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How do you let go of "being right" during a fight?

Yesterday I saw a clip on Good Morning America about rules to follow when you are fighting with your partner. It got me thinking about how I handle myself in my relationships and the couples that I work with in my practice who are working to improve their relationships. The reality is that most people know these rules already – stay calm, listen to the other person’s perspective, try not to be defensive, etc. We even use these “rules” (or skills really) in other situations and in other relationships at work or with friends. We even know (sometimes in the moment when we are not following these rules) that the way we are acting is not going to make things better. So, what is going on here? Why do we get so caught up in “being right”? How do we increase the motivation to use the skills that we already know to make our relationship better?

According to the model of couples therapy that I use (Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy), all fights are really protests against feeling distant, feeling unimportant, or feeling like our partner wasn’t there for us when we needed them. It is essentially a model that acknowledges how important our close relationships are to our sense of safety and well being in the world. Looking at our partner through this lens, it makes sense that even a small disconnect can trigger strong feelings! For example, my husband and I have had arguments triggered (for me) by his tone of voice when he answered a phone call from me. “Geez. Sorry to bother you!” {Translation: “You didn’t seem happy to hear from me. That really hurts!”} The pain of feeling distant or unimportant to our partner leads to a cascade of negative feelings that are so intense, that all the skills you might know about relationships and how to “fight right” go out the window and now you are fighting to be heard, to be seen, to be understood, and to reach your partner again. It’s not a fight we can easily walk away from!

Sue Johnson, creator of Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy (EFT) says that the best way to deal with these painful moments in relationships is to soothe each others’ hurt feelings, and to make each other feel safe again; often this is exactly what we are working on in couples therapy. After many unrepaired fights, couples start to view each other as potentially hurtful and unsafe and have developed a phobia of reaching out to each other for soothing. Finding the courage to reach out involves acknowledging and giving yourself permission to feel afraid, to feel hurt, and to need your partner’s help with these feelings. If you can find the courage to reach out to each other, Thich Nhat Han (a Buddhist monk) teaches 4 mantras that can almost instantly improve your connection and decrease your suffering in a relationship. The mantras go like this:

Darling, I am here for you.

Darling, I see that you are here for me.

Darling, I see that you are suffering, and that is why I am here for you.

Darling, I am suffering and I am trying so hard to practice a better way. Please help me.

Try out these mantras in moments when you are not fighting with your partner. Start with just the first two, and say them to each other at least once per day for a week. When you are ready, add the last two (again when you are not fighting) and see how these mantras make you feel. Generally, these mantras have a softening impact and help us stay in contact with the reality that we are connected and have a huge impact on each other! (Something we forget when we are fighting!)

We will never be able to avoid hurting our partner or being hurt, but with practice reaching for each other to be soothed, we build the emotional safety that is needed to use the fighting “rules” that we already know!

Thanks for reading! As always your comments and questions are welcomed!

For more information on Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy, click here:

For more information on my group for couples called The Mindful Couple where we combine practices from EFT and Relationship Mindfulness practices from Buddhist teachers including Thich Nhat Han and Pema Chodron click here:

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