The majority of fights between two people take place in the same form. At some point, it doesn’t matter what the fight is about. The form is more important than the content. The fights will look alike because they end up in the same form and form precedes content.
The basic pattern is attack, blame, defence.
First, Ask Yourself...
Was there a misunderstanding? Have you explored the situation enough to know for certain? Misunderstandings, and misinterpretations, can be attributed to many arguments, and there is no point proceeding on false assumptions or conclusions, so first make sure you are both on the same page and aren't about to embark on a complete waste of time and a disagreement which is really no disagreement at all.
"But they're not really fights, it's just bickering"
No. Bickering is low-intensity chronic warfare. It is constant negative friction, negative heat. It is the notion that every time one person says something, the other person has a reaction to it. Conflict creates contraction. It stiffens. It is the antithesis of flexibility. It speaks not of possibility and openness, but of certainy and resistance.
Identify Whether You (and the other person) Maximize or Minimize
Some people are maximizers – they explode. Their communication is external and they amplify, broadcasting out their feelings and frustrations. Some are minimizers – they implode. They wait and wait and wait, and then explode, on something that seems to have nothing to do with the current situation at hand. The energy of one person activates the energy of the other. Each person is contributing to the version the other becomes.
Let's Talk About Criticism
One of the most pivotal elements in the demise of a relationship is constant criticism.
Criticisms make people feel devalued, inadequate, and inept. It is contentious. Ongoing hyper-criticism produces the opposite effect of what we seek. Behind anger there is hurt. Behind criticism there is a wish - something that we need or want.
When in critical mode, we are rarely reflecting. We are reacting. Reflecting requires time and space, a moment to think about what the other person thinks, instead of being on automatic pilot and assuming we know. Generally, in critical mode, assumptions are negative. You do not have assumptions that what the other person meant was good. You imagine it to be hurtful.
What is important to understand about criticism is that it actually sits on top of a mountain of disappointment, of unmet needs, of unmet longing. It is actually an attempt to tell the other person what they wish they would do, but many people do not want to put themselves out there that this is what they want, expose this vulnerability, because they are worried that the other person will disregard the request and ultimately disappoint them. They prefer to launch into anger than to experience hurt. And yet, the more they go for anger, the more they’re going to get anger back, and this continues on a cycle of negative escalation.
Do Men and Women Fight Differently?
There have been many studies that have researched the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system in men during times of stress. In continued times of stress, such as in an intense conversation, men will attempt to regulate themselves and lower their physiological response. They will look up and move their bodies back and away, in an attempt to create some space from the emotional intensity and 'heat.'
Women, by comparison, stay in a conversation much longer, without their system deregulating to the same extent.
Besides this, conflict and tension and stress presents very similarly and has similar causes and reactions. Such as:
B. What was reinforced when growing up through childhood and young adulthood
C. What the culture tells us (Ex: a man who is angry is in charge. A woman who is angry is hysterical. The cultural valence on assertiveness and aggression is not the same for men and women, and this persists all over the world.
So there are layers to this, but in general, the way people argue is not intrinsic to gender.
The [Detrimental] Power of Confirmation Bias
The setup: The person who is angry has decided that the other person is doing [this activity] on purpose. “You know how much this upsets me, and yet you’re doing it again, so obviously you don’t care about me or respect me.”
You the receiver need to ask yourself, why would they rather persist in thinking of you as not caring about them, even as you try to convince them that you do? Why would they rather think that the other person doesn’t care, instead of being relieved in learning that that is not the case? Why would they would rather continue to be angry? A: Because there is something in the way that we organize reality and it is called Confirmation Bias.
The way that it works is this: I am going to pick up evidence along the way of everything that will confirm to me that what I believe is true, and I’m going to disregard any evidence that would make me want to reconsider. The multiple times that the other person has not done this are all thrown out and conveniently forgotten because they would challenge the belief. It is like a radar looking to confirm the bias that we have. We scan for proof and disregard all other evidence to the contrary. Why? Because it gives us order. It provides a sense of “I know what is true, and even if it is bad, I prefer it because at least it organizes my reality."
Much of what is presented as fact is actually an intensification of someone’s experience. “I feel like you never show up” is not the same as the person actually never showing up. One must learn not to shift their feelings into pseudo-factual talk. If you say to someone, “You never...” the first thing they are going to do is give you an example of the last time they did, just to prove you wrong, and to dismantle your argument against them.
The thinking goes like this: If I am late it’s because there was traffic. If you are late it’s because you are a disorganized mess of a person. If I’m in a bad mood it’s because I had a bad day. If you’re in a bad mood it’s because you’re a cranky human being. This is called Fundamental Attribution Error.
This notion attributes our flaws to a general context, but the flaws of others to their internal structure and personality. “Mine is excusable, yours is not. Mine is explainable, yours is not. Mine is situational, yours is character illogical.” Our flaws and mistakes are circumstantial, yet we do not afford this justification of convenience to others.
So how do you deal with this?
You must therefore avoid using those inflammatory key words of ‘always’ and ‘never’ and instead say in this moment, “It feels like you are always late, and it is so annoying” without claiming, inaccurately, that it does always happen. You’re allowed to be angry and you’re allowed to express this, but you are not allowed to think that your experience is therefore the reality or truth. It is the truth of your experience, but not the truth of what happens. So...
A. Acknowledgement that you, yourself, also does this (everyone does), and
B. A good dose of humour when it happens (and it absolutely will)
The Keys to Resolution
In a conflict situation, when tension is rising, we have the ability to listen to 10 seconds, and 10 seconds is three sentences, at which point we stop listening and are preparing a rebuttal.
What can you do differently? How do you turn a negative escalation into a different pattern?
1. Cease the attack and regain perspective. Negative emotions are felt strongly, but keeping a clear head in spite of this temporary intensity, is paramount. Remember, 'This too shall pass.'
2. Switch from conflict to empathy. Validate their feelings and experience. Turn from a reacting posture to a reflecting posture. Say “I totally understand why you are upset.” Give them the space to be angry, while still staying connected. “I don’t think I have done this, but I can see that’s how you have experienced it. I see how you would feel that way.” This reversal, from a Negative Escalation into a Reflective Listening mode is crucial to find resolution, and especially for the long term health of the relationship.
3. Talk about what you feel, and your experience, rather than what the other person did or did not do. It is a way of saying, “I can disagree with you but still hear you.” Hearing does not mean agreeing. If you make this clear, there should be no resistance to listening.
4. Recognize that the other person has a completely different experience of what just happened. This is an extremely challenging aspect of relationships, because it appears to you that the other person is the sole cause of how upset or angry or hurt you feel. “How can I feel so [neglected/undermined/disrespected/etc.], when you say that you were doing none of those things?” Judging situations from only your own point of view is detrimental. A willingness to reconcile must accompany the intention and ability to put yourself in their shoes, and accept that this is their experience, even if it is not yours.
5. Focus on the behaviour and not on the character. Do not launch into a full blown critique of who they are as a person, and making a list of character flaws. Focus on what they did, not on who they are, or how what they did is proof of the kind of person they are (which is implied to be bad). Recognize that whatever thing they did does not encapsulate the entire identity of who the person is.
6. At the moment you are about to make the list of all the things that they do wrong, is the moment that you actually need to think about all the things that they do right, so that you hold a bigger picture of the good of that person, of what you actually like and appreciate, because it is that which will buttress you against the onslaught of negativity. Hold a more complex and more holistic view that will prevent you from bringing all sorts of past indiscretions into the mix (aka 'kitchen sinking it.') Stick to the issue at hand.
7. Convey that you like the person, even though you don’t like the behaviour. This gives them something dignified to hold on to, from which they can then take responsibility for what they have done.
8. You must also acknowledge fault. Fault is not failure. The fundamental definition of self-esteem is the ability to see yourself as a flawed person and still hold yourself in high regard. Accountability is the ability to take responsibility for the things you’ve done, but without being mired in shame. Complacency is what is more detrimental to a relationship, and to oneself, not admission of fault.
Successfully do these things and you will turn the situation around.
And When No Resolution is at That Moment Possible, Yes, You Can Walk Away (Temporarily)
What Is the Best Way to End a Fight?
The person who leaves does have the right to go, but they then also have to be the one to come back.
This shows that you recognize that either you get very angry in these situations, and you do not want to regret something you’re going to say, or you know that the other person continues to escalate and no good will come.
You: "You know what, I don’t think at this moment I am doing this conversation justice. I’m going to go cool off, but I will come back.” Let me go for now because otherwise I’m going to regret what I’m going to say, and I don’t want to do that.” Then the other person must not follow. They must let you go and trust that you will come back.
How to Apologize
* Simply ask the question: “Is this worth it? After all we’ve gone through, is this worth it?” Sometimes this is enough to change the pattern of destructiveness.
* Physical touch: A kiss, a hug, a touch. What you do specifically matters less than the overture itself. Reach out.
* Verbal: “You know what, apologies are important. [Yesterday], what I did, I was out of line. I was angry, I felt attacked, I wanted to hurt, I lashed out, and I really regret this. I’m really sorry.”
* Letter writing: Being alone, sitting with yourself, allows one to think calmly, in a different way. This is the time to include other associations, experiences, instances, that were at play during the argument. “When you said/did this to me, it reminded me of when... and it made me angry, felt small, etc. I just wanted you to know that, and that that fight was about more than just you and me in that moment.”
I'll end on the words of the iconic 'The Karate Kid' Mr. Miyagi. He's wise but loveable.
"Fighting always last answer to problem."
"Win, lose, no matter. You make good fight, and respect."
Written by AmandaYVR. Concepts by Esther Perel, MA, LMFT.