Friday, July 30, 2010

Breaking Up

What if this really is the end?

Do it in person. Never break up over the phone or via email. I’m not talking about a one date “relationship.” In that case, the phone or email--or even never calling her back--is fine because it’s not a breakup since you were never really together. It’s the coward’s way out, though, not to do it face to face if you did have a relationship. Also you’ll never get your key, muffin pan or favorite t-shirt back unless you do it in person.

Don’t break up in the middle of a fight when emotions are running high. It leaves a bitter taste in her mouth and you’ll feel like a jerk tomorrow.

Don’t start the conversation with “I think we should break up.” It’s jolting even if she’s been thinking the same thing. Start with something like “I’ve been thinking about our relationship,” or “Can we talk about where things are going for us?” This gives her the opportunity to come to the mutual agreement that things would be best if you went your separate ways. No one likes to feel she was dumped. Better that you both walk away feeling it was mutual.

No need to list the character faults that repulsed you, but do leave her with some explanation, especially if the break up comes as a surprise to her. Make some kind of general (but true) statement about why you’re not happy with the relationship. “I’m not interested in getting particularly serious at this point in my life.” Or “Our living habits are so different we wouldn’t be compatible living together.” Do not say “You wouldn’t want to live with me because I’m such a slob” because she can argue with that. And do not say “You are so disgustingly slovenly I can’t imagine living with you.” It may be true but it’s also unnecessarily hurtful.

If you both want to continue to be friends, that’s fine. But make sure that’s what you both really want, and make sure you aren’t staying in each other’s lives as a way of dragging out the relationship or giving the other person false hopes.

Next time: Fighting Wrapup

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

What are fights about?

Fights are often not about what they appear to be about at first glance. Does it drive you nuts when your partner corrects your pronunciation--even when she’s right (which she always is)? What is that about? Does it bug you because being wrong in the household you grew up in meant that you were stupid? Or did your family correct each other with sarcasm and demeaning comments, rather than correcting to be helpful? When you notice yourself getting angry or hurt, ask why the behavior or comment of the other person bothers you. (Hint: it’s not because she is an asshole. Which she may be. But that’s not relevant.)

Sometimes fighting about not taking out the garbage is about the annoyance of the stinky, over-filled trash can, but sometimes it’s really about how your partner interprets the garbage. She may not say “You didn’t take out the garbage so I know you don’t care about me.” She may refrain from saying it because she doesn’t want to admit how hurt she is and she knows intellectually that it’s ridiculous to let it bother her that much. But that may be exactly what she is feeling (that you don't care about her because you didn't take out the garbage). If there is a lot of emotion from her or you on a topic that, from the outside, seems silly to be so wrought up about, figure out what the fight is *really* about because it ain’t about the garbage. It’s something deeper. Ask yourself and her: what does the garbage symbolize? Lack of ambition in life? Inconsideration? Absence of true love? Sounds silly, but then why are you yelling about the garbage? These "silly" arguments are going to keep coming up if you don't at the root of the real issue.

But what if this isn't just a fight? What if this really is the end?

Up next: How to Break Up

Friday, July 23, 2010

More Notes on Fighting

Keep in mind:

(1) No fight, except maybe some fights between Compromisers, will follow all of the rules set out in the last few posts. You will almost never get a fight right. And that’s okay. You always get a second chance to make the fight right. Don’t avoid the touchy subject because it caused a fight that had no resolution. It can be hard to bring the topic up again later when you’ve calmed down and no longer feel the overwhelming emotional need to vent, but you need to address it again later if the issue was not resolved. Take the second chance. Bring the issue up again under better circumstances and resolve it (if you can).

(2) People exaggerate and overgeneralize their accusations and complaints during fights, especially if the complaint has been stored up for a long time. So don’t get distracted or offended by the extreme way the complaint is being lodged. Listen for the truth in what she is saying. Don’t dismiss the complaint because it was overstated.

(3) The relationship isn’t over if you fight. How many times have opposing protons smashed into each other in the Hadron Collider? Millions. Billions. And no black hole has been created. Yet. That we know of. I don’t know of any relationship that ended because of one bad fight. Fighting is a good sign. If you agree all the time, one or the other or both of you are not getting to express your individuality. If you haven’t had a fight in the first year, either there is something wrong or you’re both Avoiders, which is fine but you *both* have to be Avoiders.

And the relationship isn’t necessarily over if the issue about which you were fighting does not get resolved. Some problems are not resolvable. This doesn’t mean the relationship can’t work. Ask any couple who has been married for more than five years (under five years and they’ll lie). Every couple has at least one area of conflict about which they do not agree and can not come to resolution on. They may be forced to compromise, but that does not mean the problem has ceased to exist. Examples of these kinds of irresolvable conflicts? Being at opposite ends of the continuum on desired frequency of sex. Being a neat freak paired with a slob. Being religious and wanting the other one to participate when the partner is an atheist. No one is changing his/her mind. And no one’s behavior is going to change radically. The slob will never be neat enough, and the neat freak will never be relaxed around messes. You’ve got to decide which irresolvable problems you’re willing to live with and which are deal breakers.

Up next: What are fights really about anyway?

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Things to Say and Not Say During a Fight, Part 3

Avoid sarcasm. It’s demeaning. Also avoid the martyr’s version of sarcasm: “Fine, fine, I’ll just shut up and never say another word since I clearly can’t get anything right. No, no, I’m saying you’re absolutely right. I’m a terrible person.”

Don’t tell her she shouldn’t be angry or hurt because you weren’t trying to piss her off or hurt her. You did piss her off and you did hurt her. It might not be your fault that she misunderstood you, but she has a right to her feelings.

It’s also a good idea to inoculate before expressing your concern/complaint. This is a technique used by therapists. Sometimes you have to say things that you know could be hurtful or could be taken the wrong way. Instead of blurting them out, prepare the person. Preface your comment with “I need to say this even though I’m concerned about saying it because I don’t want to hurt your feelings, but…” And don’t wait to say it. Say it right then. Dragging it out is cruel and painful for the person who knows she is about to hear something she may not want to hear but knows she has to.

If you are the one who’s angry, you’re more likely to be heard if you *say* you’re angry rather than *express* your anger by yelling, breaking things, etc. And you’re even more likely to be heard if you express the hurt or disappointment behind the anger.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Things to Say and Not Say During a Fight, Part 2

Continuing from last time...

Stay on point. When she complains about your dirty dishes, maybe you have a complaint too. You might leave dirty dishes in her sink but she leaves wet towels on the bathroom floor. That is irrelevant to the conversation. Yes, it’s a slob’s behavior as well, but it is not the present topic of conversation and you’re only bringing it up because you feel defensive. If you have a complaint, address it later. Right now the topic is dirty dishes and what you can do differently so that she doesn’t get annoyed.

Remember: In most cases whatever the argument is you probably had a part in it too. Maybe she was the one who left the dirty dishes in the sink, but you didn’t need to yell at her for it or accuse her of being a slob or accuse her of not really caring about you. Apologize for the part you had in causing the argument.

Be explicit. Just as you shouldn’t be mind-reading and thinking that you know what her intentions were, don’t expect her to know what you’re thinking or what your intentions are. Be direct. And paraphrase back to her what you hear her saying. If you don’t know what her intentions were and she isn’t saying, ask.

Be clear about what it is you want. She leaves dirty dishes in your sink and that’s a problem for you? Be concrete about what it is that you want. Do you want her to wash them and put them away as soon as she’s done with them? Do you want her to put them in the dishwasher? Do you want her to take care of them by the end of the evening? It’s like when you write a letter to a company that ripped you off. You can write and complain about the pack of batteries you bought that were all dead when you took them out of the package, or you can complain and then end your letter with a statement about what you want in return for your trouble (a coupon, a cash refund, new batteries mailed to you). If you don’t ask, the complaint will be read and the company will do nothing. Ask for what you want. Do not assume she knows what that is.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Things to Say and Not Say During a Fight

Everyone loves the overgeneralization in fights. Don’t go there. I’m not just talking about the “you *always* leave your shit lying around” or “you *never* initiate sex any more” (or “*everyone* loves overgeneralizing”). Always and never statements are obvious no-nos. The more invasive and sneaky overgeneralizations involve using one instance of a bad behavior to ascribe a personality trait to her or using an instance of a bad behavior to make statements about her intentions. For example, if she leaves dirty dishes in your sink and you want to address this with her, it’s best not to say “You are such a complete slob [attack on a pervasive personality trait].” Address the single instance before you: e.g., “I just cleaned my kitchen and it would be really helpful to me if you put your dishes in the dishwasher.” No need to get pissy and attack her personality. Maybe she intended to clean them up at the end of the night. Besides, dirty dishes aren’t that big a deal. Maybe the reason it bothers you so much is because you are making an assumption about her intentions. “It is so inconsiderate of you to leave your dirty dishes in my sink. I think you don’t really care about me [an attack on her intentions].” You aren’t a mind reader. You do not know what her intentions were or what the real meaning of leaving dirty dishes in the sink is to her. To you it comes off as inconsiderate. In her family it symbolizes a level comfort with the other person that you no longer have to behave like a “guest” in his house. Or maybe the value in her house is to spend time with people, not spend time cleaning things...

Don’t get defensive. If she is the one accusing you of being inconsiderate and leaving the dirty dishes in her sink, apologize. She’s right. You shouldn’t leave dirty dishes in her sink. It annoys her. Only after you’ve apologized for your inconsiderate behavior should you explain your side.

Next up: More Things to Say and Not Say During a Fight

Friday, July 9, 2010

How to Fight: Soothing Yourself and Your Partner

Learn how to soothe yourself and your partner.

Do you know what calms you down emotionally? If you don’t, you need to figure it out so you can have emotional conversations.

You also need to find out what helps your partner to calm down. Are there things you do in a fight that cause her emotional distress, e.g., talking too loudly or yelling, bringing up sensitive topics without inoculating (e.g., warning her that something bad/upsetting/possibly hurtful is coming)? Are there things you could do that would help her calm down? Give her a massage, hold her hand, don’t touch her at all, lie in bed naked while you fight, etc.

Be creative!

Next Tuesday: I begin a series on Things to Say and Not Say During a Fight

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

How to Fight: Timing

Timing. People pick bad times to have fights as a protective measure. They start fights when the time will be limited (when the other person is on his way out the door to work or during the commercial break of a favorite TV show) so they know there is a definite end time to the discomfort of having a fight. Or they pick fights at social occasions because they know their partner won’t be a complete dick in front of other people. Or they pick fights right before bed when they are tired or after they have knocked back a few drinks, and their state of mind is relaxed and uninhibited enough to talk about things they are usually too afraid to bring up.

None of these is a good time to fight. But the problem with waiting for the perfect circumstance is that people have a tendency to talk themselves out of bringing up their grievances if they give themselves any amount of time to reflect. Sometimes fights have to be brought up in the “wrong” circumstances because otherwise the grievance wouldn’t get aired at all. Remember, though, that without enough time or energy or wits about you, the fight will not resolve. If you pick a fight at a bad time, you have to be willing to go back to it later to resolve it, otherwise the fight will be a dumping ground of bad feelings. And bad feelings spewed out without an airing of the other person’s “side” and without a resolution (even if that resolution is agreeing to disagree) breed resentment and hurt feelings.

A good time to fight (or revisit a fight started earlier) occurs when you have enough time to discuss both sides and come to a resolution. So not before bed, not when you have to be somewhere in fifteen minutes and not at a party.

If you give yourselves time to discuss thoroughly the issue you may find yourself in a full-blown fight, with your heart racing and your palms sweaty. If you are experiencing these physical symptoms, or you notice that your partner is, take a time out. Some people enjoy yelling and the intense emotion of a “good” fight, but most people get emotionally overloaded. And once you are emotionally overloaded, there is no point in continuing a conversation because, literally, you can not think correctly. Your heart rate is too high and too much adrenalin is pumping through your body for your brain to process language. Taking a time out doesn’t mean ending the conversation. It means asking for a break for fifteen or thirty minutes while you calm down. You might take a walk. But tell your partner what you’re doing or she might think you’re not coming back. You might write down the points you want to make. Do whatever you find that soothes you. But then come back to the table to finish the discussion. And honor her when she asks for a break. Don’t push to have resolution if she’s emotionally overloaded. Be patient.

Which leads into the next post: Soothing Yourself and Your Partner

Friday, July 2, 2010

Fighting Styles Wrapup

The Compromiser. A pair of Compromisers are the classic “perfect” couple. They know how to listen to each other, validate the other person’s feelings, reflect what they hear accurately and are able to state their own feelings and desires in clear and direct ways. At the end of an argument, the couple comes together with a compromise, or one or the other partner yields, though the yielder is not the same person every time. The Compromiser wants to be with another Compromiser but can get along with a Yielder.

The plus
: Each person feels heard and conflicts have resolutions.

The minus: Compromise and the best interest of the “couple” often get priority over the individual. Also the relationship may be missing a certain level of passion.

With the exception of the Winner (described on Tuesday), any of the styles I've written about in the last couple of posts is workable in a relationship, provided that your partner has the same or a compatible style and provided that you are willing to live with the minuses of that particular approach. The Winner, however, is a different matter. The level of control they need to have in their lives doesn’t allow for partnerships of equals. And most women these days, even if they are Yielders, want to be thought of as equal. And Yielders want to have their yielding considered a moral sacrifice of a kind and giving person, not a nod to the superior/correct partner by the inferior partner whose opinion is never right.

So if your style is the Winner, embrace being alone or change your ways. In a relationship you will sometimes (not always!) have to yield to the other person *even when you are right*. That is not a typo. I said “right.” And you will sometimes (not always!) have to apologize even when it was more (or all) her fault, not yours. Because sometimes an apology is not about who was right but about who was hurt. Because sometimes an apology is about the way something was said and not about the content of what was said. The question comes down to this: would you rather be right all the time or in a relationship? It’s your choice.

Up next time: The first in a series on How to Fight