Learning to fight fairly is key to preserving goodwill in all our relationships, from personal to public. Stan Tatkin and his partner Tracey Boldemann-Tatkin, codevelopers of the Psychobiological Approach to Couple Therapy, say the key lies in staying connected even as you express your unhappiness.
Omega: Is it possible to fight fairly?
Stan Tatkin: When you’re arguing you’re trying to get a point across, but it’s easy for a partner to become threatened and disconnect. When this happens nothing can get communicated. This means it’s in my best interest to make sure you’re okay. It’s in my interest to wave a flag of friendliness and say, “I know my talking this way makes you feel like I’m attacking you. I think you’re the greatest thing since sliced bread, but I’m upset about this thing.”
Tracey Boldemann-Tatkin: When you fight with your partner, if you go for the jugular, you go down too. It’s naive to think you’re not going to fight, so you want to make fighting a win-win situation. This means you need to talk eye-to-eye so you can see where you’re partner’s going. When you see them begin to collapse or disconnect, stop the argument. Tell them you’re so mad it’s making your head boil, but you love them regardless.
Stan Tatkin: As with all things with couples, the only way I can get what I want is by taking care of you at the same time. There's no permutation in this universe whereby I can get what I want by only thinking of myself. I can't. If I “win” an argument and you “lose” it, then in the ecosystem that is our relationship, we both lose. If Tracey drags me to somewhere I won’t go, it’s in her interest to shift the conversation to something that will make it right for me because otherwise she will pay for it in the big picture. If she wants me to understand her, she needs to signal she understands me.
Negotiators know this strategy already—in order to get what I want, I have to make sure you also get what you want. Tracey and I believe that secure functioning and learning to fight well isn’t just important for couples—it’s important for all our relationships, including our families, friends, and even in our government and politics.
Omega: What if one partner is not interested in making it right?
Stan Tatkin: If both partners are committed to the relationship as if it's a third entity—there's me, you, and the relationship—then we are committed to doing what it takes to preserve it. If someone won't allow the other person to repair the relationship, they are acting out and doing something self-destructive because everybody in the relationship wants relief. So the person who is failing to correct, repair, or relieve the relationship quickly has the burden to do it.
Omega: Can you give an example of how this works?
Stan Tatkin: If Tracey is mad at me but I don't believe I did anything so I don't make any attempt to repair the relationship, that would be a problem because I have to care that she feels hurt more than I care about myself. I won't win that argument ever; I will only lose and I'll pay for that. It's in my interest to take care of her because I want her to do the same for me. People are burdens, but when we are in a relationship we take each other on as burdens because nobody else wants that job. We do things for each other that nobody else wants to do and it is returned quid pro quo. We're each other's pain in the ass, but that's what we signed up for.
Omega: We're often taught to be responsible for ourselves, to protect our individuality in a relationship, but it sounds like you're advocating for something different.
Stan Tatkin: If you're ultimately looking out for yourself, you will choose that over the relationship, which is why we say that your commitment is to the relationship, not to yourself and not even to the other person. An individualistic positioning would be considered hostile in a love relationship. Your adult love relationship is similar to your earliest infant/caregiver relationship. Imagine that your mother had told you, "Honey, I'm going to take care of myself. I had children too early and I need to go back to school. There's food in the refrigerator—I'll see you in about two years." That's not supposed to happen. When we enter into a dependency relationship, we don't expect the other person to say to us, "I'm going to have to think about myself now." That's for when you're single. But once you're in each other's care, individualistic positioning will start a war that can't be won.
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