Marriage & Couples: How to Fight Productively | Austin, TX

Dr. Charlotte Howard, a psychologist at Deep Eddy Psychotherapy in Austin, TX, talks about what healthy communication looks like and how to have a fight in a way that is enlivening and does not hurt your relationship or your heart.


Learning Closeness through Healthy Communication in Marriage

In healthy communication, you really want to be close to someone. You’re inviting closeness and safety and that’s where communication can get across. Now, some people talk to keep people away and so it won’t come across very well, but if you can join around similarities with someone first, that opens the boundaries to communication. People listen more and feel safer when they feel their similarities with another.

Finding Something to Agree With

For instance, if your partner or friends are telling you something—even if inside you really disagree with everything they’re saying—you find something that you can agree with and start with that. That joining relaxes their nervous system to hear what you have to say next and then you can introduce a bit of difference, making sure that the person can tolerate that difference. Then, same with them, they must notice what it’s like to have the difference and find the places to join so that you can stay on the same page as you’re communicating.

Learning to Start with Your Feelings in Relationships through Therapy

When you’re trying to communicate something important you want to start with your feelings. It’s much easier for other people to hear feelings and see vulnerability than it is for them to hear facts or false facts— things you think are true. If you say, “You did this,” they’re likely to say, “No I didn’t!” But if you say, “I felt hurt when I thought this was what happened,” or, “I’m just feeling really hurt right now and the way you did that, I perceived as this,” then they can really hear what you are saying. They can’t argue with feelings. No one can say, “No, you don’t feel sad.” If you really focus on feelings and connecting around those, it’s going to be more productive than trying to talk about, “No, this is the way it is,” because people are always going to perceive things differently.

How can I better communicate with people as I’m looking for a partner or I’m looking for friends. What does that healthy communication look like in various aspects of life?

Being really open and vulnerable is a very fast way to make deeper connections and relationships. Owning your own stuff, knowing what your triggers are, and being able to voice them in a way that takes responsibility, is going to invite closeness with people and allow people to tolerate your weaknesses and actually make them endearing and bonding.

The Benefits of Group Therapy

In group therapy, you really learn how to talk about what’s going on inside you in a way that doesn’t push people away. Even if you feel something really strong like: “Whoa, when you said that, I wanted to kill you,” people are able to hear it and stay close to you because of the way you say it.  You learn to respond in a new way, “Wow, I’m so curious about that reaction. You know it might have been your tone, maybe it was the fact that it reminded me of my dad. But inside, I’ve really had this reaction.” You’re owning it, but actually it doesn’t really push people away as long as you’re saying, “Gosh, I don’t know what this is but I’m curious about it,” and people can be curious with you and join you around that curiosity, rather than saying, “Oh, we need to battle this out.”

I’m in a relationship and I’m trying to figure out when we do fight, how do we fight productively or is that an oxymoron?

You know the thing about fighting productively is you want to be on the same team. Meaning, you’re almost writing the problem down and taping it on the wall and then you’re standing together looking at it. “It’s us against this problem.” The sentiment is, “How are we going to put our heads together to look at this?” The idea is talking about feelings instead of arguing about “facts” and staying attuned to how the other person is feeling.

Being Productive in a Fight When You’re Married or in Relationship with Another

It’s really important when you’re fighting with someone to not go crazy at the same time. My parents (psychologists Dr.s Jev and Sydnor Sikes) use that term, “crazy,” to help people become more comfortable with the idea of how insane we get when we are triggered. Our brains can’t work even close to the way they usually do.  We use it very lovingly in our family about not going crazy. We all have our crazy issues and our ways that we get triggered. The problem is that one person’s craziness triggers the other person’s.  When both people are crazy nothing productive is going to happen.

Marriage & Couples: How to Fight Productively

Learning to Nurture Your Partner in Therapy

If your partner comes to you crazy, you want to quickly recognize it and notice, “Oh, they’re not in a space for us to have anything productive happen, I only need to step out of my partner role and just nurture you and get you back online before we can really have a communication.” When you take them seriously as your partner in that moment, you’re going to get sucked into whatever craziness they’re saying and it’s going to trigger you. Then you’re off to the races and it’s not going to go well from there.

Regulating and Caring for Your Partner

At that point, you need to take a break if both of you are going crazy at once. But it’s really about one person at a time and the other person’s job is to regulate and care for the other person. Once they are feeling better, then you can come back to the subject matter. Sometimes this is an evolving process in an argument. Someone might be sounding really crazy at first, so the other person can back off for a second. But then they say something that triggers you and you just say a little snap back. Suddenly you become the crazier person and hopefully your partner recognizes that and switches roles or it can get out of hand. So, both people need to be fluid to recognize , “Oh! They just switched into being the more crazy one, I’m gonna have to step out of this and care for them,” so that both people aren’t just indulging and going to their own issues at the same time.

Learning What Triggers Your Partner

Healthy communication is about taking turns. Partners need to regulate each other’s nervous systems. One of the areas that therapy can provide value is in taking responsibility to learn what triggers our partners and how to put them back together. You’re going to fight more effectively if you know what’s going to soothe your partner and notice they get dysregulated and then give them the medicine to bring them back to the person you love that can communicate with you.

Is it possible to get to a place where you don’t fight?

I don’t think it’s possible to eradicate fighting from relationships, but I guess fighting can really look like a loving conversation if you slow it down and do it with care and respect for the other person. The fighting doesn’t have to be acting out. You want to be able to talk about your feelings without acting them out. You might say, “I want to throw this Kleenex box at you right now,” but, ideally, you don’t pick it up and actually throw it at that person. You can explore: “I feel like yelling at you right now,” but you don’t actually yell.  As long as there is a space in a relationship to talk about what’s happening inside of you instead of acting on it, then fighting is just like any other conversation. It can be fun and enlivening, but it doesn’t hurt the relationship or hurt your heart.

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