Fighting: How to know how your partner really feels about you

Have you ever heard the saying “alcohol is a truth serum?” When it comes to relationships, I submit that how a couple fights is a truth serum. It’s easy to enjoy relationships during the honeymoon phase, but how a couple handles confrontation and the “rough patches” is a representation of how they communicate. Fighting with the one person who is supposed to love us most is a vulnerable, uncomfortable position, but if handled properly, is a normal part of a healthy relationship. 

Often, though, people bottle up how they feel because they don’t want to hurt the other’s feelings, they don’t want to “deal with” a fight that day, or aren’t even sure how to approach the situation. In theory I understand this, but in effect, sometimes those feelings still surface during a fight, as if the floodgates have been opened. Some people view this as an opportunity to “let loose” and share what they’ve kept bottled. Do you do this? Does your partner?

I should back up and share something about myself. Fifteen years ago, I attended 40 hours of training about domestic violence (DV) so that I could receive my DV certification. I volunteered at the shelter where I trained for two years on its 24-hour hotline. Since then, I educate teen volunteers at my high school (I’m a 11-year school counselor) every year about the dynamics of DV and healthy relationships, and they, in turn, provide presentations to our Health classrooms about what I taught them. I include this background info to explain that I will pepper this article with phrases like “red flags” and “healthy relationships.”

During training for my high schoolers and the presentations we give to the Health classrooms, we include a slide on what’s in a healthy relationship and one on what behaviors are considered red flags. Regardless of how many relationships you’ve had or how long you’ve been with your partner, these lists are worth revisiting:

Relationship Behaviors or Characteristics 

Side note to the above chart: For a behavior to be considered abusive, the person needs to exhibit it on a regular basis, as in, a pattern. We all have bad days, but if any of the behaviors in the right column happen repeatedly, they are red flags. People engage in these behaviors with an intimate partner to show they have power and control over them. 

In healthy relationships, people don’t want to argue, they don’t thrive on confrontation, and they don’t want to hurt one another. (pardon the triple negatives) The opposite is true: If someone loves you, he or she should make sure that their actions and words consistently align to show you how they feel. This should eliminate any room for them to doubt you. This is how trust is born and cultivated.

Regardless, though, miscommunication or snapping at one another will happen occasionally in all relationships. We are human, and when we have stressful, long, and draining days, we might lose our temper quicker than usual. Couple a situation like that with the baggage we all carry, and it’s natural that we will argue from time to time, even in the healthiest of relationships. 

In these moments, though, you need to remember that YOU ARE ON THE SAME SIDE. You are not trying to prove who is wrong or right. Rather, you are trying to come to a resolution together in a respectful way so that you both end the argument feeling positive about the relationship and how you handled the situation. 

Remember the baggage I referenced? This baggage can make it tricky to keep an open perspective while fighting. I grew up with an alcoholic family and a brother with special needs. I tried to keep the peace, take care of my brother, and make myself invisible to not draw attention to myself. So, you can imagine, when it came to adult, intimate relationships, confrontation was difficult for me to navigate. I’ve been with my husband Kevin for 15 years, and it took several years for me to not resort to survival mode and retreat. Even now, I find myself working through “what’s normal” in my head because of my upbringing.

None of this is easy, but when in doubt, move toward your partner. I remember reading a line to the same effect in a book about relationships. I don’t remember who wrote it, so I am unable to attribute the concept, but it’s significant: When you are fighting, it’s easier to walk away than work through it. Move toward your partner, not away. Again, you are on the same side, right? 

The Four Horsemen – I love, love, love Dr. Gottman’s research on how couples argue. He identified four fighting styles that can doom a relationship because of their toxic effects. Gottman’s four include criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. 

Arguing with the one person in the world who is supposed to love us the most makes us inherently vulnerable. This vulnerability can make people react in a variety of ways. Some plead and act conciliatory. Some criticize their partner. They might put them down and belittle them. They might criticize their partner’s cooking, way they parent, how they dress, or habits/traits that are unrelated to the fight. 

Others, though, might react with derision and contempt. They might snarl and say horrible things to their supposed loved one. This is where the concept “arguing as a truth serum” comes into play. That’s kind of how contempt works in an argument. If a partner feels attacked, and vulnerable like I mentioned, some take this opportunity to unleash with their true thoughts, and out pours contempt. These comments are often difficult to heal from because the partner purposely chooses sore spots to exploit. 

Aren’t you feeling sad reading this? I feel sad writing it because that kind of pain doesn’t just go away. You might try to move past it and make up as a couple, but people don’t forget comments made with contempt. Years ago, I bonded with a boyfriend’s mom. For whatever reason, he was threatened by this (red flag, hello), and in anger he once told me to “get my own mom.” This was especially hurtful because he knew my relationship with my mom was suffering at the time. This exchange happened almost 20 years ago, and I still remember it. This supports why Gottman included contempt in his four categories: Contempt is hard to come back from. 

Defensiveness is what it sounds like: The person goes into defense mode and focuses on the details, tries to turn the situation around on their partner, and picks apart the story. Instead of reflecting and accepting their part in the situation, they defend. No growth can happen if the person allows him or herself to remain in defense mode. 

I used to be guilty of the last category, stonewalling. This is when someone shuts down, and at the extreme, ignores their partner. I never ignored a partner, but I would often shut down. By growing up with an alcoholic parent, I never learned healthy arguing behaviors, and tried to remain hidden in times of duress. I carried this over into relationships. When fearful of being abandoned or critiqued, I would turn inward and try to protect myself like I did as a child. While I understand that response, again, it doesn’t allow for growth. After therapy and a healthy marriage, I no longer do that, but it was challenging to overcome past hurts.

My takeaway on the four horsemen is this: In the heat of the moment, we can be so fearful and raw that we initially want to react in one of the aforementioned ways. Instead, though, remember you are on the same team, and turn toward your partner. Don’t isolate yourself. Don’t pull away. Don’t lash out. Move toward.

Do you forgive me? – Deep breath. After all of that, you both need to be able to let go of the argument. Whatever was discussed, if you feel like you reached a resolution, then the rest needs to be let go. Easier said than done, right? If you don’t let it go, though, you run the risk of “keeping score” and bringing up some of the points in a future argument. If you throw something in your partner’s face that was supposed to have been rectified, not only are you unable to move forward, but you are creating new problems. By rehashing past hurts, you are showing your partner he or she cannot trust you. You said you were over it, right? Then you have to act like it.

One powerful way to help a couple bring closure to an argument and truly move on is to ask one another “Do you forgive me?” If you disrespected your partner in some way, lied, or disappointed them, but you come to a peaceful conclusion after discussing it, you can ask him or her directly, “Do you forgive me?” If you both agree yes to this question, then you are also agreeing that 1. The issue has been resolved and 2. That you will leave it in the past.

Relationships are not easy. We all bring past hurts with us to every union. We can try to be respectful and mature, but those past experiences are always lingering in the background. Our future doesn’t have to be defined by our past, but it can pop up from time to time during arguments. Again, arguments can be normal in healthy relationships, but it’s how you handle them that sets the tone for the future.

I know we discussed super heavy topics today. If you have any questions about some of the dynamics I covered or are unsure about something, feel free to share with me in an email. If something resonated, don’t hesitate to share in the comments below. If you read today’s article, and the chart reminded you of a loved one, please share this with him or her. Sometimes we don’t know we are in a toxic relationship until someone reminds us that a particular behavior isn’t normal.

Take care of yourself and your loved ones. 

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