There are countless books, essays, articles and blogs written about how to have a healthy relationship. Hopefully, this one will be very direct – like a lazer beam as it gets right to the heart of the matter: How to have a clean fight. Couples that know how to fight well have good make-up sex.
In order to discuss how to have a clean fight I have taken my lead from a famous therapist Jay Haley, who lived and worked right here in the DC area from the 1980’s until he died in 2007. Although I never met Jay nor worked with him, his legacy lives through his powerful writings, including this essay “How to Have an Awful Marriage” – a thorough examination of how to maintain a miserable existence throughout your life.
Through this light hearted play on a theme we will examine the best way to have a hurtful, destructive, mean spirited fight and hopefully figure out how to avoid this path. I warn you in advance, though like anything worthwhile in life it will be easier said then done.
The most common form of poor fighting relates to power struggles. Our culture sets us up for this primary fallacy in fighting techniques. From grade school to the grave we are heavily indoctrinated in the virtues of being “right”.
Adding to the appeal of super imposing a right-wrong model on our personal disagreements, our civil society functions such that those with power get to choose what’s right. This type of hierarchical power can best be described as form power – those with the highest ranking, have the most power, and are therefore granted the ability to often determine the outcome of events. As pervasive as form power may be in our culture, it translates poorly into decision-making, and conflict resolution in intimate relationships.
As a strong and fast rule, the more a relationship gets tangled up in a power struggle the more the relationship loses. A corollary is that whoever loses the win-lose decision will surely strike back the next time around, often in stealth mode.
A second common and deadly form of disagreeing is the “cuisenart effect” or mixing in old, past unresolved conflicts into the current topic at hand. Like mixing together a recipe of different ingredients in the kitchen, the couple finds a way to throw all of their past unresolved material into a given point of contention.
This form of mixing old conflicts into the present usually is related to the first fighting flaw, engaging in trying to win a fight. Whatever the drive to mix together the unresolved past into the present this form of disagreement makes for a lot of bad feelings.
If the couple survives the test of time they learn that many things in their relationship do not get resolved. As a partial list of these unresolved pieces may include dynamics brought on by in-laws or ex-spouses, or some irreversible part or a partner’s character, or some realities from our past before or during the relationship or realities around financial or career decisions.
How a couple comes to live with these unresolved pieces will determine the quality of their lives together. Couples that kind find a way to respect and care about each others’ differing positions and points of view find the space to have more with each other.
Another, relatively and common and highly destructive mistake couples fall into relates to issues of respect. When the fight deteriorates to pejoratives, name calling, belittling, putdowns the relationship suffers.
Styles of disagreement within couples varies greatly. Sometimes people get mad by being silent, or intentionally striking out in words or deeds to inflict damage to their partner. Once the mode of engagement becomes about inflicting harm onto the other its only a matter of time until the whole relationship crumbles.
Why is it easier said then done?
One of the main reasons its easier to know about the destructive impact of poor fighting form, yet so difficult to implement anything else has to do with the experience most of us call “pushing buttons”. Carl Jung coined the technical phrase that in our culture we call pushing buttons a “psychological complex”.
Jung described a complex as a set of emotionally charged events in our childhood, or first families that bind together in our development and create a lot of emotional or psychological energy for us throughout our lives. For example, John was the youngest boy in a family of 5 girls. His sisters doted on him, liked to take care of him in every way, makes sure his clothing matched, his meals were served, his homework done neatly and on time. John had the experience as if he had 6 mothers. As grew up he had to fight more for a masculine identity. Later in marriage he was very reactive to certain kinds of care giving or affection from wife, and only wanted to cook his own meals, shop for his own clothing and only watched programs that were action packed steering away from issues of affection or relationships.
As another example, Tonya had parents who were addicted to alcohol and focused on hiding this fact to the community at large. Her dad’s behavior was unpredictable, sometimes loving, sometimes sleeping during the day, and sometimes angry and mean. As a result she is very image conscious and has a hard time trusting herself and her husband even though he rarely if ever acts like her father once did.
These kind of formidable, enduring experiences shape both John and Tonya in very different ways, yet to each of them their development creates reactions and limitations in their current relationships. Here are two tangible examples that illustrate why it might take some time and the trusted help of an experienced guide to teach the heart what the mind already knows.