Making Fighting Work for You
According to Hedy Schleifer, M.A., a licensed mental health counselor and director of Hedy Schleifer & Associates, A Center For Relationship Therapy, in Winter Park, Florida, every conflict in an intimate relationship presents an opportunity for growth. "Marriage should be a safe laboratory for the creation of two adults," she says. Once two people have established a safety zone, they can invite conflict, and learn from it. Rather than merely serving to keep couples connected, Schleifer maintains, the deeper purpose of marital conflict is healing.
"When we fight, two little children come out," she explains. "You're two or three years old again. When you're shouting at each other, you're hurting." The key is to locate the hurt beneath the anger. And for that reason, she says, simply blowing up isn't enough. "Just because something's resolved doesn't mean it's dissolved," she says. The first step, she explains, is for couples to realize that recurring fights may have little to do with what's going on right now, and a lot to do with what's happened in the past. Once you've done that, she advises, "start looking for clues—what about the past has you shouting or fighting now?"
Schleifer encourages couples to keep a picture of their partner as a child in their wallets. "When you get into a fight, think of that child—that's the person who's hurting," she advises.
It is inevitable that couples will face conflict—especially in the most satisfying marriages, says Schleifer. "The incompatible things between you are really the basis of a good marriage." Such conflicts, in fact, are actually a sign that you're with the right person.
"During the idealized, early romantic phase, all you see is compatibility," she explains. "You like broccoli, and so do I. It's a match made in heaven!" But the longer you know your mate, the more differences and incompatibilities you find in one another. And that, says Schleifer, is because the true purpose of marriage is "to help us finish childhood—to complete each other." The personnel department inside of each of us unconsciously selects just the right person for the job.
That's the way it happened with JD Tyre, a freelance photographer in Atlanta, and his wife Lisa, a marketing manager. "I try not to label what we do ‘fighting,'" says JD. "What we do is more of a win-win thing. I call it a ‘discussion.'"
Because they have become accustomed to hashing things out, JD and Lisa have been able to get at the root of squabbles, whatever they seem to be about on the surface. "For example, in an argument over spending money, we are able to look at our individual irresponsible behaviors and realize that our fight isn't about who spends more on morning coffee, but about our pervasive attitudes about money," says JD.
The key is the seriousness of their commitment. "When we enter into a discussion, we know that our partnership is something that we are committed to. We have agreed to resolve arguments for the betterment of the partnership." Their agreement to disagree provides them with a rare freedom. "We come away from these discussions feeling not only more insightful about ourselves, but also better about our marriage."
Oddly enough, JD already carries in his wallet a picture of Lisa in the first grade. "It reminds me that I married a whole person," he says. "When I first met her, I just thought she was this really hot woman. But when she gave me this picture, I knew I needed to figure out how this person came to be."
Schleifer says couples like JD and Lisa are on the right track. "If you learn to deal with conflict when you are newly married, it will make a huge difference." The goal should be to welcome every conflict, she says, because eventually there comes a day when the majority of the tension is resolved. "At that point, the relationship gets more creative, and there's more energy." All the energy that was caught up in conflict will naturally turn to other things, Schleifer promises. "And life gets richer and more full of passion."