My boyfriend and I began to have occasional arguments less than six months into the relationship.
Whenever he pointed out that I was usually the one who started the fights (true) I would justify myself by saying: “If I’m angry it’s because I care!”
I’m a firm believer that hatred is not the opposite of love – apathy is. So in my view, if I wasn’t emotionally invested, I wouldn’t even bother getting mad.
But after a few more fights, I came to see he also had a point. I shouldn’t be flaring up over every single thing. So how should we fight in a relationship?
PICK YOUR BATTLES
I once watched a commercial in which a husband was suspected of having an extramarital affair because of his constant late nights. Turns out he stayed out late because he just wanted to be by himself.
He told his wife: “I’m a worker by day and a husband by night. Sometimes I just want to be myself.” That line gripped me. I didn’t want to lose myself in a relationship and not recognise myself at the end of the day.
In that spirit, earlier on in our relationship, I disputed every single thing simply because I wanted everything to go my way. I figured that if I didn’t say anything, I would start to lose a part of who I am.
But I soon realised I was fighting a foolish battle.
The truth is that part of you has to change as you and your partner work towards marriage. The Bible says two will become one (Mark 10:8), so how can I still expect to remain as I am? Why would I?
Paul also instructed husbands to make their wives holy, by washing with the water through the Word (Ephesians 5:25-27). So growth and sanctification will mean change. It must!
I started to see that it may not be all that bad to lose parts of myself. Perhaps I am just losing the bad parts of myself. So change can be good too!
FIGHT TOGETHER, NOT EACH OTHER
Now, there are times when anger is valid. And there are times when certain offences have to be addressed. While we may feel anger as we resolve a conflict, what really matters is the heart behind that anger and the actions that follow after the fight.
Am I fighting for my selfish desires or am I fighting for our relationship’s betterment? Am I being slow to anger and quick to forgive (Numbers 14:18)?
If the answers to those questions are no, then I would think that I am merely holding onto grudges as an excuse to justify my anger. It also shows that I value my emotions above the other person – and that is not the way of love (Ephesians 4:26-27)!
Is the way that I’m approaching the issue above reproach?
In the story of Cain and Abel, God saw that Cain was angry but did not consider it a sin. Instead, He went on to warn Cain against sinning in anger.
Then the Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it” (Genesis 4:6-7).
So yes, you can feel angry – God acknowledges your emotions! But while He doesn’t disregard our feelings, He doesn’t allow our feelings to justify our actions either. So it’s always best to present our feelings to God first before confronting the other party.
CHOOSE YOUR WEAPONS WISELY
So how should we address conflicts in a relationship? After all, it’s still pretty easy to get triggered when talking about the problem to the other party even after bringing our emotions to God.
We can start by knowing what not to do. I try to avoid criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling. According to researcher Dr John Gottman, these are the four horsemen of apocalypse in any relationship.
Criticism is when a person verbally attacks the other party’s character. Criticism also targets the person and not the issue at hand. It makes the person on the receiving end feel verbally assaulted.
This is different from constructive feedback where it is issue-specific and has follow-up actions. Criticism simply seals the weakness that the person has as a trait that they will never be able to change.
Criticism is when a person verbally attacks the other party’s character.
“You’re so forgetful! You always need me to remind you of our dates. You don’t care about this relationship, you never consider my feelings!”
The anecdote to criticism is to employ the I-message technique. What this means is to start your sentences with “I” rather than “You”. You-statements have an accusatory tone and tend to put the other person on the defensive; the former creates empathy and understanding on why the person needs to change his or her behaviour.
It is also important not to mix I-statements with You-statements because that still assigns blame. Of course, the I-message is not a one-size-fits-all solution. There are times when you need to call out your partner’s behaviour. But the principal is to always point the focus back to the issue – not the person.
And also: Don’t use definite terms like “always” and “never” when addressing an issue.
Sarcasm, mockery and disrespectful body language like eye-rolling or mimicking your partner’s voice are all trademarks of contempt. Contempt goes beyond making the other person feel bad about themselves – it makes them feel lesser than the other party!
“Yeah, yeah. You’re always right and I’m always wrong. What more can I say?”
So serious is the damage of contempt that Dr Gottman describes it as the “single greatest predictor of divorce.”
One way to eliminate contempt is to reinforce positive interactions with your partner on a daily basis. Contempt is an attitude and a posture one adopts. So if we are able to create an atmosphere of affirmation and appreciation, we are far less likely to think less of our partners!
The third horseman is defensiveness. This is usually a response to criticism: The hurting party will play the victim and deny responsibility. They may even reverse the blame and accuse the other party.
“You should know that I was busy. You should have reminded me!”
I only recently realised that I have a tendency to play the victim when people point out my weaknesses or problems. I hated to admit my shortcomings so I would either try to deny responsibility or push the blame to someone else.
The only solution to defensiveness is a willingness to listen and the humility to admit our faults. Let’s be honest: It takes both hands to clap. In most fights, both parties have a part to play.
And no matter how “right” you are, there is always something you can apologise for.
Unlike the rest, stonewalling is the only horseman that is a silent killer. People who stonewall simply disengage – they are no strangers to shutting down emotionally and giving their partners the cold shoulder.
As ironic as it may sound, the way to counter stonewalling is to take a break. A time-out gives the couple some time to cool down, and once the emotions have settled, an opportunity to reengage meaningfully.
We can easily find traces of these four horsemen whenever we’re embroiled in a heated argument with our partners.
They serve as indicators for me to know when a discussion has become toxic. So if you sense that your anger is leading you to sin, disengage for a moment, bring the issue to God before taking a second look at the issue.
Bringing God into your arguments may seem counter-intuitive initially, but it makes all the difference. My boyfriend and I have been trying to end our fights with a prayer – especially when things ended badly. We are more likely than not to lose sight of God when we are caught up in our anger. Praying helps to realign our perspectives by taking the focus off us.
We are always going to have conflicts in life. What matters most is how we resolve the conflicts.
It may sound tough, but with Love, nothing’s impossible.