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Fights Are About Only One Thing !

When I ask couples what they fight about, most of the time they say something like "we always fight over stupid little things." Then, they are very eager to share with me all the little details about their scuffles, usually each one trying to persuade me why they are right and why the other is wrong.

An argument is defined as "an exchange of diverging or opposite views," or "points made with the aim of persuading others that an action or idea is right or wrong." I frequently have arguments with my wife, with both of us stating our ideas, supporting our individual positions with hopes that the others' mind will be swayed. Recently, I stated my argument for wanting to get up early on Saturday morning to attend a local arts festival (parking availability, later schedule needs, etc). After a short discussion, we arrived at a plan. Many of you may be thinking, "That's not a argument. It doesn't involve hurt feelings or name calling." I would argue that what you have been experiencing is not an argument, but an all out fight, where the true topic of the original argument has been lost and now the fight is about something else entirely.

The Fight Script

Out of habit, most couples follow what I refer to as a "fight script." On the theater stage, actors must follow the script because they are getting paid to do so, night after night. The good news is that you are not getting paid to read from it verbatim. The couples I work with come to realize that they can alter the dialog, and possibly change the outcome of the argument or fight. A typical fight script might start as follows:

Dan: It really bothers me that you're on your phone all evening.

Jan: But I was only responding to mom's email. Don't get so mad!

Dan: It sure seems like that phone is more important than me.

Jan: There you go again. I'm not complaining that you were playing games on your tablet instead of helping me cook dinner.

Dan: After the long day I had, I needed it to wind down.

Jan: But what about my tiring day?  Where's my break?

Dan: I don't know why I bother talking to you.

Jan: What's you're problem?!

If this script seems familiar, you are not alone. It's the same type of fight that most couples I work with report with great frequency. At what point did this fight start? What was the fight even about? Was it about the phone? You can argue all day about whether Obama was a good president, about how you should spend your bonus money this year, about how best to load the dishwasher, or about how you feel neglected because your partner devotes too much time to the computer. In the above scenario, Dan expresses a problem, and Jan responds by changing the subject, defensively talking about herself. This, I will argue, is a completely different conversation than the one Dan is trying to have. Consider this alternative scenario.

Dan: It really bothers me that you're on your phone all evening.

Jan: (pausing to consider that Dan is talking about himself, not trying to criticize or control her) My phone use tonight bothers you. Why is that?

Dan: I was just hoping we could just focus on each other for once and have some meaningful conversation.

Jan: (again pausing) It seems we do this same ritual each night with you on your tablet and me on my phone. Why does it bother you tonight?

Dan: Lately I've just felt this void between us and would like to connect with you without the usual distractions, like when we were first dating.

Jan: That sounds great. I would like that too. Let me finish this up for 5 minutes and then put it away.

Dan: (feeling better) Okay, I'll wait.

The biggest difference between the two scenarios is that Jan responded to Dan with the same conversation that he was having, and didn't change the subject to talk about herself. The other important difference is that when Dan presented the problem, Jan didn't give a knee jerk response, but rather paused to consider her next words and how they might impact Dan and the relationship. In pausing, she was able to consider what she needed as well as what Dan needed. And what did Dan need more than anything in this scene?  


When Dan felt heard, he was able to state more rationally his feelings, AND wait a little longer for the attention he was seeking.

ALL Fights Are About Not Being Heard

That's a pretty bold statement. But think about it. When you bring up an issue, a feeling, or opinion, how important is it that you be heard? If you are met with resistance, defensiveness, or invalidation, your next move is to talk louder or in more harsh language. You look at your partner more as an adversary rather than a teammate. Your emotions get charged and the gloves come off. 

Fight On!

It's important to learn to listen, and in the blogs to follow I will talk in depths about listening skills. By listening before responding, the person with the problem is more likely to feel heard and keep the discussion in a more considerate tone. By listening first, the person with the issue sees you as their friend or teammate to work with rather than as an enemy to fight with. When two people have a conversation, even about conflicting points of view, with the approach of hearing each other, they are having a healthy argument. But as soon as one person doesn't feel heard, it greatly increases the likelihood of a fight, hurt feelings and disconnection.

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