Fighting verbally is an integral part of any relationship. Put at least two people together in the same place for a long period of time, and they’ll fight eventually.
If someone tells you that they “never” fight with their partner—especially with a big Stepford wife smile—mark my words, they are hiding something big and oppressive underneath. “Rarely” fighting can happen, but “never” just doesn’t exist.
Why? Because relationships are crossroads of “our” needs and “their” needs, “his” needs and “her” needs, “my” needs and “your” needs. Too many needs with not enough space for all of them at the same time breeds tension and, if not dealt with, eventual fighting.
My family can illustrate this well. When our families get together over the holidays, we have the “three-day fish phenomenon”: after three days, fish starts to smell. After about three days of being together, someone will get irritated with someone else. That’s when we all look at each other and say, “The fish is starting to smell.” It’s time to separate. We work at a conclusion about the conflict, even if it means we agree to disagree, put the situation behind us as best as possible, and go home.
There’s nothing wrong with this, by the way. We love each other very well because we understand how we work and function, and especially that we’re not going to agree on everything. Family therapists call this understanding the difference between “being right” and “having a relationship.”
Sometimes, you have to ask yourself if it is more important to be right, or to have a relationship.
For example, you could continue getting angry at your partner for not saying the right thing, at the right time, to make you feel better at that particular moment (being right)—or you can understand that perhaps your partner has no idea how to do what you expect them to do, and you have to teach them. The latter is calling “having a relationship.” It requires you to open up and tell your partner what you needs. Your partner, in turn, is responsible for working on understanding this need in the relationship.
This comes up in many relationships, but more commonly for newer couples who have passed the “honeymoon” phase and entered the “work” phase of the relationship. Let me demonstrate with a fictional situation, derived from general couples issues that come up with my clients.
Ms. A and Mr. B have been in a relationship for one year. Ms. A keeps getting angry at her partner, Mr. B, because she feels that he doesn’t do much in the house while she does everything. Ms. A then becomes riled up every time she feels she is doing more than Mr. B. For instance, Ms. A feels like she always has to initiate dates because, if left to Mr. B, they’ll never have them. Ms. A feels resentful in both planning dates and waiting on Mr. B. She says things to Mr. B like, “You don’t care. It’s always on me. You never do anything for us!”
In couples counseling, Ms. A learns to speak from her heart, beginning sentences with “I.” This, in turn, makes Mr. B respond directly to her.
Ms. A: “I feel overwhelmed and frustrated. I feel like I’m doing a lot in this relationship. I feel alone and hurt because of this.”
(Mr. B is forced to respond to his partner’s personal feelings and needs.)
Mr. B: “I’m sorry. It’s not my intention to hurt you or make you feel alone. I guess because you never say anything, I assume that you don’t need help, or you’re fine with the way things are.”
(Ms. A is forced to respond to Mr. B’s lack of knowing, trusting that he didn’t mean any harm.)
Ms. A: “Well, I take responsibility for that. I’ll tell you if it’s bothering me in the future, but I also need to you to share the responsibilities, too. Like, if I cook, I think it’s only fair if you do the dishes. Is that okay?”
(Now Ms. A and Mr. B are negotiating elements of their relationship.)
Mr. B: “Sure. That’s fair. I’m okay with that. Anything else?”
Ms. A: “I would really like it if we could go on a date once a month, and I don’t have to plan it by myself.”
Mr. B: “I’m not great at remembering to do that. I’m just not a spontaneous guy. But, if it’s always on the calendar, it’s a lot easier for me to remember. How about we go on a date every first Saturday of the month? Then we know it’s coming and can plan it together?”
Ms. A: “Yeah, that works. I’m up for that.”
Mr. B: “Cool.”
Granted, this example makes it look easy. In reality, it takes a great deal of compromise between the two parties to make certain elements and needs work in their relationship. Ms. A and Mr. B stopped the cycle of “being right” and moved into “being in a relationship” by working at it: speaking from the heart (beginning sentences with “I”), listening and reflecting understanding, ending with negotiating elements of the relationship, and trusting in their genuine care and love for one another. The process brought them through a tough spot and into a deeper understanding.
Relationships are both tough and wonderful. Some times it takes grunt work, but if both parties are up to it, it can be a truly rewarding experience.
© Copyright 2010 by Laura Hahn-Segundo Collins, LCSW, therapist in New York City, New York. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.
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