Sally Connolly, LCSW, LMFT has been a therapist for over 30 years, specializing in work with couples, families and relationships. She has expertise with clients ...Read More
Some people are able to remain calm during a disagreement while others avoid conflict completely. Still others blow up quickly and seem to enjoy the fight.
Sharon and Tom fought a lot. Their friends referred to them as “The Bickersons” and kept their contact with them as a couple to a minimum, especially when it included drinking.
While their fights did not include throwing things or hitting each other … yet, there was still a lot of passion and volatility.
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Tom and Sharon liked their passion. It went quite well in their bedroom; however, it was pretty destructive to their feelings about themselves and each other and, now that they had 2 children, they were especially concerned about their style.
Tom and Sharon agreed that they could share equally in the escalation of the fighting. They could agree on that when they were calm, that is. Otherwise, things quickly deteriorated to blaming and accusing the other of being the aggressor.
Both also agreed that they knew each other’s “hot spots” and even confessed to using them to gain power in fights. They also acknowledged that they really had difficulty resisting the fight when it started. Both felt a need to prove their point or win the argument.
Many people, those who avoid conflict, will flee when fighting begins. Others find that they cannot let go of any argument and will fight until the end. (The fight or flight response to conflict is a common pattern for many couples.) The seduction of an argument is powerful.
Problems can arise with high levels of conflict in any relationship. Things that are said and done, even if there is no physical violence, can erode love and respect in any relationship. Contempt is one of the biggest killers of a marriage.
One of the skills that I first teach couples is the importance of taking a time out when flooded. (When their heart rate starts to rise.) Finding ways to soothe themselves or to help their partner calm down is the only way to protect the relationship and work toward finding solutions to any problem. While in the heat of a fight, it may be hard to let go, it is crucial for the long-term health of the marriage.
Tom and Sharon had a really hard time pulling themselves away from conflict. When one of them “drew a sword” or pushed a button, it was hard not to defend themselves or accuse the other of causing problems. While they both agreed that, when they did take a break, they were able to think more clearly and rationally, they had to work extremely hard to take a break when the conflict started.
Over time, with lots of practice, they were able to change their behavior which led to a change in their thinking and in their feelings about themselves, each other and their relationship. It never became “easy” to resist the seduction of an argument but most of the time, they were able to put their relationship first and find ways to let go of their destructive pattern.
The main question that couples have to ask themselves at times like this is “Which is more important, winning … or the relationship?”