Have you ever gotten to round six of a fight and wondered: Am I even with the right person?
The concept of “right” or “wrong” can put a relationship into an endless cycle of arguing, confusion and pain — making us question the whole relationship. But consider this: According to marriage experts, two thirds of conflict in marriages aren’t even resolvable.
It’s a statistic that makes one fight seem like a long, dark road. We can’t agree on everything, so how do happy couples stay happy?
Since the human (and animal) brain is wired for survival, when conflict seems imminent, a part of our brain kicks into high gear as we prepare to fight, flee or freeze (the worst). That wiring prevents us from another natural instinct — our desire for human connection.
“When we are hurt, we become self-centered,” Dr. Michael DiPaolo, Ph.D., marriage and IMAGO therapist, tells LIVESTRONG.COM. “‘Now I’m in survival mode: I’m doing what works for me, and I’m not able to think about what you need or we need.’” DiPaolo has been teaching the IMAGO approach to married or dating gay and straight couples for more than 15 years.
IMAGO, the Latin word for “image” (or the unconscious image of who we fall in love with), is predicated on safety. Meaning that the communication tactics — which you will learn below — create a harm-free environment, keeping that fight-or-flight part of the brain in check.
“If that part of the brain is calm, then we can understand and connect and have empathy and love,” says DiPaolo. The approach takes practice, mastery, maturity and knowledge about the psyche. But the good news is that humans are trainable.
Change the Way You Think About Fighting
It may not feel like it, but fighting is actually good for you. Disagreement forces an understanding between two people that are trying to figure each other out. Hidden underneath all that anger is a feeling of longing as well as needs that may have been frustrated — versus the need to be “right” — explains DiPaolo.
Your fights won’t always be rainbows and butterflies, but by recognizing that arguing is OK, it won’t feel as emotionally traumatic. Rather that an argument representing a total relationship apocalypse, it can signal that “we are actually being invited for growth,” he says.
Another tactic that will help you avoid unnecessary tension is to always give your partner the benefit of the doubt. This means that if your partner says or does something upsetting, instead of thinking they’re out to get you, first consider that it could actually not even be about you.
Could it be that your main squeeze is having a bad week at work? “Your partner didn’t wake up that morning looking for ways to piss you off,” says DiPaolo. Trust this and it will help you consistently connect with the good of the relationship.
Change Your Fighting Stance
Let’s say an argument arises as you’re racing out the door to work. First things first: no digital dueling. If you need to let out steam, don’t do it over iMessage (we know, the new emoticons are tempting).
While it might feel good to you, it’s unfair to the person on the receiving end. Plus, the importance of voice and facial expressions are lost. DiPaolo recommends tapping out something like this instead: “I just want to let you know that I am committed to working through this when we see each other tonight. And I appreciate you for X, Y and Z.”
Which brings up the next point: Whether you’re together or apart, schedule a time to “dialogue” — a nifty word that is less threatening than “have a talk.” The quickest way to solve an issue is to make sure you dialogue at the right time for both of you. DiPaolo says to literally book an appointment for your “fight.”
This strategy will force you to reflect before the conversation and keep you from saying things when you’re revved up that you wish you could take back. (We’ve all been there, and it ain’t pretty.) DiPaolo advises starting softly with something like, “I’d like to have a dialogue with you. Is now a good time?”
If it’s not a good time for your partner, respect that and suggest another time, even if it’s 20 minutes later (but no more than 24 hours). It takes discipline, but will benefit both of you in the end. Hello, make-up sex!
Change the Way You Communicate
Now it’s showtime. Let’s say you have an appointment to dialogue. The IMAGO approach outlines three steps to be followed in order (it’s easy as one, two, three). If both people follow these guidelines — using humility and maturity — it’s highly possible your fight will end with you two in the sack.
Literally repeat what your partner says right back to them. It trains you to listen (rather than conjuring a response in your head) and leaves your partner feeling heard. Start with: “So what I hear you saying is that you feel…"
After you’ve mirrored, seek to understand your partner and let them know their points make sense to you. Underscore that it doesn’t mean you agree with them, it just means that you recognize two opposing views can live in the same world. It conveys acceptance. Start with: “It makes sense to me that you feel that way because…”
After you validated, step into your partner’s world for a second and take a few guesses as to how they’re feeling. Seek to understand their perspective. By participating in the emotional realm of the other, it will leave you both feeling safe and understood. Start with: “I imagine this leaves you feeling lost, is that correct?”
After you go through these steps, it’s your turn to respond using the same format. The result isn’t “right” or “wrong.” In a way, it’s more like a negotiation that gets you to a place of understanding, DiPaolo says.
Adopt a Few Healthier Habits
There’s always proactive work you can do to keep the waters calm. According to DiPaolo, four critical moments of the day can leave a long-lasting impact on us: waking up, leaving home, coming home and going to bed.
Use these moments to express appreciation and love for one another (even just a pinch on the bum will do). This way, there is less room to feel unappreciated — a common source of hurt and, thus, fighting.
Before you raise an issue with your partner, take a mental inventory. To resolve an argument quickly, you need to feel healthy and calm. So ask yourself how you’re feeling. Are you hungry? Tired? Drunk? If so, eat first — maybe it won’t matter as much after a few tacos.
If it’s late, agree with your partner to dialogue in the morning, especially if you’ve been drinking. “The old adage ‘never go to bed angry’ doesn’t necessarily always apply,” says DiPaolo. While you shouldn’t harbor feelings, timing trumps all.
What Do YOU Think?
Have you ever heard of IMAGO therapy? Have you ever tried it to heal issues in your relationships? What do you think of these tips?