In this short video clip, Dr. John Gottman says he is asked this question all the time, and "the number one thing people fight about is nothing." He uses the example of the TV remote control, which ends up being a symbol of control in the relationship. The point is, of course, that most of the issues people fight about don't matter very much. We attach meanings to them out of our own fear and insecurity--and we create problems we don't really need.
I dated someone for over a year who would practically hit the ceiling over the smallest things her children did. She would scream and yell and throw a huge tantrum about her kids leaving cereal bowls in the sink instead of rinsing them and putting them in the dishwasher. I can understand the frustration. But are a few unwashed cereal bowls worth destroying relationships? She hit the ceiling with me on a few occasions too, over very minor issues.
I believe fighting is completely unnecessary. By saying this, I do not mean that a couple doesn't need to discuss the things they disagree about or feel hurt by. But they don't need to do it in an angry and contentious way. In fact, being angry and contentious with each other shuts down listening in a moment when both people really most want to be heard.
So, if you can't fight, what is the alternative? You problem solve. You brainstorm. You go into a discussion of this kind with the understanding that neither of you will be happy with the outcome unless your partner is. You refuse to win at his or her expense. So you are committed to continue creatively brainstorming until you have a solution that works for both people. You work together to find a solution instead of fighting each other.
Cathy and I don't watch a huge amount of TV, and she virtually always makes the decision about what we are going to watch--though she listens to my suggestions. I can't give her the final word on everything in our life, but I can give her the TV. On the rare occasion when I really want to watch something else or I'm totally uninterested in what she wants to watch, I go into the bedroom and watch what I want. We have never had an argument about what to watch on TV. It's really not that important.
If you feel controlled by your partner and upset that he or she almost always insists on having his or her way, you should discuss that--but not at the top of your lungs.
Discuss that TV remote thing in terms of finding a TV program that you can both enjoy watching, or take turns choosing, or watch different televisions in different rooms, or whatever works for you. There are a million potential solutions to that relatively minor problem. Some of them aren't even worth the effort to discuss; so give the other person their way and save your energy for things that matter more.
Why is it that so many people believe you can't disagree with someone without anger? Honestly, that was one of the biggest impediments in many of the dating relationships I had. I found several partners during my mid-single years who could not seem to comprehend the idea of having a disagreement without being mad. Often--actually always--these were people who championed the idea of communication in relationships. But you can't communicate constructively when you are both so flooded and defensive that you can't hear each other. That's a very toxic way to be in relationship to another person.
By the way, if you are a woman who believes it is okay for you to yell and scream but not okay for a man to do the same thing because he is bigger and stronger, you are sorely mistaken. It is NOT okay. The damage of abuse is 90 percent emotional; and you can do the same damage without touching the other person. And, yes, yelling and screaming at your loved ones IS abusive.
In answer to the question, people go into fight or flight response when they are afraid. In my first marriage, it was all flight. In the 15 years we were meaningfully married, we never had a single fight. Yet we ended up divorced. We didn't have a common sense way to resolve differences, so they festered. The conflict was still there. It was just buried alive. We tried marriage counseling twice, largely because we didn't feel safe talking to each other without a third party facilitating it. (According to John Gottman, 80 percent of the time the stonewaller is the man. He is trying to avoid conflict, but he is just as angry as as someone embroiled an open conflict.)
In many other marriages and relationships, fights occur for the same reasons. The people involved are afraid and acting in self-defense. The reasons tend to run very deep. They are afraid of not being accepted. They are afraid of being wrong. They are afraid of being controlled by the other person. They don't really trust that the other person has their best interest at heart. They feel unseen and invalidated. There are a variety of other expressions, but they all come down to fear. People fight because they are afraid. In moments of anger, they have the same emotions toward loved ones that rise in us if we are confronted with a dangerous enemy that means us harm. When you are presented with a threat to your safety, anger provides you with a short adrenaline rush to help you fend off or destroy a dangerous enemy. That adrenaline rush can be addictive--especially if you are giving into it in moments where there is no real danger. How does it feel when someone you love treats you like an enemy that he or she needs to defend himself or herself from? How does it affect your relationship going forward?
So how do you conduct a relationship without fighting?
1. When a disagreement is discovered, first determine whether it is something you need to agree about. If you intend to support different candidates in the next election, does it really affect your relationship? James Carville and Mary Matlin are both high-powered political operators. James Carville got Bill Clinton elected President of the United States. Mary Matlin worked as a political advisor for President George W. Bush. These two are married to each other. They have each attended White House functions given by presidents they had worked to defeat. Politics is more central to their lives than most of us. Yet, they have a long-term marriage that is loving by all accounts. If it doesn't blow up their relationship, something like that should not blow up yours. So, if you have a disagreement where you can simply agree to disagree, do that. If the issue causes no harm or inconvenience, it's not worth the trouble of discussing and compromising and creatively resolving things. It certainly is not worth being mad about. Almost nothing is worth being mad about.
The author of this little axiom is unknown to history, but it was often quoted by Elder B.H. Roberts and by my mission president, Bob Rob West:
In non-essentials let there be liberty;
In essentials, unity;
And in all things charity.
I think that's a great formula for dealing with conflict in relationships. Ask yourself if it is truly essential that you agree on the particular issue. If not, allow your partner the liberty to do or think what he or she wants. Don't get stuck in the trap of thinking that everything is essential. Most of the things we disagree about in relationships don't matter very much.
2. For those issues where it is truly important to be on the same page, decide that neither of you will be satisfied until both of you are. Agree to come up with solutions that you both accept.
3. When you disagree, have a brainstorming meeting, not an argument. Spend your time and energy creatively thinking of ways to accommodate both of your needs, rather than getting stuck in inflexible positions and preparing to rebut your partner's arguments. Be solution focused instead of winning focused. Both of you should agree that neither of you is willing to win at the other's expense. Don't just say it. Believe it and mean it.
4. If one of you becomes emotionally flooded, call time out. Make an agreement with your partner that you will not talk unless both of you are calm. If one of you becomes flooded, either of you can call time out. That means you both go away and self soothe for awhile. (The discussion stops instantly. No parting shots or last words.) You take a break for 20 minutes or up to a few hours to become calm. This isn't the silent treatment and it's not meant to hold your partner over the fire. If it gets longer than a few hours, it starts to feel like abandonment and that is destructive. So part of the agreement to call time out is to come back and re-engage as soon as reasonably possible.
Try to get to the point where you don't get flooded very often. Timeouts are disruptive and the emotions that lead to them are highly unpleasant. However, when you are flooded, they are far better than the alternative. Controlling your temper involves learning to control your emotions. None of us is completely mature and enlightened, and we all have moments of fear and anxiety where we might be tempted to react in ways that are damaging to our relationships. We need to understand this and be intentional about how to minimize the destructive effect. That includes cutting off the discussion when it becomes toxic, with an implied agreement to come back and discuss the same issue again when you are calm. Nine times out of ten the issue is not overwhelmingly important. The conflict is being driven by your fear and, perhaps, by your partner's fear.
Friends, I am asking you to work on controlling your emotions. I am asking you to be constructive problem solvers in your relationships. I am asking you to love your partners enough to resolve never to fight with them. I am calling you to see your own weaknesses and lack of self-control at times more clearly and resolve to do something about it.
Constructively dealing with conflict is a make or break issue for marriage. I don't care how attracted you are to your partner or what a great connection you may have in the beginning. If you are not able to have an adult conversation about a difficult subject without exploding or imploding, your relationship will not last--whether you actually take the step of getting divorced or not. Your mid-single journey is the perfect time for you to step back and examine how you do relationships--particularly when it comes to managing conflict. It is time to get better at it, when the stakes are not as high. It is a great time to practice it with your dating partners as relationships become more serious.