Don't Fight! I Got It ... but...How?

Stop wasting your breath … and hurting your relationship

Patty loved shopping. She earned good money, and loved to spend it. Patty fell in love with Steve who also earned good money. They were different in one important way. Steve was very careful with money, and saved 25% of every paycheck.

They fell in love. Steve proposed. Patty planned the wedding, and the fights began. Patty knew that Steve was good with money, and hoped he would be a good for her because she wasn’t. Steve knew that Patty was extravagant and secretly thought he would change her after they were married.

The fights about money began before the wedding, and continued, right up to the divorce.

The marital researchers, at the Gottman Institute in Seattle, studied hundreds of newlywed couples over a long period of years. They discovered that about 70% of the conflict issues that couples had when they were newlyweds, remained 6 years later. In other words, most of the things couples fight about don’t get resolved.

Here’s what this means to you … and your relationship. If you have the same fights over and over, you are wasting your breath. And, you’re hurting your relationship. You’re fighting an endless fight. We call it a circle dance. We say that 80% of the problems in your relationship come from 20% of the issues. If you end the circle dance, 80% of your problems will disappear. But, you can’t end the fights about irresolvable issues until you identify them.

Identify irresolvable differences … and accept them

With Patty and Steve, the circle dance was about money; how much to spend and how much to save. With Eric and Millie it was about how to discipline the kids. With Dave and Sandra, it was about his drinking. With Mike and Taisha, it was about her wanting to stop working and be a stay-at-home mom.

With you and anybody, there will be an issue

Maybe you could figure it out in advance, but often it just appears, after the wedding. So, if you’ve got a circle dance with your present partner, don’t even imagine that it would be better with someone else. It may be different, but researchers tell us that any two people will have at least one marital issue that cannot and will not be resolved. So, if you can’t resolve it, and it’s hurtful to your relationship to keep fighting about it, what do you do?

Breathe deep, wish it weren’t so, then appreciate something about your partner

We suggest that you simply accept that you and your lover have an issue that cannot and will not be resolved. We suggest that you breathe deep, wish that it weren’t so, and then decide not to fight about it again. Here are some helpful tips:

Agree to disagree. Clear the air with your partner. Explain that you now realize that the two of you have one of those circle dances going and that it is harmful for your relationship to fight endlessly about something that won’t change. Make it clear that neither of you is to blame, (or that there is some blame on both parts).

If your partner won’t agree, and you want to break up your circle dances by yourself, simply stop doing what you do when your partner does what your partner does. Dances can’t continue with just one dancer. One way to do it is to say something like, “I love you, and I’d feel more secure if we don’t have the same fight over and over again. Let’s talk about something else.”

Decide to accept some or all of your partner’s position on your conflict issue. Do this out of love and respect for your partner. Decide to lighten up on your position on the conflict issue. No matter how important it has always seemed to be, it isn’t as important as your marital happiness. This will be hard for you, because you’ve got such a big stake in your position, and you probably think your partner’s position is indefensible. But, the issue isn’t more important than your relationship, and your position may not be as rock solid as it has always seemed to you.

Many lucky couples celebrate long and successful relationships, by learning to laugh at the situation and themselves whenever their conflict issue pops up. “There I go again.” Or “Sorry, I know you hate it when I do that.”

Do you want to dig into the past to find the root causes?

Decide together whether you want to explore the root causes of the problem. Marital researchers say that behind each person’s position on a conflict issue there is an underlying childhood dream or decision, and if you discover what each of your childhood stories are, you’ll understand why your partner seems to be acting stubbornly, or persistently, in ways you think are wrong.

For example, Patty grew up in a family with a penny-pinching father who controlled every penny spent in the household. As she was growing up she vowed that when she had her own money, she would feel free to spend it. Steve grew up in a family where the father was always broke and in debt. The family scraped along without enough money for even the basics. Steve vowed that when he grew up he’d spend carefully and save money so his family would be able to handle any difficulty.

If they each understood the other’s back-story, they might be better able to accept their differences, and even allow for them.

If you both agree that you want to go exploring, it may be safer with a marital counselor to guide you, but if you’re still feeling loving and warm toward each other, you can do it your self.

One useful exercise is to take 10 or 15 minute turns, where one talks and the other can only ask clarifying questions. Start with the question at issue, for example:

Tell me everything that comes to mind, from your childhood, or family around the issue of _____________ (money, drinking, sex, child rearing, in-laws, etc.).

Be ready to shut the conversation down if it starts to replay your present issue, the one you’ve decided not to fight about any more. It’s okay if it brings up emotions, but you don’t want the discussion to be hurtful to one another.

On changeable conflicts … start from a positive place

Some conflict issues can be resolved. It may mean that one or both of you will have to change your habits or preferences. It may mean that each of you will have to compromise a little to resolve the conflict. The important thing is to begin the conflict discussion in a positive way.

Marital research shows that when a couple starts a conflict discussion with mutual respect and caring, they are more likely to reach a positive resolution. In the same way that starting with a criticism usually means that the conversation will go from bad to worse, the reverse is also true.

When you start in a positive way, you’re likely to achieve a good solution, and the relationship will be stronger as a result.

Notice, however, that when you begin a conflict discussion, you are playing with fire. In the same way that it’s smart to have a fire extinguisher handy if you are playing with matches, it’s smart to have a repair step practiced and handy when you begin a conflict discussion

Learn and practice one or two repair steps

A repair step is something you use when a discussion takes a wrong turn. If one of you gets angry, or takes offense, or becomes critical, the discussion can turn negative and take both of you down with it. Not only won’t you resolve the issue under discussion, but you may end up with bad feelings that will hurt the relationship. There are dozens of these “fire extinguishers” to choose from, but here are a few examples:


Four out of five of your fights will disappear if you can both learn to deal with your main conflict issues by laughing instead of fighting.

If your partner won’t join you, you can learn how to lovingly disengage from fights around this issue in the future, by yourself. Just say something like, “I love you, and it’s safer for us if we don’t have the same fight over and over again.”

By reducing your negative fighting experiences, you’ll make the relationship more positive. You can enter conflict discussions that can be resolved, from a positive and productive place.

Learn and practice repair steps you can use when a discussion turns into a fight.

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