Everybody fights: How to Keep it Clean
In every relationship there comes a time when the two people involved do not see eye to eye. This is perfectly normal and natural. How those people react however can make or break the relationship. Do you choose to fight dirty or to keep it clean? Do you leave the interaction feeling heard and understood, or feeling hurt and disconnected from your partner?
Here is what usually happens when for example, a couple (or any two people) gets into an argument: Person A does or says something that hurts person B’s feelings, usually without meaning to. Person B has an emotional response – anger, frustration, annoyance, fear, etc. At this point, person A may or may not be aware of person B’s emotional response. If so, they have a choice – to turn toward or to turn away. If not, the choice lies with person B to either turn toward or turn away. This simple choice is the essence of fighting clean or fighting dirty.
To turn toward is to stay present with all of your feelings and to stay open with your partner. To tell them, respectfully, exactly how they hurt you. To track your emotional reaction rather than being overtaken by it. To listen with an open heart when they share their experience of what happened. To be kind even when you’re angry. To work together with your partner to discover where the rupture occurred and to repair it.
To turn away is to bottle up your feelings, to shut down and collapse in on yourself. Or on the other end of the spectrum, to explode and lash out at your partner with the explicit intention of hurting them. Hitting below the belt, if you will. Either way, turning away leads to feelings of disconnection between the two people while turning toward leads to feelings of closeness.
While this is simple, it is certainly not easy to do. In any given moment the choice to turn toward, especially in the midst of a disagreement, means to make yourself vulnerable. To be honest about your emotional experience is risky because you do it without knowing how your partner will react. If both parties are committed to turning toward and staying present with themselves and each other, usually the argument is resolved fairly quickly. In a relationship like this, both people tend to feel as if they are on the same team. They are partners moving through life together.
In a relationship where one or both partners respond to difficult moments by regularly turning away, the two people will tend to feel as though they are struggling against each other or that they need to defend themselves from one another. They will come to fear being vulnerable with each other. Without vulnerability, it is impossible to truly connect in relationship. So one or both people will often find themselves feeling lonely and isolated within their relationship. This may lead to infidelity or other painful disconnections, and eventually the end to a very unhappy relationship. Unfortunately, this pattern can unfold in any relationship, no matter how much the two people love each other. Many things can affect the way we approach moments of conflict – the example that our parents/caregivers set for us, cultural norms, communication styles, etc.
Fortunately, it is never too late for both partners to commit to kindness and clean fighting. As we gain insight into what motivates our own reaction to conflict as well as our partners’, we gain freedom and choice in how we interact with each other. Couples counseling is an excellent opportunity to practice turning toward in the presence of a neutral third party, who is trained coach you through difficult moments. If you and your partner are struggling to relate to each other kindly and clearly in moments of conflict, and could benefit from coaching around communication skills, don’t put it off any longer. Reach out for support now!
Tajah Sahar Schall MA, LPC, R-DMT
I provide sensitive, culturally relevant counseling to individuals, couples and families of all sociocultural backgrounds, and I support adolescents and their families through the unique and often difficult time of transition by incorporating movement, nature and rites of passage into the therapeutic process.
3401 Quebec St. Suite 4500
Denver, CO 80207
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