For some couples, asking to talk is an easy tell to a potential argument.
Conflict is a part of any healthy relationship but arguing in an emotionally charged, hyped-up, compulsive way is corrosive. Fighting isn't always about true conflict — it is often about letting off steam, transferring unconscious, uncomfortable feelings to another, sabotaging pleasure, closeness, etc. or infusing a "blah" stretch of time with some fire.
This type of fighting and petty arguing can be avoided but it takes skill. Here are four leadership skills to prevent a fight so that you and your partner can instead channel your energy into having fun and getting through the tough times together.
1) Study The Signals
When a big storm is coming, mother nature lets you know. Wind, clouds, humidity and barometric pressure all change in established and predictable ways. Relationship patterns are not so different from weather. If you want to change the stormy patterns in your relationship, I recommend you begin to look for the warning signs in your partner, and take cover.
"Can I ask you a question?" That has become the tell-tale sign that my partner wants to get into something provocative. I used to take the bait and say, "Sure!" every time he asked and walk into a steaming pile, but now that I know it's a signal of potential provocation, I have choices.
The fact that my partner asks this question is an easy tell. But it's not always so easy to spot. What are the facial expressions of your partner as he or she comes looking for a fight? Is there a squint, a scowl? What is the tone of voice? You may need to get subtle in your research. People are not usually aware when earthquakes are coming, but animals are tuned in and start to freak out. Your partner's signals may require you to get into your animal instincts, but once you pick up on them, you begin to see options. You can stay and prepare to duke it out, you can leave the premises and return fortified, or disengage and simply do something you love. The impulse to spar may get diffused simply by your skillful ignorance.
2) Identify The Patterns
I was once in a long distance relationship that was pretty symbiotic. Because our time together was precious, we would hole up in our own little bubble. Somehow, every time we had to leave the cocoon, we would have a fight. It was always stupid stuff -- who would drive, when we would leave, where we would eat. Finally, we both recognized the pattern and that it had to do with facing the outside world. We developed a strategy for leaving that helped us fight less and get throughout the inevitable fights quicker. For a little diversion you can read about what ultimately happened in that relationship.
This is a powerful diverter and may need some practice. There are times when I need to bring things up that I know will provoke my partner into a reaction, but I also know they need to be communicated in order to move the relationship forward. When this happens, I can circumvent or diminish explosiveness by pre-empting: "I know you are going to get upset, but I have to talk about this." This accomplishes two things: it makes space for healthy arguing and it alerts the other to their own reactivity.
Other examples of effective pre-empting: "What I am about to say or do may lead to a fight but my hope is that if it does, we'll wind up in a better place." Or the playful pre-empt: "How are we going to fight on the way to the airport today? Cold and distant, or up in each other's face? Should we fight about the luggage, the time or both?
4) Stay In Play
There is really little your partner can do to bait you if you are determined to make light of it all. I had a boyfriend who loved to complain. This irritated me. At first I would shut down in reaction to his whining and things would be tense, until I figured out that I didn't have to join him. One time, during his complaining, I simply said in a lighthearted, narrative voice: "My boyfriend, the curmudgeon." He smiled. I began to call him "Mudgy," for short, whenever he went into that place. "My little mudgy!" I would coo, like I was talking to a cute animal. He would laugh so hard. We both ended up laughing instead of getting bogged down and tense.
This is an advanced technique that is worth mastering. It requires that you not be so serious about yourself, your flaws, or things always going the way you want. It does take time to develop the strength to let go of your own agitation enough to be truly lighthearted, so don't be surprised if your first attempts come across as sarcastic on your way to playful.
I hope these tips have been useful to you in thinking about keeping your partnership in top shape. Let me know how it goes. Contact me if you need help.
Learn how to fight fair and constructively in my course for couples.If you think you, or you and your partner, could use help with this issue, don't hesitate to check out Blair's new Lovers and Leaders course!
And remember, Love Yourself No Matter What.