I listened to a radio show one day while driving home from work. The host had a Pastor on talking about relationships. The Pastor indicated that he once left his wife a letter that read, “I hate you, Love [insert signature here]. Have you ever been there? Nobody can get under your skin like your significant other, and to some extent, this feeling is unavoidable. My personal relationships have showed me that fights are like rain. It can ruin your whole day when it comes, but it also helps certain areas of the relationship grow. In Hold Me Tight, Susan Johnson highlights the key question behind all arguments: are you there for me? When couples answer this question with uncertainty, rainy days take a toll on the relationship. Soon, the person you love most turns into your enemy.
"Relationship conflict is like rain. It can ruin your whole day when it comes, but it also helps certain areas of the relationship grow."
Sign 1:You chose revenge over healing.
One sign that you’re on the verge of becoming enemies is when seeking revenge is more important than healing. I wonder when you feel your partner has hurt you, do you seek to hurt her or heal you? Imagine a person suffering from a fresh wound. Rather than looking for adhesives and balm, the sufferer rushes to attack the perpetrator. Is there satisfaction in retaliation? Many people would say there is satisfaction in getting the person back, but what happens to your wound? It’s still there. Now you two will go back and forth fighting for the upper hand or the last word. When we see our mate as the enemy, we use fight, flight or freeze responses. Fighting is inevitable. Healthy couples specialize in recovery.
Question: In your relationship, when you are hurt, do you seek to hurt your partner or heal you?
Sign 2: You feel you have good reason to hurt your partner.
Underneath the common saying “hurt people, hurt people” is a second sign, justification for retaliation. Here, hitting a partner where it hurts the most is warranted given their actions and behaviors. For example, you confront your partner about his latest wrongdoing. Have you ever heard this justification? “But, you do it.” If one partner dishes out maltreatment, giving them a dose of their own medicine is a common response. When this happens I share with couples that it is hard to get ahead, if your goal is to get even. The “if you start it, I will finish it” mentality is damaging. When couples use justification to create empathy, they can expect fights to happen more often. In fact, more of their conversations then focus on their differences while appreciation and passion hide under the growing bitterness. Renowned Relationship Researcher, John Gottman identified a magic ratio of 5:1 for healthy couples. This means couples with five times as many positive interactions than negative ones are less likely to be stuck in conflict.
"It's hard to get ahead, if your goal is to get even."
Sign 3: You Assume you know your partner's intentions
At this point, it is hard to believe that your partner has any good intentions. Giving him the benefit of the doubt is out of the question, leading to the last sign which I call the great assumption. For example, the reason he left his shoes in the middle of the floor after constant reminders was to upset you. More than likely, you feel this was done purposefully. This is the great assumption. It’s when you know your partner’s intentions before it’s confirmed. Assumptions help to conceive misunderstanding. Trusting your gut response that she only wants to hurt you may be untrue. Here the fight is about what you think she intends and it may not align with motives. Clarifying is the better option. I rarely use the word “never,” but I never witnessed a couple fight when both felt understood and heard.
"I have never witnessed a couple fight when both felt heard and understood."
Lovers do not become enemies overnight. It’s a process including missed opportunities to talk about needs constructively. The good news is that in many relationships the partners share a common goal. As stated in the New York Times Best Seller, Crucial Conversations, fights are often about the strategies. When the fight focuses on the approaches or pathways to the goal, couples miss that they share a common goal. There will be more on this in an upcoming blog. Before you throw in the towel, seek out a therapist that can help create safety in the relationship. You may find that the dormant passion for each other can be reawakened. FYI: the Pastor’s wife was on the radio show too, and they have remained more happily married for decades.
"When the fight focuses on the approaches or pathways to the goal, couples miss that they share a common goal."