GETTING PAST THE ARGUMENTS
BY KALI MUNRO, M.Ed., Psychotherapist, 2000
One of the hardest things to handle in a relationship is conflict. While a good and fair fight can clear the air and help you to feel closer to your lover, many fights are just hurtful and destructive. Fights that never go anywhere, that are repeated year after year, or that leave you feeling awful about yourself are not going to help your relationship. Those are the kinds of fights we need to take another look at, and find out what is going on underneath. This is true for any conflict that doesn’t feel right, not just those you have with your lover.
With most fights, there are layers of what we mean, feel, intend, hope for, and believe, and what we actually say. We may only say a little of how we feel, or we may even say the opposite of how we’re feeling on a much deeper level than the surface. Problems arise when we don’t come from the deeper levels.
Some people think that the top layer of what they feel and think is all that there is, yet they feel something’s missing in their relationship. Others know how they feel but instead of stating their feelings as their own, they blame how they feel on their lover, leading to hurt feelings and arguing that goes nowhere. This is often the time that people call it quits on a relationship.
Many break-ups occur because we do not know how to get to our inner depth, or getting to it, how to share it. What we want to say isn’t what comes out of our mouths. We argue about something meaningless in order to get space from our lover, rather than feel the anxiety or fear we may have about setting boundaries or looking at what we need. We argue to feel more alive, instead of looking at what is missing in our life. We argue about what our lover spent money on, rather than face our own issues about money. We argue as a way to control our lover, rather than face our fear of being controlled. Regardless of the content of the argument, until we are prepared to express and respect our lover’s deeper feelings, beliefs, and meanings (and s/he respects ours), very little change can take place.
We can work around our lover’s “sensitive points,” expect them to do the same for us, and make compromises, but how far does that really take us? While problem-solving can help, particularly in the immediate future, often it isn’t enough for the long run. As long as the deeper issues remain unaddressed, our relationship will be flattened, soured, or lost to meaningless fights.
So how do you get underneath the arguments? By being vulnerable and risking being as open and as honest about yourself as you can with your lover. Take anything you argue about and ask yourself what is upsetting you. Usually people will respond with answers that are about their lovers – s/he spends too much money, s/he is defensive, s/he doesn’t listen to me. Now try asking yourself the following questions:
- WHAT ABOUT THAT BOTHERS YOU?
- HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT IT?
- HOW DO YOU REACT TO IT, AND WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO YOU?
- WHAT IF ANYTHING ARE YOU AFRAID OF?
- WHAT DO YOU BELIEVE IT MEANS ABOUT YOU OR YOUR RELATIONSHIP?
- DOES IT REMIND YOU OF ANYONE?
Try not to get bogged down in intellectual answers. Even if you know the answers, see if you can connect to your feelings about it and notice whether any other thoughts, feelings, associations, or memories come to you spontaneously. Sometimes the best stuff just suddenly occurs to us.
Next, find an opportunity when you and your lover aren’t rushed or distracted, and share how you are feeling about the issue. When mentioning something about her/his behavior that affects you, phrase it within your own experience (“When I think that you are not listening to me I feel…I then worry that…it reminds me of…which feels…to me). Even when you want to mention something that your lover does, focus on you and your deeper responses. You may want to ask for something specific (“Could we set aside times to listen to each other?”) which your lover can consider, but initially it is usually best to have you and your lover listen to and understand each others’ deeper responses.
You might be tempted to leap to a solution, but this is only the beginning. If you settle on a solution too quickly, you could miss something that still needs to be unearthed.
The listener’s job is to listen attentively and to verbalize understanding for the other’s feelings, regardless of whether or not the listener agrees with her/his lover’s perception of the events. For example, maybe you think that you’re the one who’s always listening to your lover, and it is s/he who doesn’t listen to you. It’s okay that you do not agree with her/his version of reality, but for now, offer only your understanding of how s/he feels and what it means to her/him. It is important that you suspend your difference of opinion and only offer understanding.
When you’re finished with that, switch roles. Feel free, as the one who just listened, to say somethng like “When I hear you say that, I feel…because I believe that I do listen…. This reminds me of…and I feel…and I don’t know what else to do. I feel that you don’t listen to me. When this happens I feel….” It’s important to not argue about who does or doesn’t listen, or what you each do, but rather, the original speaker should now listen and offer understanding for how it must feel. Keep going back and forth and see what happens. You may not notice anything for a while, but you might. If you don’t, try not to worry or rush the process; something usually shifts over time, especially if you keep going deeper. You never know what you might discover – it may be a completely different issue than you originally thought. Only by staying with your deeper feelings and reactions will you discover what is underneath the arguments.
By each of you truly understanding the others’ perspective without judgement, you’ll be able to move through this barrier in your relationship. Stick with the formula, even if it feels unnatural, and you may find that the two of you are laughing about what started the whole disagreement.