Tuesday Tip: How to Fight With, Instead of Against, Your Partner

Welcome to the first Tuesday Tip! The Tuesday Tip is intended to offer concrete and practical ideas for improving yourself and your relationships, in a shorter-than-usual post. Topics will vary, but they will be closely linked to the upcoming blog post on Friday. I hope the Tip gets you thinking about the topic in new ways, so the Friday post will be an even richer experience.               

For decades, married couples have consistently reported that communication is the biggest problem in their marriage. And the most commonly exhibited communication pattern in marriage is the “demand-withdraw” conflict style—one spouse demands more discussion and connection, while the other spouse wants space and freedom from the conflict. Each spouse’s behavior exacerbates the other spouse’s behavior: demands encourage withdrawal, and withdrawal encourages more demands. Often, the vicious cycle spirals out of control.

And spouses end up blaming each other for the way they fight, accusing the other of triggering the pattern with their behavior. But the reality is, usually, both spouses share responsibility, and the truth of who initiated the pattern in the relationship, if it even exists, is lost to time and perception.

In Integrative Behavioral Couples Therapy (IBCT), the cycle of blame is disrupted by fostering a “unified detachment” from the problem. That is, instead of viewing our spouses as the problem in the conflict, we see the conflict itself as the problem, and unite with our spouses to change the pattern of conflict.

There are a number of ways to build unified detachment from the conflict cycle. The following is adapted from existing methods:

  1. Spouses agree upon the topic they fight about most in the marriage.
  2. Separately, each spouse writes out a script of a typical argument. Make it detailed. Try to be as objective as possible.
  3. Then, spouses trade scripts. Spouses take turns reading the script they’ve been given. Clarify any questions about the script.
  4. Each spouse takes 15 minutes to independently read through the conflict sequence, looking at his/her own behaviors in particular, and deciding what s/he could do to foster a more productive interaction at each step in the sequence.
  5. Spouses reconvene and share with each other their ideas for ways they can take personal responsibility for changing the pattern.

For instance, a spouse who is typically in the demanding role may observe a place where they could offer a brief break in the communication. Or the spouse who is typically in the withdrawal role may observe the point at which they feel overwhelmed and might offer a specific time to resume the conversation after a break.

The solution is not as important as the cooperation. In this way, couples begin to quit blaming each other and, instead, unite to defeat the problem of the communication itself.

This Friday’s Post: Friday’s post will focus on this idea of externalizing the problem in marriage, fighting with each other instead of against each other. And it will explore the ways this frees us up to make a difference in the world. 

Tuesday Tip Disclaimer: The Tuesday Tip is not professional advice. It should be read as you would read a “self-help” book. For professional and customized advice, you should seek the services of a counselor, who can become more intimately familiar with your specific situation. Counselors can be located through your insurance network or through your state psychological association website. 

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Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.