I've been married for three years. In many ways, my husband is a funny, kind, and thoughtful man. However, should I become upset about something he takes it as a personal attack. His response? He fights dirty.
I never hear him say, "I'm sorry, but I really didn't know that would upset you," or anything resembling an apology. He goes for the jugular. He lists off a series of adjectives to describe me: a nag, a control freak, a manipulator, someone who is not transparent....I don't think I'm any of these things (and I say that after a lot of introspection and talk with family and friends). His tone in these arguments is very acidic. His words are dripping with sarcasm. In a nutshell: he's mean.
I have such a hard time recovering from these arguments. I often find that I'm not just mad at him, but I actually don't even like him as a person. Sometimes those feelings linger for a few days.
My guess is that he uses personal attacks to put me on the defensive so that argument is no longer about what he's done to upset me, but more about me trying to get a handle on why he would accuse me of being manipulative. After our last argument I told him point-blank that he was very mean, and that disagreements didn't have to be like this.
Are we at our worst in arguments or is that behavior indicative of our true beings? Is my husband a mean person, or is he just highly dysfunctional when it comes to conflict resolution?
Signed, Wanting to Fight Fair
Dear Wanting to Fight Fair,
We all have our personality traits. For instance some people are quick to anger, whereas others find it easier to remain calm. When I talk to folks who have trouble staying cool in conflict situations, sometimes they will claim, “That’s just how I am. I’ve always been that way and there’s nothing I can do about it.”
Sorry, but that’s baloney.
Clearly our personalities influence our behavior, but they do not have to determine it. We can all learn life skills and strategies to cope effectively with others.
Are you a great negotiator? Most of us are not. But do you believe there are negotiation experts out there who could teach you some tips and approaches that would improve your abilities in that area? Sure there are. The same is true with all sorts of life skills – public speaking, managing finances, work/life balance ... and yes, how to have an argument with your significant other so the conflict is resolved without damaging your relationship in the process.
Dr. Phil has some great advice for couples in this regard. Here are Dr. Phil's rules for fighting fair, which I copied from his website:
- Take it private and keep it private.
Fighting in front of your children is nothing short of child abuse. It can and will scar them emotionally — all because you don't have the self-control to contain yourself until you can talk privately.
- Keep it relevant.
Don't bring up old grudges or sore points when they don't belong in a particular argument. Put boundaries around the subject matter so that a fight doesn't deteriorate into a free-for-all.
- Keep it real.
Deal with the issue at hand, not with a symptom of the problem. Get real about what is bothering you, or you will come away from the exchange even more frustrated.
- Avoid character assassination.
Stay focused on the issue, rather than deteriorating to the point of attacking your partner personally. Don't let the fight degenerate into name-calling.
- Remain task-oriented.
Know what you want going into the disagreement. If you don't have a goal in mind, you won't know when you've achieved it.
- Allow for your partner to retreat with dignity.
How an argument ends is crucial. Recognize when an olive branch is being extended to you — perhaps in the form of an apology or a joke — and give your partner a face-saving way out of the disagreement.
- Be proportional in your intensity.
Every single thing you disagree about is not an earth-shattering event or issue. You do not have to get mad every time you have a right to be.
- There's a time limit.
Arguments should be temporary, so don't let them get out of hand. Don't allow the ugliness of an argument to stretch on indefinitely.
Your husband is straying from these rules in at least four ways. He uses character assassination as a primary tactic, the intensity of his reaction sounds like it is off the charts, his idea of an olive branch is a blunt club, and you make it clear in your letter that your discussions stray far from the real issues.
I agree with Dr. Phil’s rules, which he proposes for a very good reason – bad things happen if you don’t follow these guidelines. You are living proof of this. Your husband may not mean to drive you away with his tactics, but that is one consequence of his actions.
I suspect the answer to your question is that your husband is not a fundamentally mean person. If he were then this would exhibit itself more generally in various aspects of his behavior. Instead his conflict resolution skills could use a tune up.
So the question becomes how to make that tune up happen.
I suggest you begin by looking in the mirror. Have you been following all of Dr. Phil’s rules? Be honest with yourself now. I know it’s not easy to do, but you are half of this equation so you need to make sure you are not also contributing to the problem.
I’ll give you a hint. Here are the words you said to him: “You are mean.” That may be your true feelings at the time, but it is also a character assassination. It is a comment about him personally rather than about the issue that started the discussion. As you can see, it can be difficult to follow the rules when stress levels are high, and especially when your partner’s behavior is not at its best. When one partner strays from the rules, the other often follows right along.
You need to get him to admit that there is an issue with your arguments. That shouldn’t be difficult. He is certainly aware of the stress in the household.
Then admit to him that your behavior has not been perfect. I’m not saying you are the problem, just that offering an olive branch can be an effective way to begin to move past an issue. Admit your part in the proceedings, remain calm and contrite regardless of how he reacts at first, and then eventually most partners will admit their part.
Then it’s time to break out a copy of Dr. Phil’s rules and suggest to him that you both learn to abide by them. I promise – if you can get to that point you will get past your issues more quickly and with fewer hurt feelings.
Finally, I have posted before on the issue of fighting fair. You will probably also glean some ideas from Dismaying Story #89: Learning to Fight Fair. The challenges faced by the couple in that story are different from yours, but the strategy for moving past them is similar.
All the best,
Last week I put out a request for people to send in new questions. A few people responded ... thanks! I could still use a much larger back-log of questions, though. So if you know someone who could use some advice or even just an encouraging word, please reach out and suggest they write in. I’ll keep the back porch light on for them so they can find their way.
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