Expert Source: Richard Nicastro, PhD, psychologist and couples counselor, creator of StrengthenYourRelationship.com
Intimate relationships spawn all kinds of misunderstandings and conflicts — it’s a fact of life and love. And that’s OK. There can be a healthy, air-clearing energy in a robust exchange of differences between partners, and couples who never fight are probably repressing some resentments.
When fights get too hot, though — when they escalate into blame, name-calling, insults and other low blows — they cease to be productive and instead become damaging. Fights that turn ugly undermine trust, leaving lasting scars on individuals and relationships.
That’s why having a set of “fair fighting” guidelines is vital to keeping your relationship healthy. Here, couples counselor Richard Nicastro, PhD, offers advice for keeping conflicts sane, civilized and constructive — and for maintaining your bond with your loved one, even in the face of frustration.
Barriers to Overcome
- The effect of early wounds. “When your partner says something in an argument and you’re suddenly flooded with disproportionate emotion,” says Nicastro, “that can be a red flag that a painful childhood issue is being picked at.” When that happens, you may react with greater anger and vitriol than the situation merits.
- “Kitchen sinking.” Identified by John Gottman, PhD, this is when an argument begins shifting from its immediate occasion — say a disagreement about a specific household task — into a long litany of complaints. The piling-on of issues feels like an attack and quickly brings the conversation to a boil.
- All-or-nothing talk. As arguments overheat, you may start using phrases like “you always,” “you never,” “constantly,” “every time” and other absolutes that admit no shades of gray. Such statements are rarely true, says Nicastro, and they “force your partner into a defensive, counterattack mode.”
- The fight-or-flight reaction. Once either partner feels attacked, the amygdala — the brain center that plays a primary role in emotional reactions — triggers the primitive fight-or-flight response. Once that happens, says Nicastro, “nuance in thinking and perception is lost” and it’s nearly impossible to discuss things calmly.
Strategies for Success
- When speaking, use the ABC rule. “Acknowledge your own needs rather than focusing on what the other person should do; be aware of your body language, so it doesn’t contradict your words; and commit to clarity: Stay on topic and avoid ‘kitchen sinking.’”
- When listening, use ABC rule No. 2. “Be attentive to your partner — no email checking or staring at the wall; bite your tongue — keep your mouth shut and don’t let your mind run into counterarguments; and confirm what you’ve heard by stating it as you understand it or asking a question to clarify.”
- Monitor emotions. See your emotional state on a continuum from zero (centered and calm) to 10 (raging). “Ask yourself: At what number do I stop listening and stop communicating effectively?” When you’re not fighting, strike an agreement with your partner that the next time either of you reaches that number during a heated exchange, you’ll call a time out and pick back up when you’re calmer. This discipline takes practice, so aim for progress, not perfection — and seek professional support if necessary.
- Make concessions. Some fights just don’t have to happen, says Nicastro: “Simply acknowledging, sincerely, that one of your partner’s complaints is justified is a great way to diffuse an argument quickly.”
Jon Spayde is the author of How to Believe: Teachers and Seekers Show the Way to a Modern, Life-Changing Faith (Random House, 2008).