Thursday, May 5, 2011

Same Fight, Different Day: Recurring Fights and How to Avoid Them

Dear Dr. Bukky,
My partner and I have the same fight whenever we go out. We’ve been having this same fight for three years, which is essentially how long we’ve been together.  I am tired of it and don’t know how much else I can take of this. Why is this happening and what can we do?

If you and your partner are like many couples, there is a good chance that you are able to identify with Dani’s frustrations.  It is somewhat common for couples to fight repeatedly about the same issue.  On many occasions, these fights appear so similar that the only difference may be the clothes you are wearing, the location in which the argument is occurring or the specific thing that set off the fight.  These fights are so scripted that if one were to hit a pause button during the argument and ask you to predict what your partner would say next and how the argument would play out, you would likely be able to accurately answer these questions.  Despite this magical ability to foreshadow, couples find themselves engaging in these repeated conflicts, playing the same role and ending up with the same outcome as that which occurred during the previous incident.

There are endless reasons why couples engage in recurrent fights.  Given that, I will not attempt to offer an exhaustive list.  The commonality between the slew of reasons, as you could have probably guessed, is that recurrent fights are clear indicators of the unresolved nature of an issue that is important to one (or both) partner(s) in a relationship.  The emphasis here lies on two words, unresolved and important. 

Sometimes partners incorrectly assume that an issue has been resolved because they expressed their position fervently and it ultimately resulted in a make-up, or the issue was dropped (actively or passively).  At other times, partners may minimize the importance of the issue or completely missed the core of the issue.  Some misinterpret the absence of the issue over a period of time as a sign of resolution. While these are some general examples of ways that couples cope or manage conflicts, they are not signs that you and your partner have agreed to a solution that is satisfactory to both parties.

Repeating fights are alerts about the nature of an issue as important, critical, core, and warranting adequate attention.  That means it is emotionally activating to you (or your partner) and may represent a need or an important want.  If the issue was, trivial or capable of being resolved with a “simple” solution, it would not repeat itself.   

While difficult, it is possible for for you and your partner to set intentions of resolving your patterned fights in a manner that is effective and moves you away from playing the same role on issues that are apparently important to both of you and your relationship.  This can create opportunities for you both to choose to actively rewrite the script in an active and collaborative way that could promote and enhance positive connections between you and your partner. 

Two general intentions you and your partner can set for yourselves and your relationship in this new year are to:
1) Talk openly (and respectfully) about important issues.
2) Address patterned fights proactively rather than reactively.  Rather than waiting for the next time the issue comes up on its own or arguing from reactive positions, be proactive by making (and keeping) the following agreements:
v Agree to schedule times to discuss hot issues
v Agree to a way to manage yours and your partner’s hotness factor.  When the issue is getting really hot for you, identify what you and your partner can do to help you decrease your emotional arousal
v Agree to finding a concrete resolution that meets both your needs or wants
v Agree to a plan to implement the resolution

Obviously, these agreements are simpler stated than done and yet they are the beginnings of a desire to relate differently and in a healthier way to each other.  For many problems, making a change is the best option and for others, acceptance is the best option.  Regardless of which is appropriate for your specific concerns, working collaboratively will offer you both a sense of closeness to each other.  After all, the ultimate goal is to exist in a relationship where you and your partner both feel understood and accepted.

Couple Activity 1
1.     Agree to a time for you to do this couple activity.
2.     At that designated time, start out separately by listing all the recurrent fights you can predict that you will have this year (clue: it will likely be the ones that happened repeatedly last year and you cannot remember an agreed upon solution).
3.     Combine your list together.  
4.     Pick one fight to start with (I recommend doing one at a time given the difficulty of this exercise). 
5.     OPTIONAL STEP: Take turns stating the reasons you have not made any changes on the issue.
6.    IMPORTANT: While each partner is discussing her reason for not making changes on the issue, the job of the other partner is to listen quietly and actively.  When your partner has finished, repeat back to your partner what you heard, emphasizing the empathy you feel for her.  For example, try saying something like, “I can understand that it was hard for you to make changes because _____________________________ (fill in the blank with what you heard).  Avoid (and I really mean, DO NOT) challenging your partner’s reasons as it may very quickly bring this activity to an end.
7.     Take turns sharing the reasons that it will be beneficial for you to address those issues now. 
8.     Take turns telling each other how important addressing this issue is to you, and describe your perspective of what you each need/want related to the matter.  If possible, make distinctions on what is a need versus a want.
9.     Being solution focused and non-judgmental, brainstorm together all the possible solutions that could address the issue.
10. After you’ve agreed to end the brainstorming session, review all solutions and eliminate all the options that do not meet either of your needs.
11. Select the solution that accommodates some (if not all) of both your needs, ensure that you are both satisfied with it, and make a plan to implement it.  If one of you is unsatisfied, return to step 7 (in order to reaffirm how important this is to you both and what you need vs. want on the issue) and complete the process again till you are both satisfied.
Tune in next week for the next article/blog on understanding destructive fighting that paralyze/kill intimate relationships and effective alternatives that cultivate relationship satisfaction.