Laura Gilliom, Ph.D.
All couples fight (or at least disagree), but not all couples fight successfully. What is a successful fight? One where
1) an issue is brought up,
2) both sides are heard, and
3) there is progress toward resolving the issue.
Is it resolved forever? Probably not, but usually there is some new understanding and possibly some ideas for how to do it differently in the future. I can always tell when couples have had a successful fight when they call it a "talk" instead of a fight! Let's talk about the three components of the "fight." In this post I'll address the first one:
Bringing up a difficult issue: The way you bring up your concern or complaint can make all the difference in whether you have a productive discussion or a fight.
Timing is key. Bad times include right when your partner walks in the door, when they are in the middle of something that takes concentration (even if it's "just" a TV show), right before going to sleep, or when you're extremely angry. It's best to check whether it's a good time to talk. If it's not, ask when would be a good time.
Even more important is how you bring it up. If you accuse or blame, your partner is likely to get defensive immediately. Instead, talk about how the issue affects you. Notice the difference between, "I can't believe you're going out with your stupid friends again tonight -- it's so selfish of you!" and, "I've been missing our time together. When you see your friends so often it makes me feel like you'd rather be with them than with me."
Acknowledge that you may play a part in the dynamic, without assuming it's all your fault, e.g., "Is there some reason I've been less fun to be around lately?"
Describe behavior, not personality traits or pathology. "You've gone out with your friends three nights this week," is much better than, "you're becoming way too dependent on your friends."
Be respectful. Calling your partner names or swearing at them is guaranteed to escalate the fight and lessen your chance of being heard, even though it might feel good in the moment. This is a good reason not to bring things up in the heat of anger.
It may seem obvious, but your partner can't read your mind -- no matter how much they love you. To have a productive discussion, you have to bring up what's bothering you. It takes some maturity and self-awareness to know what you're feeling and to express it clearly and kindly. Holding it in for the sake of avoiding conflict just creates resentment and distance in the long run. This doesn't mean you should complain constantly, either. Don't sweat the small stuff, but don't ignore the big stuff.
Since the way you initiate a discussion is so important, it's a good idea to take some time to get clear in your mind what you want to say before saying it. You don't have to have a whole script written out (although if you are very conflict avoidant this could be helpful), just be clear about how you see the problem and what your feelings are.
In the next posts, I'll address how to make sure both sides are heard and how to move toward resolution. Hint: Be ready to listen as well as talk!