We were sitting on my twin bed facing one another, our legs crossed when my husband kissed me for the first time. He picked up my hand in his and kept his eyes trained on mine as he pressed his lips to my palm. I still remember my clichéd reply, "There's no going back now, is there? We're not just friends."
We managed to spend every moment of the next three months side by side. We were volunteering at the same meditation center, our rooms just down the hallway from one another.
We bonded quickly, intensely and naively. When I wanted to spend the day with a friend he felt hurt and abandoned. When he wanted to spend the day meditating alone I felt hurt and abandoned. We each had our own insecurities and histories of trauma. When he was very young he witnessed his little brother's death. This caused an immense fear of losing the people he loved. I grew up witnessing my own mother’s abuse.
So you can imagine the way that it felt when he always wanted to know where I was. I thought he wanted to own me the way my mom's boyfriends wanted to own her. And maybe sometimes he did. In turn I grew distant and his fears were confirmed; he was losing me.
We did a lot of things wrong. We shared a room together after knowing one another for just three months. It wasn't entirely our decision, the retreat center we moved to (this one in the Catskills) assumed that because we were a couple we'd be fine with it. It was easy to become codependent in that setting. I met a woman there who would become my best friend, but I hardly spent any time with her that summer. I spent every minute with my husband, afraid that he would be angry if I left.
In between long stretches of fear I lashed out, called him mean and controlling (among other more colorful names). He retaliated saying I didn't know what I was talking about, that I was selfish for making his feelings all about me. He argued that just because he was sad when I was gone didn't mean he was trying to change me. And wasn't he allowed to get sad and angry?
In the end we realized that we both were at fault. I tiptoed around his grief, afraid that if he was upset I wasn't safe. I did anything to avoid him getting mad. He did anything to encourage me to spend all my time with him. It was exhausting to us both.
Toward the end of that summer, right around our six month anniversary, something began to shift in our fights. We realized how exhausting it was to fight all night long and make up every morning. We started to feel compassion for one another even in the midst of a blow-out. It felt like a major breakthrough the first time we were fighting and he told me that my feelings made sense.
Slowly we began to build a set of skills necessary to fight well, so that the fighting wasn't about knocking one another down. It was less destruction and more construction. The goal was never to have a perfectly peaceful relationship, but to have a relationship that was capable of holding everything. Imperfection and perfection alike.
Throughout the years I've gathered some of our rules together. We've borrowed from self-help books and Buddhist teachings, and by no means am I taking credit for coming up with these ideas, but I thought it might be helpful to put them all in one place.
Talk about fighting when you're not fighting. Come up with your own set of standards. Do your fights usually follow a pattern? Get curious about why. Is there something they say that always sets you off? Is there a past pain that you bring up over and over because you know it gives you the upper hand? This is where brutal honesty becomes your friend.
All it takes is for one person to show a moment of kindness. Sometimes it happens when he bursts into tears. I suddenly realize that I'm not fighting with a robot. This is the man I love, the man I want to have babies with. Sometimes all it takes is for one person to swallow their pride for a moment.
However, if you are always the person who does this, if you are always the one who "backs down" or apologizes first, I recommend being cautious with this one. Sometimes a moment of kindness means removing yourself from the situation.
When there's no room for kindness, make room for yourself. If you feel completely unable to connect to an ounce of kindness toward your partner or yourself, you probably need some space. Go for a walk, take a bath or call your mom. Tell your partner you need a breather. Stay with a friend, sleep on the couch. After getting some rest and self-care it will be easier to have a constructive conversation.
Ask your partner to mirror you. This one can be absolutely maddening, but it's helpful. Sometimes what we want more than anything else is to simply be heard. If you feel an argument escalating I recommend this step highly.
Ask them to repeat back to you what you are saying. For example, "I feel so angry when you eat the last cheese danish," and then they have to say "You feel so angry when I eat the last cheese danish." This might sound silly, but please try it. It can feel so validating. There is also more to using mirroring as a tool. Sometimes we fight and fight and never really hear anything the other is saying.
You can have compassion for their suffering even if you don’t agree with what they are saying. Seriously. Just because you validate their emotions (i.e.: "That sounds really frustrating") doesn’t mean you are giving in or giving away your power. In fact, in can feel incredibly empowering.
Don't blame them for your feelings. This is a hard one too, but it's worth it. Own your feelings. Don't say things like "You make me so angry!" Rephrase those statements so that a) you are the master of your emotions, not helpless and b) they have some feedback for what they can do differently.
So instead of "You make me so angry," you could say, "When you ate the last cheese danish I felt so angry. Something you could do differently is ask me before eating the last danish." This can help both of you to feel more empowered, so they know something specific and concrete they can change, and you have claimed ownership over your own feelings. You can find out more about this strategy by reading up on non-violent communication. There are lots of NVC resources and I recommend them all.
The last two are simple, but not easy.
Don't say anything you'll regret. My husband and I still harbor pain from harmful things the other has said, and maybe we always will. It's just not worth it no matter how badly the fire is burning in your belly. Take a breath, remember your promise to yourself to be civil.
Learn to be mindful of your own feelings. This might be the most important one. Listen to what your body is telling you, gain an understanding of what each emotion actually feels like. Trust your what your body tells you. When you can identify an emotion, like rage for example, just notice for a few seconds what it feels like before reacting. Take moments to breathe in the midst of fighting. Check in with your own body. Sometimes we react quickly and angrily because we feel we can’t bear the intensity of our own pain.
And the most important thing of all, listen. Not just to your partner, but to yourself. Pay attention, and don’t be afraid to dig in. Fighting can be hard. It can hurt. But it doesn’t have to destroy your relationship. Fighting helped my husband and I to differentiate ourselves, and eventually to disentangle the codependency that once ruled our love. Today our relationship is strong because we put honesty and kindness first (toward ourselves and one another).
* Disclaimer: There is a difference between fighting in a basically healthy relationship and fighting in an abusive relationship. If you are in an abusive relationship these guidelines will not be useful because your partner is likely incapable of respecting your limits and emotions. The National Domestic Violence Hotline can help: 1-800-799-7233 / thehotline.org