Oftentimes, people fight about essentially nothing. Take, for instance, the following example of a couple trying to decide which restaurant to go to. She says: “Let’s eat Chinese food tonight.” He says: “I’d prefer pizza.” She says: “We always eat pizza, let’s try something else.” He says: “Pizza is what I like. I don’t want something else.” She says: “You’re so inflexible and boring, and you always want the same thing.” He says: “I’m going to get pizza. Are you coming, or are we eating separately tonight?” She says: “I hope you choke on your pizza,” and walks out of the room.
So what were they fighting about? Perhaps they were fighting about nothing more significant than momentary irritation. But a healthy couple finds a way to do some repair work on the incident soon thereafter, something like: Her: “I’m sorry for saying you should choke on your pizza. I didn’t mean that. Please forgive me.” Him responding: “Perhaps I’m getting too set in my ways. Why don’t you choose the next place for us to eat, and I’ll go along with whatever you choose. I get that you want a more varied menu than I do, and I’ll be more responsive to that in the future.”
But let’s say they don’t do that repair work, as many couples don’t. The incident, which by itself may not have been important, is now left to grow and fester. Pretty soon, it’s not just a regrettable momentary irritation, but a larger issue. She now says that he isn’t responsive to her wishes, that he doesn’t treat her with respect, that he’s controlling and unable to blend in a long-term relationship.
Now the couple has a real problem. The minor incident, not repaired, has now grown into a possible relationship-threatening issue. But if the couple didn’t repair the original incident, they are likely to be ill-equipped and unskilled in knowing how to address and resolve the larger and more emotional issues they now face.
There are three common ways that get otherwise committed relationships into trouble. First, is by not addressing the important issues when they first arise, thereby allowing hurt emotions to grow and fester. Second, is by not revisiting the hurtful words or behaviors shortly after they occur—and do the repair work so that small incidents do not mushroom into bigger issues.
Finally, many people get way too emotional when challenged with an important issue or hurt feelings, and therefore respond with anger or rage, sarcasm, name-calling, harsh judgements, criticism, threats—in short, too much raw emotion or defensiveness—which poisons the whole environment between them and discourages people from talking openly and honestly with each other.
Here is the better way: first, lay the disagreements and conflicts out on the table, so problems can be addressed and resolved in a civil and constructive way. It’s important that the two of you are respectful of each other—no exceptions.
Second, make sure you do periodic repair work by apologizing for wrong-doing, or words that hurt, or behaviors that offend. This repair work is not just desirable—it’s required if you have an interest in staying together and being reasonably happy with each other.
Third, you cannot respond with anger, aggression, threats or defensiveness if your partner tells you that something you said or did—or didn’t say or didn’t do—has hurt, angered or offended them. Your partner has to tell you what’s bothering him or her, that’s how repair work happens. You must be receptive and non-defensive, or you risk helping the issue to become much bigger than it now is.