Fighting Fair

Yesterday, for the first time in awhile, Luke and I got into a decent fight.

I say decent not because it was good, but just that it was a big enough fight that there were tears, I left the apartment for awhile and we didn’t speak for hours.

Here’s the thing. I am a terrible fighter. I take everything to heart. I cry. I get loud. I pout.

I used to say mean things I later regret — that thankfully has gotten better over time.

A few years ago, I got into a big fight with my best friend, Katie. It didn’t even have anything much to do with the two of us- originally. I was visiting, my flight got canceled, I had a meltdown, she tried to get me to calm down, and I lost it on her. It wasn’t our first time. We had it out a few times in college and beyond, but I remember clearly that last time, it was pretty much all on me. She told me my words were hurtful, that it was harmful to just spew whatever I wanted to say when I was upset. Somehow, it really sunk in that day. She didn’t deserve it. Even if I apologized and didn’t mean everything I said, it was wrong to say it at all. I had to be more careful, more caring. I couldn’t just keep spewing venom and then try to erase it later. I don’t want to hurt the people I love.

I really struggle with this stuff. I blame in part my parents. They are terrible fighters. So were my mom’s parents. I definitely did not learn by example there.

Fighting is important, though, especially for couples. The other day a friend shared news of a longtime couple that was possibly splitting up. The reason? They’d chugged along happily for years and suddenly started fighting. They didn’t know how to fight, and things were falling apart.

As my friend said, never fighting is not the answer, because fighting is in part how you grow. I thought she made a very important point. The key is, you need to know how to fight fair, to fight with purpose. It also seems that fighting about the same thing repeatedly is a sign of a larger problem. When you fight, are you making any progress? Are you coming to any new understandings?

Back to my own fight with Luke, I made a lot of mistakes. As I mentioned, I left the apartment. This was in part because I needed to go get my car that I had left 2 miles away the night before. I thought a brisk anger-fueled walk might calm me down, but I was also fleeing the scene, which typically is frowned upon. It didn’t really work either, as the fight continued via text message, and when I came home, we still didn’t talk for hours. After time had passed and I’d finally calmed down, the remorse set in. Also, the fatigue. I was done not talking. There was a Packer game coming up, and we needed to get past this nonsense. So I just walked up and hugged him, and he hugged me back. Apologies were said. All was well.

I’m still thinking about it today, though, because while neither of us was completely in the right (he did apologize, too, after all), and I may have learned to tone down the venom-spewing, I still haven’t learned how to fight fair. I recognize that. I decided to do a little research today, and came across this article — “All Couples Fight. Here’s How Successful Couples Do It Differently.”

For “fun,” I’ve decided to grade myself, based on yesterday’s behavior, in the categories included in the article. So here we go.

1. They don’t run from fights. 

Couples in it for the long-haul don’t shy away from discussing topics that could just as easily be swept under the rug. They ask the big, scary questions ASAP — “When, if ever, are we going to have kids?” “What are we going to do if you get that job in another state? I don’t want to move to there!” — so they don’t become bigger isssues in the relationship later on, said Diane Sawaya Cloutier, an author and relationship expert.

 

“When taboo or uncomfortable topics remain unaddressed, they can turn any benign event into a big drama that could have been avoided in the first place,” she said. “Couples who talk about it can manage potential dramas.” 

Alyssa’s Grade: F

I mean… I left the apartment, right? Not right away, but we certainly hadn’t resolved the dispute when I stormed out. Granted, I was super worked up and hoped the walk would calm me a bit, so I could be more rational when I got back. Like I said, that didn’t exactly work as my hurt feelings and anger just swirled around and around for a few more hours. Even in the text exchange, Luke said, “If you had stayed to talk some more we could help each other understand.” Fair point. He’d hurt my feelings and I wanted to wander off and lick my wounds. Not exactly mature, I guess.

2. They start slow and take turns talking.

Arguments generally end the same way they began, said Bonnie Ray Kennan, a marriage and family therapist based in Southern California. Couples who’ve mastered the art of arguing fairly take things slow, addressing difficult conversations with a soft, reassuring tone and dialing it down whenever things get too emotionally charged.

 

“Starting a difficult conversation softly and respectfully dramatically increases the chances of a good outcome,” she said. “Conversely, a ‘harsh start-up’ is very hard to process well, especially for men.”

 

Couples who argue with finesse also know the value of give and take: “One person speaks and the other person truly listens,” Ray Kennan said.

Alyssa’s Grade: Uhhhhh, have we met? F!

This is probably Luke’s major pet peeve with me. I am just all-around terrible at #2. I don’t even know where to begin and end with all of this, so let’s just say I suck at this one and have a long way to go.

3. They don’t name call. 

Happy couples in long-term relationships rarely get into knock-down, drag-out fights because they don’t lower themselves to school-yard tactics: no matter how heated things get, there’s no name calling, eye rolling or biting sarcasm.

 

“Both partners understand that contemptuous behaviors are hard to take back and have a corrosive impact on a relationship,” Ray Kennan said. “Over time, they’ve become mindful of the effects of such dirty fighting and so they take it out of their repertoire.”

Alyssa’s Grade: C

I do think I’ve improved on this one… but I’m not there yet. Biting sarcasm? Yup. But I think I did without the name-calling. I mean, in this case, I was more on the defense. Still though, I could act a bit more like an adult, that’s for sure. I just take things so personally. That’s really, really, really hard to unlearn.

4. They know how to cool down. 

When things do get out of hand, savvy arguers know how to get a grip on their emotions. They value taking a time out, whether that means counting to 10 and taking slow, deep breaths or simply telling their spouse, “Hey, can we revisit this in the morning?”

“These couples know how to acknowledge and honor their emotions without getting overrun by them,” Amy Kipp, a couples and family therapist in San Antonio, told HuffPost. “They use self-soothing skills to make sure they’re at their best. When both partners are able to soothe themselves and take breaks, they’re usually able to reach a resolution (or agree to disagree!) with more ease.”

Alyssa’s Grade: C

So, that’s sort of what I was trying to do by the walk. I just failed to do any of my self-soothing exercises during that time. And did I calmly say, “Hey, I just need to cool off, so let’s revisit this when I get back, OK?” ? What do you think?!

5. They set ground rules for arguments. 

It’s not that long-time couples have never resorted to low blows or have said something regrettable during an argument. They have in the past — and then they learned from the mistake. Once the emotionally charged fight ends, smart couples lay down some ground rules for arguing so it never gets out of hand again, said author and relationship expert Mario P. Cloutier.

 

The ground rules could be specific — “We will not interrupt each other when one is giving his or her perspective” — or more big picture: “It’s not about being right. It’s about getting to a common ground and resolving the problem,” suggested Cloutier. 

Alyssa’s Grade: Incomplete

Look, we just haven’t quite done the assignment yet, so I’m not going to 100 percent blame myself on that one. I think taking heed of the first 4 points would go a long way.

6. They acknowledge each other’s feelings and points of view.

They may be bumping heads but couples in happy, long-time relationships try their best to see the other side of the argument, Kipp said.

“They may say, ‘I know you see it differently than me, but I appreciate that you are listening to my perspective,’” she said. “These positive moments decrease defensiveness and allow for a more productive conversation.” 

Alyssa’s Grade: D

I get so wrapped up in my hurt feelings, and I don’t want to peel back the curtain to look at why what’s being said is being said. I mean, I do later, but in the moment? No, thanks. So I need to work on being able to do that sooner, without all the fuss. And if I can’t, I need to do better at #4 and take some time to cool off- but without skulking around or storming out. Good luck to me!

7. They give each other the benefit of the doubt. 

Partners who are able to have healthy and productive arguments don’t jump to conclusions in the middle of fights. They aren’t quick to assume their S.O. wants to jump ship and leave them just because he or she is a voicing a concern. They quiet their insecurities, listen and try to give their partner the benefit of the doubt, Kipp said.

 

“Healthy relationships mean that people assume their partner is doing the best they can at the moment,” she explained. “In an argument, this means assuming both partners have the same goal: a mutually beneficial resolution. This allows arguments to be a team effort to achieve the goal rather than an adversarial ‘fight.’”

Alyssa’s Grade: C

I try to do this. I mean, fighting with Luke is particularly frustrating at times because he’s such a good guy. So you know he doesn’t mean to be hurtful even if it happens. We have very different ways of communicating, and we’ve gotten better about recognizing that. I have to continue to work on putting my pride aside at times and not making mountains out of mole hills, as they say.

8. They never forget that ultimately, they’re a team. 

Even during their most tense arguments, healthy couples never forget that they’re a team: for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health…  and until the argument exhausts them and both parties agree that they’d rather call a timeout and get a bite to eat. 

“Couples in satisfying long-term relationships are able to remember that, no matter how angry they may be, life will continue after today,” said Stark. “Because of that, they don’t want to do lasting damage. Even in an emotional state, they are able to hang on to the long-term value of the couple. They’re a team, protecting their future together.”

Alyssa’s Grade/Our Grade: A

Duh, this is why we’re still together! I think we are very good at recognizing that. Now that we’ve been working at this for years, fights don’t spiral down into a threat to the future of our relationship, even if I get really upset. We have to remember we’re just trying to make each other the best we can be, to understand each other better, to grow.

 

Overall, this is a pretty dismal report card, but — I’m going to study up, guys! I promise! Blogging about this is in part me trying to take responsibility and adult, after all. Nowhere to go but up.

 

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Note: I cleared it with Luke to blog about this since it’s pretty personal to our relationship. I told him hopefully he would find it interesting and informative, as I did, and also see that I actually want to address my shortcomings in this regard. Yay, adulting!

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