Do You Hit Below the Belt When You Fight?

This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.


When intimate couples argue, they often challenge one another in punch and counter-punch attacks. As tempers rise and defenses emerge, both partners rapidly stop listening to each other and instead invalidate the other's point of view while simultaneously trying to establish their own. After the battle ends, one or both will disconnect until the ritual for reuniting is activated, often without true resolution.
All intimate relationships have both the capacity to scar and to transcend. Scarring occurs when a couple continuously hurts one another without learning or resolving why and how they do that. Transformation happens when partners can get past their disagreements and learn to communicate in healthier ways as a result of those resolutions. If scarring lessens and transformation increases, a committed couple will not only protect their love, but will continue to increase its depth and importance. They can witness that their good times are significantly outweighing the bad, and their trust in each other increasing.

But when scarring continues and the relationship is "transformation-stagnant," the relationship will ultimately decay, often beyond repair. The destruction happens more quickly if the hurled epithets are particularly hurtful, i.e., "below the belt" woundings. Those more insulting, core-damaging behaviors create deeper and more permanent scars. It is crucial for every couple to understand which words or phrases can badly damage, and the consequent damages that may result. For their love and trust to grow more deeply, they must commit to erasing those kinds of trust-breaking insults from their interactions, no matter how angry either may be.

From working with intimate partners for four decades, I've created an exercise to help committed couples identify their "below-the-belt" word, phrases, and behaviors and to recognize how they are likely to permanently endanger their relationship. The comfort that results from that commitment can significantly and positively increase the trust level of the relationship. When both partners know they are safe from these anguishing interactions, they begin to open up to one another in a whole new way.

Stopping "Below the Belt" Behaviors between Intimate Couples

Step One - Each partner Identifies and Recognizes His or Her Own Triggers

Not only do all couples have regular disagreements, but in the heat of battle, it's too easy to blur the boundaries between acceptable and destructive comments. To know the difference, they must both know and stay conscious of the effects of their words. A common example of a reasonable response to a presumed attack might be something like "Please stop yelling at me. I get defensive and can't hear what you're trying to say." An alternate and potentially destructive response would be a character assassination like, "You think that raising your voice makes you more powerful? No, it doesn't. It just makes you a bully." The first statement tells the other partner that he or she is being offensive in that moment. The last describes a negative personality characteristic and the expected defense is certain to escalate the battle.

Certain words or phrases are more negative than others, and are received differently by different people at different times and in different relationships. Some of those comments are just simply offensive while others can evoke memories of deeper heartbreaks from previous relationships. Phrases associated with early trauma, for instance, can evoke more painful reactions than intended.
An angry partner may not realize the depth of pain their words create unless both partners have previously shared those vulnerable places. Many couples have told me that they've been so seriously upset when their partner touches upon a heartache from the past that revisits an old wound, yet they have never informed him or her what that trigger was. If you want to help your relationship leave those "below-the-belt" behaviors behind, you must be willing to open up to your new partner and give a head's up to those unresolved situations from the past.

The first step in changing destructive communication habits is for you to identify those words and phrases from our own past that are examples of those deeper vulnerabilities. Start by thinking of people in your past who have hurt you and in what ways. What words or phrases have left painful scars? When you recall them, put them on a list. It might help for you to also jot down a little about the situation that produced them next to each item. Also, write down on that list anything that you might already feel about yourself that makes you uncomfortable. If your partner unknowingly strikes out at you in one of those areas, it will hurt much more because it is your partner and you against you.
List these examples in as concise a way as you can. Do not be concerned at this time as to which are the most significant and which are not.

Step Two - Anticipating Your Partner's Responses

Once you have written down every word or phrase that could deeply wound you again were your partner to express it, put a number beside each of those that reflects the following. The numbers below are the way you believe your partner might respond to you with each item on your list:

Vulnerability Levels

1 - My partner will feel compassion and concern for my feelings

2 - My partner might feel that I should be less sensitive and more trusting

3 - My partner might dismiss my feelings

4 - My partner might mock me or make me feel worse about how I feel

5 - My partner could use one of these vulnerable confessions against me in the future

When you have finished, put all the statements that have a 1 by them in a separate list, those that have a 2 in the next list, and so on. You are creating separate categories to help you differentiate those experiences which might be safer to share first, and those which you need to withhold until you feel safer. It is important for both you and your partner to learn trust over time after the less vulnerable statements have been resolved.

Step Three - Sharing with Your Partner

Ask your partner to join you in this exercise. When each of you has completed the first two steps, you are ready to begin the sharing process. Start with only those words or phrases that fall within the first category that you have listed under the number 1. These vulnerable confessions are both awkward and anxiety-producing for anyone. Commit to receiving them in a respectful and honoring manner.

Each of you should alternate sharing only one thing from your first list. Tell your partner which word or phrase is difficult for you, and share any background that would help him or her understand your strong response. It is important for each listener not to judge, invalidate, or defend his or her reason for using that word or phrase. It is also helpful for each partner to write down what is shared for reference later.

Step Four - Signals for Practice

Agree on benign signals to gently let the other partner know if he or she is inadvertently forgetting or breaking your agreement once a fight begins. The signals should be simple and recognizable. Just holding a hand to your heart or crossing your arms may be enough.

When you begin to agree and the words and phrases from your first list seem to have disappeared from your conflicts, you are both ready to do the same from your next, more vulnerable list, those that have the number 2 after them. As you move through each more vulnerable set of items and experiences, you will find that caring for each other through each new level will make the next easier to resolve.

You may have to help each other often as you first begin with these exercises. When painful words or phrases have been used for a long time, many partners become so allergic to them that their responses are trigger-quick, extremely dismissive, and untrusting. Give one another a break and more chances to make mistakes. If your hearts are in the right place, you will eventually build trust and more openness.

Once you and your partner have been able to share all five levels of vulnerability and now have a conscious awareness of what each means to the other, you will no longer want to justify your words or actions even when you are legitimately and understandably angry. You'll feel automatically deeply remorseful when you realize how much you've hurt the other, and those feelings will help you get back on track again.

When couples achieve this level of awareness and understanding, they find that many other areas of their relationship automatically become more satisfying. The trust they have achieved through letting each other "in" at this level becomes the foundation of future willingness to risk more openness and emotional intimacy between you. Your partner "has your back," and a much deeper trust will surely follow.

Dr. Randi's free advice e-newsletter, Heroic Love, shows you how to avoid the common pitfalls that keep people from finding and keeping romantic love. Based on over 100,000 face-to-face hours counseling singles and couples over her 40-year career, you'll learn how to zero in on the right partner, avoid the dreaded "honeymoon is over" phenomenon, and make sure your relationship never gets boring.