each is aware that a dispute has arisen and positions are being communicated

Every couple fights. Healthy couples fight to grow. Unhealthy couples fight to win.

Let me say here that the adage "All's fair in love and war." also sets my teeth on edge. Although we can't avoid fighting, humans are quite capable of doing so with courtesy, minimal emotional bloodshed and consistently positive outcomes.

Why we fight

People fight because every relationship has conflicts and no one can navigate through conflict without ruffling a few feathers. If we start with a feminist, existential definition of love

Love is an act of will to reliably extend oneself toward a significant other in order to create intimacy across difference for the purpose of providing comfort and challenge, and also for facilitating the allocation of resources.

we realize that there are several sources of contention embedded in that definition. First, we are creating intimacy across difference(s) between individuals, and there will be significant ways the two members of a relationship differ. Like sand-sculpted rock formations, each person in a dyad comes from hundreds of years of familial and cultural shaping that creates the unique form he or she incarnates. This is good because difference is good. Partners with varied experiences, strengths and attitudes will bring the power of diversity to the relationship. But difference will also create areas of struggle as both partners work to tolerate the tension that divergent points of view precipitate.

Next, it’s clear that one of the jobs of love is to provide comfort, yet conditions within the couple may not always be conducive to providing care. If we constantly require comfort ourselves, for example, our willingness to sustain the needs of our partner will suffer. We also know that the ability to provide comfort is affected by each person’s historical experience of being cared for, so if our background was lean in commitment from others to provide us with refuge, we may be limited in our ability to comfort our partner. (As every article on this website echoes, people who have been wounded by stingy upbringings need to maintain steady focus on learning and implementing healthy relationship skills in order to break this bleak family legacy.) In addition, sometimes both individuals have life hangovers at the same time and need comfort simultaneously, which can be tricky. And, because our definition of comfort changes as our life circumstances change, those who care for us have to adjust accordingly. This can also be tricky. These are normal dilemmas that pop up randomly throughout the lifetime of all relationships.

It may be novel for you to think of challenge as an appropriate aspect of love, but I believe that it is not just appropriate, it is precious. When we are yoked to another by way of a long-term relationship or a profoundly deep relationship, that person will serve as a witness to our ongoing level of integrity. If we are proceeding fairly smoothly toward who we are hoping to become, our witnesses serve as our cheerleaders. They can stipulate to our successes. When we stumble, however, our slips are observed by those close to us. If our intimates are well and truly on our side, they will honor us with any necessary feedback that can help us recommit to becoming a better version of ourselves. But, even if they are reticent about asserting themselves generously in service of our personal growth, the mere fact that they are watching can motivate us to regain our forward momentum. But, no matter how wisely we value the feedback of others who are close to us, we all struggle to accept criticism with grace. Plus, many folks are less than skilled in terms of providing us with performance reviews, meaning their feedback can come to us in a sloppy and hurtful form. All this is to say that the challenge part of love can present a challenge!

Finally, allocation of resources always creates potential for conflict. From who holds the remote to retirement funding, there are infinite ways that we can divvy up control over how things are to be done. Even in relationships with a natural leader and a willing follower, management needs to be shared. Writers with far more experience than I have explored the topography of effective management practices. Suffice it to say here, couples who stay together spend their lifetimes struggling over how to share control.

So you can see how the seeds of conflict are inherent in the definition of love. If we realize that a fight is the process of resolving conflict and we believe that no healthy relationship is without conflict, then we can understand that every partnership is going to require fighting skills.

Reasons to fight

When you feel your temper start to rise but before you frown or open your mouth, it makes sense to look inward to explore both what has gotten you activated and also why you are aiming your ire at this particular target. Let’s run down some of the reasons that couples fight.

Poor reasons:

The proximity of a straw man. I call this reason: I’m mad at somebody in this room. When we’re angry at something – perhaps ourselves, perhaps a rude neighbor – but the only person in sight is our spouse, it can be easy to watch for him or her to commit a transgression that will allow us to pounce. Heck. We really don’t even need them to transgress…just sitting there they remind us of an imperfection that requires our bringing it to their attention. Right this minute.

To test your mettle. Some people actually enjoy fighting. They are skilled in the verbal gymnastics of conflict and are thrilled by the adrenalin dump of battle. But moot-courting a relationship is dangerous. If you really, really like to fight, go to law school, write letters to the editor or join a debate team. Don’t expect the people around you to necessarily be willing sparring partners.

To get attention. Fights precipitated by the need to feel attached are sadly self-perpetuating. When wrangling becomes the currency of relating, positive attention wanes, meaning that fights are the primary way to feel “close” to each other. That leaves the partners with only this: Ignore me, will ya?

Boredom. Let me focus my nit picking on you for entertainment. Does this sound like a good idea?

Fear. Are you about to leave me or learn the truth about me (and then leave me)? Let’s fight instead because, so far in the relationship, the drama usually makes us feel closer. Or when we fight you hurt my feelings, I cry and then you can’t leave me.

Distraction. Pay no attention to that blunder I just made. Focus instead on this argument I’ve just pulled out of my hat.

Habit. If it’s Tuesday it must be Fight-Over-The-Garbage Day. Or, every time you disappoint me by doing “X”, I get to pick a fight with you over “Y.”

 

That's Not What I Meant

- Deborah Tannen

How Good Do We Have to Be?

- Harold S. Kushner

The Dance of Deception

- Harriet G. Lerner

 

Good reasons:

Boundary violations. Every couple has to determine for itself where one person’s freedom stops and the other person’s begins. Do you have unfettered access to my e-mail, my body, my thoughts? There are no correct answers to these questions – just the need to hammer out the details between these two particular people. Once established, a violation of a boundary that is not willingly corrected can be an appropriate reason to initiate an argument.

Quality of life issues. Fighting is one way to establish the values that run our home life, for every couple has to resolve the toilet-seat-up-or-down type issues. You are entitled to defend those places where your sensibilities get activated. The failure to establish “house rules” can corrode a relationship pretty easily since it can leave both partners uncomfortable in their own home.

Confusion. When the chaos in a relationship gets too troublesome for one of the partners, he or she might understandably feel antagonistic. Some fights appear vague because one of the two members is pushing for clarity of the relationship itself.

Unmet needs. Many a promise gets made during courtship. And these promises get spun up by expectations we develop watching TV rom-coms and listening to the lyrics of songs. Then, when real life happens and not all the promises are met, we get angered by what we think are contract violations. It is helpful to bring these unmet needs to light so they can be discussed. And, of course, sometimes there are actual violations of prior agreements that absolutely ought to be addressed.

Depth of feelings. Humans are remarkably in sync when it comes to putting things on a scale of one to ten. But they are not often in sync when it comes to knowing which issues are in need of scaling. When something matters to you much more than it matters to your significant other, it often takes a fight or two or three to clarify the depth of feeling you have on an issue.

Goals for fights

Just as there are poor reasons and good reasons to fight, there are also poor and good goals for the fight itself. I very much doubt that many people stop before a fight to ask themselves: what is my goal here? It might be wise to do so.

Poor goals:

Intimidation. If one of the partners is organized around having more control in the relationship, he or she will need to keep the other person reluctant to challenge his or her dominance. This is usually accomplished by being a bit of a bully (or sometimes a very bad bully). Fights become peppered with emotional manipulation designed to gaslight the “weaker” partner into believing that the dominant partner is justified in maintaining the leadership role.

Punishment. Similar to intimidation, a punishing style of fighting is also manipulative. The person manipulating is seeking to indirectly teach his or her partner to behave in a certain way. If he picks a fight whenever she works late, he is trying obliquely to get her to prioritize him over work. The ubiquitous cold war style of fighting is usually directed at the punishment goal.

Winning. It may seem odd to people used to Western thinking, but winning is most often a poor goal in relationship bouts. If you are fighting only to win, then your poor partner is set up to lose. A zero sum game fails to meet the definition of love. Having said that, however, see self-loyalty under Good Goals below.

Pre-empting. People who want to prevent a difficult interaction from happening (e.g. a discussion about marriage, a project of scary proportions or a dinner with the in-laws) may precipitate a fight. Or they may work to win an unrelated argument and then demand as their reward an agreement to shelve that difficult interaction. For example, I’m going to make you agree not to invite your mother for a visit because I can prove you were wrong to overdraw the checking account.

Good goals:

Find common ground. Most of the time we manage to establish the covenants, conditions and restrictions in a relationship without fighting. We calmly recognize that rules need to be set and we discuss amongst ourselves until we agree about how to run things. But sometimes we almost need to fight in order to push ourselves to clarify our deeper thoughts and feelings about an issue or, as I mentioned above, to demonstrate the depth of our sensibilities to our partner. (See Finding Common Ground in the Tip section below.)

Clear up misunderstandings. It is very easy to get sloppy in a long-term relationship and this is especially true for communication. We build up an expectation that the other person should understand us so well that verbal shortcuts become de rigueur. When our significant other misses the boat on one of our cryptic messages, feelings will get hurt and a fight may get started. That’s okay. It’s better to bring the feelings to light and possibly soothe them than to let them remain hidden where emotional mold and fungus grow.

Establish self-loyalty. There will be times in a relationship when you will be asked to choose between loyalty to yourself and loyalty to the other. When this type of moral dilemma arises, we sometimes need the protection of anger to help us establish where our values lie and to subsequently protect those values. If we rigorously avoid fighting, we risk a go-along-to-get-along abdication of self-loyalty, which means we are bringing an extremely truncated version of ourselves to the relationship. No one flourishes in this situation.

Fighting styles

Fighting well is like dancing well. The prowess of the couple depends on the skill of both members. A common obstacle that hampers effective argument choreography is the mismanagement of fighting styles.

All of us enter adulthood with a preferred fighting style. Nothing wrong with that. It’s good to have a consistent technique for most life skills including arguing. If we are not careful, however, our style will become heavy-handed to the point of being ineffective. You’ll probably recognize some of these examples of entrenched fighting styles: Lawyer (aggressively lays out his argument), therapist (wants to shift focus to how everyone is feeling), schoolmarm (talks to you like you’re a first grader), bloviator (just talks and talks and talks), boxer (wants to go the full ten rounds), scientist (only “allows” for observable facts to enter the discussion), mime (won’t talk), philosopher (argues about how you are arguing), gossip columnist (brings up all your past embarrassments), journalist (ruthlessly digs for the facts), clown (refuses to take anything seriously), football coach (thinks humiliation is motivating), parent (see schoolmarm) and so on.

Lampoonery aside, it is easy to see how off-putting it can be to encounter one of these fighting-style caricatures coming at you from someone you love. It behooves us, therefore, to identify our favorite fighting method in order to learn how to engage more skillfully in it. To return to our surgical metaphor, once we identify our inclinations when fighting, we can practice maintaining a light touch on the scalpel. That deftness will allow us to routinely access the positive aspects of fighting styles, as in: Lawyer (careful to stick to the facts), therapist (alert to the emotional tone and intensity of the discussion), schoolmarm (able to explain things in simple terms), bloviator (okay, this is just a bad style), boxer (capable of hanging in there until the issue is resolved), scientist (willing to be swayed by facts), mime (avoid this), philosopher (passionate about finding the truth), gossip columnist (no good spin here), journalist (able to identify the evolution of problems), clown (able to lighten the tension), football coach (looks for patterns that may be problematic), parent (patient) and so on.

The trick to staying on the effective side of a fighting style is, of course, to remember that the goal of good fighting is not winning. It is bilateral insight. When you sincerely focus your energy on getting your partner to truly understand your position, your odds of a clean fight go way, way up.

In addition to gaining skill with our preferred style, once we are aware of different fighting styles we are better able to add new techniques to our sparring repertoire, giving us more flexibility when we argue. This is a good thing. It can be helpful, for example, to be able to join our partner in a particular style for a particular issue. If we are struggling to come to an agreement about how much freedom to give our teenage son, we can approach it first from an emotional need to protect (therapist style) and then perhaps from the risk-taker’s need to expand (coach style).

It is also true that not all of us react well to all fighting styles. A wise couple will habitually debrief after arguments to determine what did and did not work, and why. If each person is willing to explore how defense mechanisms were triggered during a quarrel, fighting styles can be adjusted accordingly. If she always shuts down when he starts to lecture, maybe he can agree to forego the professorial style of fighting. Otherwise she’s stuck in a rope-a-dope reaction to his need to verbally dominate every fight.

How odd, yet how wonderful it would be to think the following way when starting an argument: Is my fighting style in good form? Would another style suit me better in this instance? Am I prepared to take on the fighting style of my partner if need be? Can I ask her/him to take on mine?

It’s always interesting to discover our fighting style and that of our significant other (or friends or children). If each member of the dyad can cop to their style, the couple can then spend some fruitful, humorous and intimacy-building time looking at how the two styles interact. In my marriage there is literally a therapist (me) and a scientist (him). Over the years I have incorporated a data-driven, observational style to balance out my shrink tendencies and my husband has come to appreciate the role of feelings in resolving disagreements. Vive la différence!

Note: Anger, often but not always the fuel of conflict, is a noun. What I mean by that is that anger as a concept is a neutral one. Without an adjective to modify it, we don’t know whether our wrath lies on the healthy end of the continuum (righteous, careful, modulated) or the destructive end (brutal, violent, uncaring). Often anger can help us disclose important concerns that we have been previously too timid to broach. So, please don’t indict the construct of anger out of hand, but learn, instead, how to modify it wisely when you use it.

Tips

This section probably ought to be called the No Duh section because most of us have a sense of how to fight cleanly. However, it’s always helpful to review effective mental health strategies.

Preparing to fight

o Put your anger into context. Your ire is up and you’re jonesing for a fight. It is very, very helpful at this point to take a moment to think about your anger because the part of your brain that signals anger isn’t very sophisticated. It’s rather like the Hulk in that it can only say “Brain. Mad!” It’s up to your executive functioning capacity to parse your ire so that you can determine the degree to which you’re angry with this particular person. If only forty percent of your anger is about the relationship, try to put the remaining sixty percent (directed at that rude neighbor, your local internet provider and Fate) aside for the moment. In other words, don’t bring your entire temper to the fight. In my experience, this is surprisingly hard to learn and it requires much practice.

o Put your relationship into context. It makes sense to next check the state of your relationship. Can it handle a fight right now? How much external pressure are you two experiencing today? Does it make sense to table this certain issue at this exact time? If your relationship can handle a fight, carry on. If not, try to distract yourself in healthy ways until your anger cools. (If you are in the habit of churching a relationship, it can be very straightforward to postpone an argument until the next scheduled meeting.)

o Think about the fighting styles of the two combatants. As described above, ask yourself: Is my fighting style in good form? Would another style suit me better in this instance? Am I prepared to take on the fighting style of my partner?

o iHALT. As is always the case in life, don’t attempt important tasks when you are too intoxicated, hungry, angry, lonely, or tired.

o Warn your partner. The element of surprise is effective in warfare, but let’s hope that your conflict doesn’t warrant all out aggression. If you can express your need for an argument to your significant other, you have already demonstrated a caring strategy by giving him a heads up so he can prepare.

o Schedule if necessary. In addition to the iHALT acronym that may suggest poor timing for you, your partner may need time to think things through or clear her schedule. If the result you seek is one of the good goals, you up your odds of reaching that goal if both members are ready to bring their A game.

Fighting cleanly

o Fight with care. This is a dur-da-dur truth that is so very hard to remember. When activated, the human mammal can be very aggressive, so it helps to have rules to follow that will keep things civilized. A wise couple will pre-design the art of war to provide for a level field, clear retreat options and safety words.

o What doesn’t matter: volume, vocabulary, frequency, or duration. Each couple is free to design their rules of combat that can range from a full-on hollering bout that can last for hours to regal discussions that are brief, dignified and to the point.

o Tone-of-voice foul. While volume and vocabulary do not matter, tone of voice does. Drippy, nasty sarcasm or snarky patronization are clearly rapprochement buzzkills. And when your words and your tone don’t match up, your opponent will always, rightly, believe your tone.

o Stay in your weight class. People vary quite a bit in their ability to fight. As a couple, you will need to determine the capacity of each person to handle truth and to speak truth. The person with the lower threshold for coping with anger needs to be the one who sets the pace, the need for breaks, the level of brutal truth and so on.

o Be careful if you practice fighting in your head. It is almost comical when we blindside our partner by bringing her into an argument we have been having with her in our minds for days. Rehearsing an argument is okay if you practice only your side of the discussion. Otherwise, by putting words into her mouth as you play out an acrimonious wrangle in your mind, you spin yourself up to too great a height, ready to pounce on the unsuspecting partner.

o Cold wars take SOOOOO much energy. You have to bottle up all that anger, stop communicating and stomp around the house acting like the other person doesn’t exist. While enduring the drain of a cold war can be a strong indicator of how important an issue is, make sure it’s worth it. I have to say, I’m glad to be in an old relationship that rarely needs this strategy.

o WAIT. This acronym stands for Why Am I Talking? Get in the habit of saying “WAIT” to yourself frequently when you are arguing with someone to double check your effectiveness. Should you be talking? Listening? Thinking?

o OHIO. As long as we’re on cute acronyms, this one stands for Only Handle It Once. In this context this bit of wisdom suggests that, once you have resolved an issue to the satisfaction of both members, leave it resolved. Tempting as it may be to do summer reruns of good old fights – absent new information, rehashing old arguments just keeps the relationship stuck at its present level of functioning. Like video games, a relationship stays alluring to both “players” when it is moving to higher levels with greater challenges and more potent successes.

o Don’t flip the kill switch. Words like “never”, “always” and the accusatory “you” are dangerous, dangerous words. They can send a fair fight into lethal territory in a heartbeat. When you bludgeon your partner with any combination of these words, he or she will feel cornered by the ultimatum implied. Cornered people will either escalate or give up, and neither choice advances the couple toward healthy resolution of a disagreement.

o Thou Shalt Not. I don’t really have to say anything about interrupting, kitchen-sink fighting, name calling, character assassination, lying, bullying, threats of violence, or physical violence do I?

o Please remember that the goal of good fighting is not winning. It is bilateral insight. If you can remember this, you will set your sights on acquiring better data rather than scoring points. Better data will deepen your understanding of each other and of how to design the next bit of time in the relationship. The calculation here needs to be between the glee of winning versus the satisfaction of relational health.

o Don’t make threats. Too many times I’ve witnessed one person in a couple who believes that threatening divorce will somehow scare their partner into retreating from their position in a particular disagreement. But here’s the fallacy inherent in that strategy – even when it works (which it rarely does), the net effect is a weaker relationship even more prone to fights. Trust has been eroded, bluffs have been called and feelings have been hurt. This is no way to run a marriage.

One topic at a time

o This tip is so important it has its own article. In a nutshell here, if you are arguing over two separate issues, there is no way you will be able to reach an accord. And, truly, the vast majority of the time people are arguing over different things. If you haven’t read Communication: One Subject At a Time, please do so ASAP.

Process versus content

o Skilled fighters are always working on two levels – one of process and one on content. Content, the more commonly understood aspect of communication, is the topic under discussion. Examples of content would be: rude behavior (my feelings were hurt by what you said), relationship skills (I don’t feel appreciated for my efforts today), or spending money (I want to buy a new car now). Process is the manner in which the argument unfolds. One way to identify the process of an argument is to consider what adverbs you would use to describe the way you are each fighting. Are you fighting cleanly, rudely, cruelly, cleverly, intellectually, emotionally, effectively, chaotically or what? Once you can describe the flavor of the fight, try to figure out why it is unfolding in this manner. What kind of impact are you each having on one another and how are you each reacting? Are the participants feeling defensive, demoralized, hostile, bewildered, unsupported and so on? Arguments can only be resolved if the content and process are closely aligned between the partners. If she is screaming about the overdue bills and he is coldly listing her tendency to exaggerate, the couple won’t get too far. Review the fighting styles described above (process) and the one-topic-at-a-time technique (content) if you want to further understand the distinction between these two fighting constructs. (Helping couples expose the process, what is happening underneath the argument, is one of the most powerful interventions therapists offer. If you feel stuck as a couple and believe there is a destructive process going on below the surface of your fights that you are unable to identify, consider finding a good couples therapist.)

De-escalating a fight

o Switch to process. Most often when the argument is getting heated, a shift to talking about what’s going on right at that moment between the two of you will calm things down. When a couple can stop and talk about the fight as if they were a couple of social anthropologists looking at the argument from the outside, they open up the possibility of cooperation as they work together to untangle how the wheels came off the argument bus.

o Switch fighting styles. When an argument seems stuck, look at how you are fighting. Most of us can use several different styles, so switching to another might ease the tension. Also, watch for unhelpful fighting habits. For instance, if you find yourself caught up in teenagery and you realize that your sarcasm is just pouring gasoline, you can force quit that style and engage another style that will probably be much more effective.

o Re-engage “I” statements. These things are as corny as Kansas in August, but, boy, do they work well. Plug your thoughts into this tried and true template: I feel ____________ when you ___________ because _______. Next time could you please ____________________________ (or It would be helpful to me if you could _____________________.) If the idea of “I" statements is a new concept to you, toddle over to Google and check it out.

o Try lowering your defenses. You can signal your willingness to lower your defenses by stating which parts of your partner’s argument you agree with or what parts of your argument you can let go. As in, “You’re right that I often over-react, so I can see how you think that’s going on now.” Or, “Now that I reflect on it, maybe I’ve been too ready to blame you for our money problems.” Additionally, if you can stop the fight, cop to your defensiveness and discuss that fact a bit with your partner, you can often find a real calm spot in the center of the storm. It is extremely endearing to an "opponent" to hear someone talk about how they are getting activated and what form their self-protectiveness is taking. Generally, of course, people who can spot how and why they are getting defensive are also quite well-differentiated and skilled at interpersonal communication meaning they handle fighting well.

o Back up and clarify your message. Oftentimes during an argument our positions come out in bits and pieces, and maybe even in incompatible utterances. So if the fight seems to be escalating, it makes sense for both of you to stop for a moment, rethink your position and restate it for each other. It is extremely powerful if you each agree to simultaneously reset your perspective to accept the new, clarified position and to kindly let go of all the spoken garbage it may have taken to get to the current understanding. This second part is hard to do. It is much more fun to weaponize our partner’s verbal missteps to use to re-escalate things. Please resist. Resistance is not futile.

o Back up and clarify your partner’s message. It is very disarming when someone takes the time and makes the effort to think through what you are trying to convey and summarizes it for you. Try it. It works. But be sure to exorcize all sarcasm from both your tone and your vocabulary.

o Simply request de-escalation. This often works like a charm. Say something like, “I don’t want to keep cranking at this level. Can we agree to take it down a notch or two? Please?”

o Apologize for any missteps you’ve made during the fight. A true apology is beyond disarming. It is almost magic. But please be sure you know how to express an apology completely and that your apologetic feelings are sincere.

o Use humor. Most often if you can wax humorous during a fight, things lighten up. Just be alert to the urge to use “humor” that is really a condescension, a distraction or a put-down.

Finding common ground

o Every topic about which one can disagree is built on layers of values. For example, who-does-what-chore discussions are built on beliefs about fairness, cleanliness, skill building, frugality and so on. A very elegant way to resolve an issue is to excavate each person’s values under their stated position until common ground is reached and then work your way back up to reach an agreement about the issue at hand. This solidarity is often reached sooner than people expect, which helps them realize that the distance between their positions isn’t all that great. The easiest way to reach common ground is to take turns exploring each side of the argument. Strategies for doing this effectively are discussed here. (If there are old, well-rehearsed fights that seem to be holding the relationship hostage, a few sessions of couples counseling might be in order. As stated above, a skilled therapist can guide a couple through both the content of the issue and the process that has stalled to allow for movement toward deeper understanding.)

o One point of common ground that the couple is wise to remember concerns the act of fighting per se. In other words, if you each enter a fight trusting that your partner will fight well, you already have some things in common – a good fighting attitude and well-developed skill set for arguing.

o The best predictor of longevity in a relationship is when each member will take influence from the other. Per the epigram, each person must see the willingness to be influenced as admirable and must seek to embody it for their own self-respect (or, at least, be willing to fake it until that is true for them). When this bilateral willingness is present, it will represent yet another strong instance of common ground.

If you aren’t good at fighting:

Fighting for yourself is hard to do when you are committed to fighting with yourself. In the latter case, our internal battle is typically dominated by shame and self-doubt. The psychological skills needed to stop fighting with yourself are the elimination of shame, wise self-parenting, and developing healthy self-talk.

The psychological skills needed to get good at fighting for yourself are self-esteem and differentiation. Self-esteem, having confidence in yourself based on an honest assessment of your potency, has it’s own article here. And differentiation, the ability to stay in control of your thinking while engaged in an emotional situation, has its own article here.

As you can see, there are many psychological skills that support our ability to fight well. I guarantee that there is not one person on this planet who has all these skills dialed in. So, if you need to regularly revisit all these concepts to strengthen them in you, join the club!

If you’re afraid to fight:

There is no doubt about it, fighting is a dangerous business. When we fight, we are standing at the border of our ego, defending something that matters to us. If we don’t prevail, we will lose some important territory. When we argue, we are also at risk of making a mistake. We can say something ridiculously stupid or cruel. We can say things we don’t mean that are hard to take back. We can blurt out something we had meant to keep private. (And once you’ve given away a truth about yourself, you can never regain the ability to manage your privacy otherwise.) We can get too caught up in the competitive nature of a fight and take things too far – all the way up to ending the relationship.

It isn’t always pleasant to win, either. Even if we don’t intend the fight to be a zero sum game, sometimes that happens and we inadvertently win. When we do so, we are kind of instrumental in making our significant other feel smaller and possibly resentful or weak. None of that feels good to us.

All these dangers are real. But it is also dangerous to never fight. Fighting, like surgery, can save a life – in this case the life of your relationship. Wouldn’t it be nice to get to the point in a relationship where wry smiling was all you needed to both initiate and resolve a conflict? But you cannot reach an On-Golden-Pond level of intimacy without decades of work, some of which will require fighting.

In summary

The existential need to fight is created by the fact that two unique humans are each designing their lives real time while simultaneously trying to share limited resources with a significant other. No one always manages well within this chaos if they are truly trying to create a potent version of themselves. Humans who want to be in a relationship with a significant other, sibling, child or friend will have to tolerate the truth that fighting is actually one important way of putting effort and courage into making the relationship better.

Just remember that, even though you may be fighting, you needn’t relinquish your caring connection to your opponent. An attitude of self-loyalty tempered with receptivity, curiosity and responsiveness will keep you connected to the best of you as you work together with your partner to clear a problem off of your relationship turf.

We cannot care deeply about a partner without the ability to care deeply about ourselves. These two loyalties will sometimes conflict. When they do, we need to be able and willing to fight for ourselves even as we understand that, when we fight cleanly, we are simultaneously fighting for the partnership. That’s the fightin’ side of love.

© Copyright 2014 Jan Iversen. All rights reserved.