Every time I get into an argument with my partner it gets ugly. It has gotten so that I don’t want to bring up anything that might start a disagreement because I don’t want to risk the abuse and old baggage that gets dragged through the mud again. It’s almost like nothing is ever forgotten, just saved up for the next argument. It is making me avoid conversation at all, and it seems that the more avoid it, the wider the wall between us. Is this what the end of a relationship looks like?
Learning how to have fair fights is a critical skill for a thriving relationship. Many couples swing between the two extremes you have described here- either hurtful, negative exchanges with no boundaries or silence. Both extremes do great harm to a relationship and can precipitate the premature ending of a relationship. Intimate relationships are not supposed to be free from conflict; done right, conflicts help move both partners closer to more workable living arrangements and each other.
Approaching conflict in this way: as a means of broadening your working relationship and learning the triggers for your partner is the foundation of learning how to have a fair fight with the person you love. The issues in arguing often come long before the partnership. Many people never learn how to fight fair in their original families and they bring all the bad behaviors and injuries from the past with them. Whether you learned to scream the loudest or run away from the first sign of conflict, agreeing to develop new skills for airing grievances is one of the healthiest choices you can make in staying together.
The most important thing to keep in mind is that arguments that leave one or both parties feeling belittled, afraid or disrespected continue to do damage to the relationship long after the argument is over. A great deal of research supports the idea that maintaining mutual respect during an argument by not allowing name calling or other hurtful mechanisms into the fight goes a long way in moving towards resolution. Both partners need to agree to give up the intent to hurt the other; meanness, sarcasm and belittling turn an adult argument into a schoolyard brawl.
An equally powerful boundary to establish is to keep arguments in the present tense. Digging up old hurts only confuses what is currently happening and worse still, makes the idea of forgiveness impossible. The weight of carrying all the wrongs and misunderstandings forward is too heavy for even the strongest of relationships.
Rethink the idea of not going to bed angry. Sometimes the best thing we can do for ourselves and our relationship is to give it time and space. Taking a break from the intensity of the interaction, even a few minutes, can open you up to seeing or hearing your partner differently.
Own up to your part of the fight. Melody Brooke, a licensed marriage and family therapist, says two things derail intense fights: admitting what you did to get your partner ticked off, and expressing empathy toward your partner. Brooke, author of The Blame Game, says this can be difficult but typically is extremely successful. “Letting down our defenses in the heat of battle, seems counterintuitive, but is actually very effective with couples.”