How to Fight Productively

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So you have met the person of your dreams and you are ready for your happily ever after. There is literally only one thing that can tear you apart: fighting. By fighting I mean disagreements which are not properly resolved and have a tendency to escalate to anger behaviors such as yelling and slamming doors.

A fight is like a flashing neon sign that's saying "Miscommunication is happening! Someone is not feeling like their voice is being heard!" Until handled properly, the underlying cause of the fight will continue to fester, rotting the foundation of your relationship. 

Luckily, I believe there is a solution which turns these dangerous situations into opportunities. The purpose of this article is to create a framework which will enable you and your partner to effectively work through disagreements so that the relationship can grow deeper.

How Does Anger Work?

Before we get into the specifics of the framework proposed here, let's examine the emotion we are dealing with in these situations, which is anger / frustration / being upset. Think of your mind as a house that has different rooms for different emotions. When you are in the Anger Room, you only have access to angry thoughts. You have easy access to angry memories and you do not have easy access to other, calming, memories.

It is not possible to be logical in the Anger Room because your internal survival chemicals are being released in your body. You may make statements which appear logical, but the logic is really backwards rationalizing how you are emotionally feeling at that moment. 

My point in examining the context here is that if you are having a fight, you are simply not going to resolve it in that moment. You need to somehow resist the pull to continue participating and escalating, remove yourself long enough to calm down and examine your feelings, and re-engage at a time when communication can happen in a more healthy and productive manner. 

And here is how to do that. 

Agree in Advance to Use the Framework

Before a fight occurs (ie. on a normal day when you are both in a good mood and have some un-rushed time), both of you read this article. Assuming it makes sense to you, talk about it amongst yourselves and come to an agreement to use this framework when disagreements arise. Think of it as an experiment to improve the lines of communication in the relationship. 

You are going to use a one-word signal when a disagreement arises, so you need to agree in advance on what that one word signal is going to be. You can think of it as similar to a safe word but outside of a sexual context. You can pick any word but I like to choose one which is unlikely to be said in usual conversation. In the past, I have used the word "bubble."

At this point the two of you have agreed to use this framework and have decided upon a word which either of you can say when things are getting tense. Now you are prepared for the next time a disagreement arises.

Step 1 - Use the Word

Any time a disagreement is occurring and either of you starts to feel even the beginning of those angry feelings, use the word out loud and then stop talking. The other person is now obligated to immediately stop talking as well. At this point any further communication is likely to escalate the situation in an unproductive way. 

This is by far the most difficult step. It's going to be very tempting to keep talking (or yelling) about whatever is being discussed. It's probably something you really care about or you wouldn't have felt the angry emotions in the first place. 

When I tried this in the past, I noticed that I would get frustrated when the other person used the word because I didn't even realize we were arguing! But you must accept this. You are lucky that a fight has been avoided and you are being given an opportunity to work through the miscommunication in a healthy manner. Think of the word as a signal that this is an opportunity to learn about your partner and grow closer emotionally. 

Step 2 - Write Down Your Feelings and Then Wait

So one of you has used the word and you have both immediately stopped talking. Now you are going to separate yourselves and each independently explore your feelings so you have a better understanding of what is going on inside of you at that moment. 

Each of you fills out The Magic Mirror, which is an online written exercise designed to help you tease out what you are feeling. Ideally you have two devices so you both can do the exercise at the same time. 

Once both of you have completed the Magic Mirror, note the time and do not speak to each other for at least one hour, possibly longer depending on your schedule that day. You want to wait until both of you are back in more typical (calm) frame of mind before continuing. 

Step 3 - Affirm the Unconditional Nature of Your Love

This step assumes you are in a serious relationship in which you have reached the "we love each other" stage. If the relationship isn't to that stage yet, proceed to step 4. 

Face each other and clasp hands. Look into each other's eyes and say: "Even when I get frustrated with you, I still love you very much." Feel free to give each other a big hug if it feels appropriate in the moment. 

Do not engage in conversation. Simply affirm your love for each other and proceed to the next step.

Step 4 - Read What Your Partner Wrote

Go to your email and forward the results of The Magic Mirror exercise to your partner (and vice versa). Read what the other person wrote and try to fully understand where they are coming from. This is an important step because your idea in your head of what your partner is thinking and feeling might be totally inaccurate. At a minimum, you will learn additional, useful information immediately pertinent to the situation. 

Step 5 - Are We Ready to Talk?

If you still feel calm after reading your partner's Magic Mirror results, ask the other person if they feel like they are ready to talk. If not, wait another hour. 

Step 6 - Talk It Out

Now each of you is calm, you understand clearly how you feel, and you understand clearly how the other person feels. Now it's time to resume the conversation and talk it out. 

One of two things is going to happen. Either you successfully resolve the disagreement or you trigger each other again. If you trigger each other, someone says the word again and the two of you restart the process. 

Conclusion

Is this framework easy? No. It's easy to simply fight the default way and to hurt your relationship. By choosing to use this framework with each other, you are seizing the opportunity to learn about yourself and to grow closer to your partner. You are choosing to help your partner learn how to love you in just the way that you want to be loved. And isn't that worth a little extra effort?