By: Cristina Trette, MA, LMFT, PMH-C
Conflict will happen. Some arguing within romantic relationships is normal and part of being a human being in relationships. In fact, when couples never fight, this can indicate they are avoiding conflict all together, which can lead to a whole host of problems. We will all encounter mis-communication, mis-steps and mis-understandings with the person we love. In healthy relationships, when problems arise, we can go directly to our partner, have a conversation, and take steps towards resolution.
Yet, some couples fight so often that their relationship is becoming a major source of stress. Others don't fight frequently, but when they do fight, its destructive. When fighting, couples can say or do things that hurt the relationship in a lasting way.
In relationships, conflict can be contagious. We generally sense when our partner is upset through observing body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice. Our brains are constantly scanning peoples faces and the environment. Due to mirror neurons in the brain (which are important for empathy and learning) we may actually begin to feel what they are feeling. This is partly why couples can easily get caught in cycles of reactivity. One person's upset triggers the other persons upset, and off they go into another fight.
In my work with couples, one of the first things we do is map out what their fights looks like. We tend to see behaviors such as raised voices, blaming, criticizing, demanding, accusing, shutting down, or walking away. Physiologically, partners notice tension in their chests, heart rate increase, and breathing that becomes rapid and shallow. Sometimes we see eyes wide open, enlarged veins, clenched jaws and tightened fists.
Generally when fighting, our sympathetic nervous system is activated. Blood moves from our brain into our limbs to launch us into action. We lose access to the parts of our brain that is responsible for impulse control, creativity, problem solving, logical thinking, perspective taking, empathy, and compassion. Inaccurate and negative thoughts and beliefs can dominate our inner dialogue. Black and white thinking takes over.
When in a state of fight, flight, freeze, couples can momentarily view the person they love more than anyone else in the world, as an enemy.
Our fight/flight system will turn on when we are under real (or perceived) threat. This survival mechanism in our brain helps us to tune into any possible sign of danger so we can protect ourselves. Yet this function will also turn on when we are arguing with our partner. We may not really be in danger but our brains don't know this.
Think about it this way. Imagine you are walking into a store and suddenly a person starts moving closer to you and raising their voice at you. Your nervous system would kick into gear to help you defend and protect. This also happens our partner raises their voice toward us or engages in another behavior that feels threating on the nervous system level.
Some couples get stuck in these cycles of reactivity with their nervous system rarely moving in the parasympathetic state of rest and restore. The long-term activation of the stress-response system leads to an overexposure of cortisol and other stress hormones that can disrupt almost all your body's processes. This puts you at increased risk of many health problems, including anxiety, depression. It also can impact sleep, mood, productivity, cognitive functioning.
So you can see why it is so important to stop fighting and to start having healthy and productive conversations. When we fight less, we are healthier, happier, and experience greater levels of wellbeing.
Where To Begin?
This blog post will get you started by increasing awareness and leading to introspection. Look for future blogs on this topic that will get more into the nuts and bolts of how to actually stop fighting. More than anything, I want to reassure you can turn things around. Think of fighting as if its a bad habit that you are ready to let go of. With conscious, focused, and consistent effort you can absolutely do it differently.
Focus On Yourself
Begin by focusing on yourself. Notice your overall stress levels and tension. How do you feel on a daily basis? How is your mood, energy, and sense of wellness? Do you get enough time for rest and renewal? If you don't have basic self care in place it will be very hard to transform relational patterns. Do what you need to do to ensure you are taking care of your physical needs like rest, nutrition, exercise, movement, and sleep.
If I was a fly on the wall, what would I see during your fights?
This is a question I ask couples when we begin working together. What happens behaviorally during your fights? Do you notice a pattern? Get really clear on the moves each of you are making before, during, and after your arguments. In particular, notice your own behavior. What do you say? What do you do? It can be really easy for us to get caught up in pointing out what our partner is saying/doing and deny our contribution to the argument.
What was the cue?
Can you remember the specific moment that things started to head off course? Often things are going along just fine and suddenly it shifts. This is a very important moment to pay attention to! If we can catch the moment that we become triggered it is much easier to correct course. The earlier we notice that we are moving into emotional dysregulation the easier it will be to choose a new action. Once the fight/flight system gets activated it can be hard for it to turn off.
What happens inside of you?
Think of a recent fight you had. What feelings arise? Are you angry, sad, hurt, scared? Do you feel disconnected? What thoughts come up? What do you notice in your body? What feels vulnerable? What are you not saying? What do you need? If you could go back, what would you have said or done differently?
One of the best things we can do to stop fights is to pause our conversations when things get heated. Then it is important to share this with our partner. Simply saying something such as, "I am getting upset and I do not want to fight. I need to pause this conversation. Let's talk again when we are both balanced." Then make a plan for when you think you can talk about it.
I cannot stress enough the importance of good repair. If you and your partner get into a fight, as soon as possible, repair. Repairs generally include a few important elements such as owning your partner, expressing remorse, sharing the impact you had on the other, what you learned, and what you will do differently next time.
Work As A Team
It is so much easier when both people are working together to change their interactional patterns. If you feel you and your partner are fighting too much, talk about this with your partner during a balanced and calm time. Come up with a plan that works for both of you to get things back on track.
The Couples Therapists at Integrative Family Therapy have specialized training in helping couples to stop fighting. They help couples look deeper as what is driving their fights and support them to share this in a way that creates more bonding, connection, and closeness. If you feel like you could use some relationship help, schedule a free consultation with one of our couples therapists to get support in turning things around! To schedule a free consultation visit our website at www.integrativefamilytherapy.com.
Hello! I am Cristina Trette. I am a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and Owner of Integrative Family Therapy. I am passionate about guiding couples to keep their love alive and inspiring parents to raise kids that thrive.