Unhealthy responses to anger can form an infinite loop: small disagreements erupt into full-blown fights and fights end with slammed doors and hurt feelings. This may be hard to believe, but the conflict itself is actually good for your relationship. The problem is how you and your partner handle conflict.
Conflict is a great way – perhaps the best way – to learn about your partner. Think of each argument as a little gateway into the mind: what issues are most important to him? Where are her sensitivities? When you learn how to fight productively, you can walk away from a disagreement feeling closer and more in love.
The key to ending the infinite loop of anger building on anger is learning how to talk to each other. You have needs and feelings and your partner has needs and feelings and they aren't mutually exclusive. In order to fight productively, you need to learn how to communicate effectively. Here's how:
1. Build in time for communication when necessary.
It's hard to express yourself honestly and openly when you're afraid someone else is watching or listening. If there's something that's bothering you, agree on a time and a place where you two can talk. Give yourself at least an uninterrupted half hour. That means no phone calls or texts or emails and no TV on in the background.
2. Focus on trying to explain your perspective, but don't assume that your partner does (or should) feel the same way.
Phrases like "It's your fault because …" and, "We wouldn't be fighting if you hadn't …" aren't useful and will most likely make the situation worse. When you blame and criticize, you infringe on your partner's sense of self. Attempts to make your partner feel guilty will just breed resentment. Stick to talking about how you think and feel instead of telling your partner how he or she should think and feel.
3. Empathize with each other, and acknowledge one another's perspectives.
When you're fighting fair, you're empathizing with your partner and your partner is empathizing with you. To show that you're committed to understanding your significant other's perspective you have to learn how to listen actively. Give your partner your full attention when they're speaking – no interrupting or interjecting – and when they're done, repeat back what was said in your own words.
Nod when you understand your partner and ask questions when you don't. Most importantly, validate your partner's emotions. Your partner has a right to his or her feelings even when you disagree with their opinion.
4. Keep it cool and allow both people to express themselves.
How often has a shouting match solved a dispute in your relationship? Most of the time (if not all of the time), shouting and talking over each other will make the situation worse. In order to keep things calm, you'll need to agree on a few ground rules. Agree to take turns speaking (try the old "talking stick" method from summer camp if you need to).
Agree that if one of you starts to dominate the conversation, you'll use a timer to keep things fair. And, agree that if the volume starts to rise, or anger starts to build, you'll take a time-out until you both have cooled down.
5. Look for agreement.
Healthy conflict leaves no room for winners and losers. No one should win or lose in a relationship and that means no one should win or lose an argument in their relationship.
Instead, keep an eye out for where you and your partner agree or understand each other and when you find something, write it on a sticky note. You may be surprised at how many things you agree on, but didn't notice before because you were too busy trying to come out ahead.
6. Fight for a solution and express love at the end of the conversation, no matter what.
If you're fighting because your partner thinks you work too late, only talk about working late. If you're fighting because you're uneasy about your partner's relationship with his or her coworker, only talk about their coworker. Make the fight about what the fight is about, no less and no more. Reflect on the issue, take responsibility for your roles, and describe the steps you both can take to resolve the problem.
Finally, every dispute should end with an expression of love. Even if you haven't found middle ground or come up with a solution, you still care for each other, right? Say it!
Fighting isn't fun, but it can be useful. With these communication tools, you can stop the cycle of anger and unresolved disputes that once felt endless. As you move forward in your relationship, approach each episode of conflict as an opportunity to grow together and strengthen your love.
Andrea Brandt, PhD, MFT, brings over 30 years of clinical experience to the role of psychotherapist, speaker, and author. She is a recognized expert in treating a full range of emotional issues, including anger, passive-aggressiveness, anxiety, work-life balance, and women’s issues. Within her practice, Andrea reveals positive paths to emotional health that teaches people how to reinvent and empower themselves. In her book 8 Keys to Eliminating Passive-Aggressiveness, she examines strategies for overcoming a common yet debilitating response mechanism. In Mindful Anger: A Pathway To Emotional Freedom, she explores methods to better understand and manage the powerful emotion of anger. Please visit abrandtherapy.com for more information and connect with Andrea on Facebook and Twitter.