Stop the Dirty Fighting and Change Your Coupleship Story

by Jami and Marla Keller, Cofounders

Are you tired of having the same old fight over and over again? You’re not alone; it happens to every couple. It’s time to change your coupleship story today and forever! It turns out that in relationships there are really very few problems to be solved. Most issues are tensions to manage, and without tension, there can be no passion. The attitude you use to manage the tensions in your coupleship will create passion or provoke a fight. Most of what we do in our coaching/mentoring/consulting is helping couples find the old way of managing this tension so couples can move from the same old dirty fighting and replace it with new tools that help every coupleship succeed. 

(Marla) Most of our learning about conflict resolution comes from our parents. Maybe you were like Jami and saw many fights between your parents that were highly volatile and frightening at times. Or like me who saw my parents have “loud discussions” that usually ended with my father getting what he wanted. At least that was my perception. Other people we have coached have said that they never even saw their parents fight with each other. And you might think that your parents’ not fighting in front of you was better, but that assumption would be wrong. Dead wrong. Oftentimes, a person who has never seen their parents fight and a person whose parents fought very dirty get together and, boy, the fur starts to fly! Here are some dirty fighting techniques we have come across over the past twenty-four years of working with couples: 

  • Expressing “you” statements–“You make me so angry!” When you address frustration with “I” statements and then talk about your specific feelings, you end up having a more productive conversation that probably won’t meltdown into a knock-down-drag-out.
    • Quick Fix–Shift the conversation by saying instead, “I feel frustrated when you leave your dirty socks in the middle of the floor” instead of “You are so lazy!” 
  • Using “always” and “never” which overstates and exaggerates the situation–“I am always the one who has to take care of the kids! You never help me.” Be very aware when you use these two words. “Always” and “never” are always about the past (childhood) and never about today. Obviously you are triggered in the moment by your partner but the trigger is old.
    • Quick Fix–Take a moment to assess times when you use these words and identify the first time you felt that feeling. Journal this out so that you have more clarity, and then journal about the event. You will find that this keeps you from going to that place when things get heated again.
  • Ghosting your partnerPsychotherapist and professor Jennice Vilhauer Ph.D. writes, “Ghosting isn’t new—people have long engaged in disappearing acts—but years ago this kind of behavior was considered limited to a certain type of scoundrel…being ghosted is a phenomenon that approximately 50 percent of men and women have experienced—and an almost equal number have done the ghosting. Despite how common ghosting is, the emotional effects can be devastating, and particularly damaging to those who already have fragile self-esteem.” The core of ghosting is abandonment through silence, not texting or calling back, saying things like “My phone was dead,” etc.
    • Quick Fix–Choose connection over distance when you are tempted to ignore your partner by responding consistently to them in kindness when they reach out to you. 
  • Escalating from the issue to attacking your partner’s personality, and then asking whether or not a relationship with this person is worth it, and verbalizing the possibility of divorce or break-up– When you love someone your intention is not to hurt them. But when things get heated, the easiest thing to want to do is lash out and be mean. 
    • Quick Fix–Stop. Look. Listen. Take ten seconds before speaking so that you won’t end up saying something you will regret later. 
  • Coming at your partner at a time when they are unable to take the time to work on the problem appropriately–Examples of this would be picking a fight or bringing up something hurtful right when they are walking out the door, immediately before guests arrive, or promptly before driving into the parking lot at a community event. 
    • Quick Fix–Make sure that you are bringing up important conversations at a time that will allow for the discussion to be thorough and not volatile.
  • Crucializing–Saying something like, “If you really loved me, you would do this to make me happy.” Or, “This just proves that you never loved me.” Be careful about rash statements, or guilt-inducing statements. These will only create more pain. 
    • Quick Fix–Instead, take time to think about why you are in love with your partner or better yet why you fell in love with them in the first place. Again, ten seconds can really help! Even a time-out would be appropriate, but make sure it isn’t more than 30 minutes and that you state you are not abandoning your partner but are taking a breather from the conflict to get your heart in a better place. 
  • Kitchen-sinking–Bombarding your partner with everything that they have ever done in the past and then exclaiming that they will never change because of this “proof” that you have just expressed is kitchen-sinking. Remember Rafiki in The Lion King when he hits Simba upside the head with his staff and an incensed Simba says, “Hey! What was that for?” Rafiki replies, “It doesn’t matter. It’s in the past.” Let the past go through forgiveness and move beyond the kitchen sink!
    • Quick Fix–You need to forgive the things of the past and let them stay there. It’s not fair to bring things up that have been forgiven. You are allowed to call a “foul” when this happens during a fight.
  • Telling your spouse that they must be right and that there really isn’t any hope for you–This throws them completely off guard and makes you into the poor martyr. And it’s manipulative and passive-aggressive because you know you don’t really mean it. You just want them to feel sorry for you and back-off.
    • Quick Fix– Instead of playing the martyr, swallow your pride and express your feelings without manipulation or control using “I” statements. 
  • Twisting the blame around–As soon as they address an issue with you, you come right back at them with an issue you have with them. “I didn’t call the insurance company, but you didn’t pick up your socks that you stepped right over on your way to the shower.” Now, this is just childish. A tit-for-tat is not going to create a healthy dynamic.
    • Quick Fix–Take responsibility for your own behaviors. Buck it up, and move on. You know when you have made a mistake, so own it and forgive yourself. And forgive your spouse for bringing up your shortfall. The more you respond appropriately when conflict arises, the fewer conflicts come up, and they will diminish over time.
  • Never taking responsibility for your actions–Using excuses like “I forgot” or “I didn’t hear you say that” or whatever else allows you to avoid responsibility and might even stop the conversation right there. 
    • Quick Fix–Again, grow up and take responsibility for your own actions. 
  • Trying to find the “solution” and not listening–Many people uncomfortable with emotion will move the conversation immediately to making things work through some type of solution instead of simply listening and allowing their spouse to express themselves. This creates frustration and eventually resentment in your partner and will eventually lead to disconnection and discontent in the coupleship.
    • Quick Fix–The first rule of thumb is to listen to your partner and their frustrations. An appropriate question to ask would be, “What do you need from me?” This helps your spouse clarify what it is that they might need, but also allows them to thank you for listening because that allowed them the time and space to figure it out on their own. Or they simply feel better because they got it off of their chest. (Marla) For many years now since learning this Jami will ask me “Are you looking for a solution or do you simply want me to listen?” And it works like magic!
  • Abandoning your spouse by physically leaving the room or by “checking out” emotionally–This will cause the person being abandoned to try harder to control you through raising their voice higher or using any number of the above techniques.
    • Quick Fix–Again, if you feel the desire to abandon because things have gotten out of hand, ask for a time-out and let your partner know that you need 15-30 minutes to process and then you will come back to the conversation. Remember to tell them clearly that you are not abandoning them, you simply need some time to cool-off and process quietly.
  • And last, but not least, Gaslighting your significant other–This is actually the most insidious dirty fighting technique of all of the ones listed above. Relationship expert Susan Winter’s definition is “[G]aslighting occurs when someone tries to control someone else through manipulation by making them doubt themselves, their intuition and their reality. Note that the purpose is to make someone question their reality. It’s a specific form of abuse that can cause people to feel like they’re going crazy.” What does gaslighting look like? Lying about everything and then telling you that you’re “crazy,” blame, denial, ghosting, never taking personal accountability, twisting the truth, crucializing, and attacking your personality or character.
    • Quick Fix–These are also indications of clinical narcissism, and if you find yourself identifying with most or all of these symptoms we highly recommend finding help to healthfully extract yourself from the coupleship. A great resource is the book Disarming the Narcissist by Wendy Behary.

It is probably pretty clear to you which of these techniques you have perfected. Take some time to process them with your partner at a time when you are both in a good space emotionally. Avoid pointing out which ones they do since this is about you and transforming your story, not about helping your significant other see their deficiencies. And if you are still unable to resolve healthfully come see us for your Free Discovery Session; it will be well worth your time and money!