Q: My partner and I seem to fight every day about the small things and big issues as well. In most cases, our discussions about pretty much anything end up in arguments and fights. We’ve been married six years and this began two years ago. I don’t know what to do.
A: When fighting becomes this frequent and pervasive it could mean a few things: 1) There has been a significant shift in feelings, beliefs, and thoughts about the relationship for at least one of the partners that is not being spoken directly. 2) Fighting, although negative on one level, may be quite familiar from your family of origin, and therefore, a comfortable way to interact with each other. 3) A deeper vulnerability may be emerging for either one of you, and you are not feeling safe opening up to it. The fighting defends against deeper sharing and risking. 4) There is a need to learn good communication skills by reading, or a seminar, and by practicing those skills regularly. You can read the book, Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life: Create Your Life, Your Relationships, and Your World in Harmony with Your Values by Rosenberg, Marshall, L. Leu, and A. Gandhi. This material will help re-orient your communication towards the deeper issues and tool you to attempt some truthful dialogues without deteriorating into fights and gridlock.
Think about some of the possibilities mentioned above. If one of them sounds true to you, begin by naming your experience of deeper feelings or growing up with fights. Trying to sort out what he said and she said and so on will usually lead to further confusion and hurt. Instead, focus more on the present and try to truly hear what was most important about the misunderstanding. This will help get you unstuck and help you put more energy on what is now needed between the two of you.
See if you can name what occurred two years ago. Think about this yourself and talk to your spouse as well. Something unresolved may be causing these difficulties. If you discover that it is more than either one of you seem to be able to solve, it’s a good time to seek a marriage counselor. A major issue that is not being talked about and worked through successfully can yield to further erosion in your relating and quite possibly an affair, verbal or physical abuse, or a break-up. The following is another book that will give you guidelines to help with your dilemma: Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most by Stone, Douglas, B. Patton, and S. Heen.
No relationship is harmonious and polite all the time. Actually, anger and even fighting has a place in a real relationship. Anger is a message that one of you is feeling violated or hurt on some level. Anger is a way of letting your partner know such is the case and then to create space to share the hurt. Healthy fighting means you know how to deal with a conflict in a direct and honest way, rather than quietly bottling it up and expecting the other person to always get your point of view. This approach doesn’t allow for things to accumulate for months and years. You’re constantly clearing and showing yourself to your partner more fully. This can be done in a respectful way, without blaming, judging, or shouting. The books I have mentioned will show you some skills to do this.
Alzak Amlani, Ph.D., is a counseling psychologist in Palo Alto and San Francisco. (650) 325-8393. www.wholenesstherapy.com