Fighting Fair, Part II

Building important survival skills that will set a couple up for success and break down behavioral patterns that have become destructive ruts requires rules and takes practice. Here are some simple rules for “How to fight fair.”


What I live for being a psychotherapist are individuals and couples who come into my office ready and wanting to work.  People who want to roll up their sleeves and change their lives because they know they have some destructive habits that are preventing forward movement.  They know they have issues to work on that are impeding their happiness and are eager to take them on.  The hard part of my job is watching people stubbornly remain stuck in destructive thought patterns or behaviors, holding onto what they know (despite the pain it causes them) in favor of the temporary discomfort of trying something new. 

When couples come into my office my job is to identify behavioral and communication ruts they have formed that lock them in a place of frustration, hurt, and disappointment.  So after getting to know what brought them into my office and what they identify as the “problem,” I start to focus my observations on how they interact.  It’s not long - generally 15 to 20 minutes into the session - before they begin to exhibit communication pitfalls they have formed that are causing them not to feel heard, but rather dismissed and devalued.  Once we have identified these pitfalls, my job shifts to coaching them on new skills.  This is the hard part; we are all innately wired to resist change – even though change is a constant and often for the better.  But when we refuse change, unrest and dissatisfaction can set, our quality of life suffers, and we begin to blame others, or circumstances, around us for our dissatisfaction.  We take on the thought process of a victim, blaming outside forces for situations causing us to feel angry, depressed, stressed, unloved, unheard, etc.… instead of taking ownership for a thought or a behavior that creates the negative emotions and perceptions.

One question I often ask couples, as they are disagreeing in front of me, with their communication pitfalls on full display, is, “How often have you had this conversation.”  This tends to disarm them as they look at each other and say, “Thousands of times!”  So I ask, “And what solutions and fixes have you come up with to the problem?” to which they almost always reply, “Well, none.”  I continue to focus the couple on forward movement from their destructive communication patterns by asking, “So the manner in which I just watched you two interact… is that how it usually goes or was it more intense than usual?” and they generally reply it was “actually much calmer.”  But even if their interactions are more subdued in my office than when they’re alone, from what I witness I often find predictors in their exchange the tell me they are headed for divorce.  The final question is built to break down resistance and defenses in the couple.  It triggers thinking in the pre-frontal lobe area of the brain which is important to engage problem-solving skills.  I ask, “When you have these arguments where you raise your voices, talk faster, purge your feelings on how you have been wronged or criticize each other, how often do you walk away feeling the problem is solved and you emotionally feel good?” 

The response is always “Never!”

It is at this point in the session that I am able to move onto building important survival skills that will set a couple up for success and begin to break down behavioral patterns that have become destructive ruts.  I start to educate them on how to fight fair.

Impact of Words

Word choice is paramount in an intimate relationship!  With even a single word you can build someone you love up or crush them in an instant. The opinion you have of your partner means more to them than anyone else they encounter.  They want to know you love, honor, and respect them all the time even - especially - when you are frustrated or angry with them. 

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