When you think back on fights you've had with your partner or others, do you generally remember what you fought about? In my work with couples, they may tell me that they had a big fight, and when I ask what they were fighting about, they often can't remember. The reason for this is that it's rarely the issue itself, but how they are dealing with the issue that creates the most problems.
What often happens is one person says something that triggers the other, such as:
- Something that isn't true or accurate, or in some way doesn't make sense
- Something that indicates that one person doesn't see the other clearly, or is misinterpreting them
- Something that sounds judgmental or blaming
- Something that sounds arrogant or righteous
- Something that sounds or feels rejecting
- Something that sounds or feels needy
How do you generally respond when your partner, parent, child, friend or co-worker triggers you in one of these ways?
- Explain, defend or use logic to try to fix/change them, or do something else to talk them out of their feelings and show them they are wrong?
- Get angry or blaming?
- Withdraw in anger or resistance and sulk?
- Give yourself up and go along with what they are saying?
What happens when you react in these ways? The chances are good that if you do the first two, you will end up in an argument. If you withdraw or give yourself up, you might avoid the conflict, but you may feel upset and resentful. In either case, the connection between you is broken for the time being, and this likely feels sad to you.
Does the conflict reach a loving resolution when you react in any of the above ways? Probably not.
One of the things many people have a hard time accepting is that when someone is coming from their ego-wounded self, they are closed to learning -- which means they cannot hear and take in what you are saying to them. Whatever you say when someone is closed falls on deaf ears -- and they are always closed when they are distorting the truth, misinterpreting, being judgmental or blaming, being arrogant or righteous or being rejecting or needy. Most of us cannot hear the other person when we are triggered into our own protective/controlling behavior.
Then, if both of you are triggered into your controlling ego-wounded selves, the interaction can escalate into threats, rage or violence.
What to Do to Not Fight
The first thing you need to do is fully accept that there is nothing you can do about what is going on with the other person. This is very hard for most people. We want to believe that if only we say the right thing or act right, we can get them to see things our way. No matter how right you are about the issue, explaining, defending, getting angry, blaming or righteous will do nothing to change the other's mind. They can't hear you when they are trying to control you!
Once you accept your helplessness over them, then you can realize that you are not at all helpless over yourself. Here are two healthy choices you can make to not get into a fight:
- If you can walk away, do so, but not in anger or blame. Disengage -- not as a punishment of them ("I'm going to pull my love and caring away because you are hurting me and I will show you that you can't treat me this way") -- but to take loving care of your own feelings. Move into compassion for the sadness, loneliness and heartache that you may feel when someone you care about is disconnected from you and unavailable to talk openly about it. Of primary importance is: Don't take it personally. Their unloving behavior is not about you -- it is a reflection of their own self-abandonment.
The challenge in lovingly disengaging is to keep your own heart open so that when the other person is open, you are not stuck with anger and resentment. The way to do this is to learn to take full responsibility for your own pain, managing it with compassion and kindness toward yourself and making sure you are not taking their behavior personally. I like to put my hand on my heart, which grounds me in my heart, making it easier to be kind and gentle with my feelings.
What to Do If They Open at Some Point
At some point, the other person might calm down and open. If you have been taking care of yourself, then you are also open. The time to discuss a conflict is only when both people are open to learning about themselves and each other.
There are two things you can do that may facilitate resolution:
- You can open to learning with them about what was going on with them -- why they were upset and closed. This can lead to new understandings of an issue that may need resolution.
If, at any time during this discussion, one or both of you close down again, stop. Stop talking. Stop trying to resolve anything. Accept that you cannot resolve a conflict unless both of you are open to learning. Go back to tending to your own feelings, staying open to why you might have closed up in the interaction. There is always much to learn about what triggers us into a closed, protected, controlling place.
You will likely find many of your relationships becoming more loving and connected when you learn to lovingly disengage, stay open to learning, not take others' behavior personally, and tell your truth without blame or judgment.
Margaret Paul, Ph.D. is a relationship expert, best-selling author, and co-creator of the powerful Inner Bonding® self-healing process, recommended by actress Lindsay Wagner and singer Alanis Morissette, and featured on Oprah. To begin learning how to love and connect with yourself so that you can connect with others, take advantage of our free Inner Bonding eCourse, receive Free Help, and take our 12-Week eCourse, "The Intimate Relationship Toolbox" - the first two weeks are free! Discover SelfQuest®, a transformational self-healing/conflict resolution computer program. Phone or Skype sessions with Dr. Margaret Paul.
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