The Good Feud Guide (Part Two)
Including five tips to make a change, starting today
Last week, I covered some of the ways we argue badly. This week - a few more of these failed strategies, plus how to respond if your partner uses them on you, AND some starting-points for doing better.
Most Likely to Say: ‘You never pick up after yourself.’
Effect: Your criticised partner immediately goes on the defensive, listing the times they have gone above and beyond in the cleaning department, or alternatively shifting to attack mode.
The row is turned into a tennis match, with both partners trading insults.
Deal with it: Instead of the wild generalisation, try being specific: ‘would you mind clearing your papers off the table?’
Try and take the words ‘never’ and ‘always’ out of your vocabulary. It takes a while to break the habit but it’s worth the effort. The results can be revolutionary.
Most Likely to Say: ‘I know you’ve always hated my mother.’
Effect: This tactic is normally used against the silent treatment. It can work in the short term, because it opens up communication, but also makes your partner very lazy. Why should they work out what they’re feeling, when you’re willing to fill the blanks?
Worse still, you can often be wrong and sometimes picking a fight when none is needed.
Deal with it: Instead of putting words into their mouth, ask questions. ‘Are you doing this because you hate my mother?’ Follow it up with a more general question: ‘have you any idea why you’re behaving like this?’
Give them time to think, even if it means sitting in silence, and don’t move onto another topic.
Try my book Help Your Partner Say Yes: Seven Steps to Achieving Better Co-Operation and Communication if you find yourself regularly bogged down in arguments or procrastination.
The Emotional Scoreboard
Most Likely to Say: ‘And another thing, in the summer of 1993 you flirted outrageously with the neighbour at the street picnic’
Effect: These ‘Museum Tours’ make it impossible to solve anything, because the argument is about a hundred things at a time. If by a miracle, resolution is on the horizon, another old score is lobbed into the row.
Deal with it: Shift the focus onto a specific piece of future behaviour, rather than the past. For example: ‘at the party on Saturday, please don’t slow dance with X’
Once issues begin to be faced, the temptation to dwell on old scores will pass.
Most Likely to Say: ‘Now look what you’ve done...’ ‘You hate me’
Effect: This is another version of blocking and silence. Tears puts your partner on the defensive, sometimes they’ll be sympathetic, and in the short term you feel better.
However your anger is still there and the problems remain unsolved. If however, the tears are seen as weapons, your partner may become angry, and the row escalates.
Deal with it: If you’re tearful, try voicing the feelings instead: ‘what you’ve said makes me tearful.’ In this way you are stating your case rather being overwhelmed by unpleasant emotions.
Practice the technique first in a less intense environment, like when a friend upsets you.
Most Likely to Say: ‘When are you finally going to get round to putting up that shelf?’
Effect: You feel like a horrible, trivial person; whilst they play victim, and both of you are completely exhausted. In the long term, it slowly sours the atmosphere in the home and eats away at love.
Deal with it: Nagging often happens because some people (in my experience, often men) are either unwilling or feel unable to say a direct no. They think it’s easier to agree and slip the project into their ‘I’ll get round to it someday’ file.
Alternatively they could have underestimated the time needed, but allowed you to assume it could be done quicker. When your partner takes on a job, ask them to talk through what is involved. This gives you a clear understanding of the timescale; and together you can agree when the job should be finished.
Finally, phrase a request so your partner can decline. This gives you the choice of doing it yourself, getting someone else in, or having a row (but at least the fight will be over quicker than the long-term guerrilla warfare of nagging.)
Listen to my podcast episode with therapists Matt Wotton and Graham Johnstone on Good Boundaries: The Foundation of Happy Relationships.
Most Likely to Say: ‘If you think you’re going to get round me with a kiss, you’ve got another think coming.’
Effect: Normally this means a sex strike, but can also include letting them get their own meals and do their own laundry. It brings problems to a head, especially as many partners imagine that while they are still having sex, nothing is fundamentally wrong, but really, this is a last ditch tactic. Either they agree to marital counselling or the situation becomes ripe for an affair.
Deal with it: This is a sneaky way of fighting. Instead of being upfront about what’s troubling you, the focus is shifted to the bedroom.
Look deep into your heart and make a list of what makes you angry. Take the smallest item on the list and focus on that first. If you have ‘gone off sex’ but consider your relationship generally happy, your body is probably telling you to think again. Under these circumstances consider visiting a psycho-sexual therapist.
Five Simple Ways to Start Arguing Better
Here are some fundamental tools to help you get change in motion:
During an argument, it is easy to think of ourselves as innocent and our partner as guilty. Take responsibility for your half of the argument.
Don’t try and aim to WIN an argument. Lasting change is brought about by compromise. So if they agree to stop something which irritates you, make a deal and change something in return.
Hear each other out. Don’t use the time they’re talking to rehearse your side of the argument, and don’t interrupt, unless it is for a clarification. Some couples find it works best if they allow five uninterrupted minutes each. At the end, repeat back their main points. This will make them feel heard and understood. Then switch over.
Don’t sweat the small stuff. Often we don’t give in, even though it is something we don’t really care about, in case it makes us feel generally weak. Keep your fights for the really important issues.
Respect each other. You don’t have to agree, but unless you respect each other’s opinions the relationship is fundamentally flawed.
Don’t criticise - instead, tell them how you feel - “I felt embarrassed when you told inappropriate jokes at the party tonight” works a lot better than “you looked completely ridiculous tonight and humiliated me in front of all my friends”. You are the expert on your feelings, and if you can share them clearly, an apology will be more likely than a counter-attack.
In other news, don’t miss my podcast conversation with therapist Sheila Rubin on Embracing Shame - Sheila is a warm, compelling communicator with a wealth of knowledge on this subject (which is absolutely key to improving your relationships).
As always, if it feels like the right time to start marital therapy, send an email to Tricia (firstname.lastname@example.org) for a virtual or in-person appointment with one of my team of therapists in London, or with me here in Berlin.