What You and Your Partner are Actually Fighting About

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Something that often happens in fights, particularly in romantic relationships, is that everybody gets amped up on a physiological level. Most of us have heard of “fight/flight” but unless you’re practiced in mindfulness meditation,  (or you’ve had debilitating panic attacks), you may not notice what happens to your body when you get angry or sad.

These are important things to notice. When our body goes to a place of being as they call “physiological arousal” we are less able to say the things we mean to say, or be generous or patient with our partners, and instead wind up shouting, “I hate muffins, and I hate you!”

Getting overwhelmed by feelings during fights is pretty common, and we can wind up saying things that we don’t mean, even if we aren’t concretely people with anger or impulsivity issues. What happens is that our nervous system experiences overrides our brain because it perceives our girlfriend saying “I don’t really think your impression of the Kool-Aid man is that funny, I think it’s kind of weird” as her way of saying “You are not funny, and your main strategy of engaging socially is not working. Nobody actually likes you.” Now, your girlfriend may be an indirect communicator, but I’m hoping when she says “I don’t like your impersonation of the Kool-Aid man” that that’s what she means.

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Lots of women spend time with mean girls in high school and later in life, whether as friends or girlfriends, and they become conditioned to hear manipulation or undermining behind other people’s statements. They learn to be on edge in relationships all the time because discomfort and distrust are their baselines for relating to other people. They learn to not only distrust direct communication, but some come to find it rude or abrasive.

Now, this makes it really difficult to disagree with anyone or tell them that impersonating icons from ’80s children’s TV has gotten a little tired since you can only hear someone say “Oh, yeah!” in a funny voice so many times before it gets old. So, therein lies the tension of what style of communication you two have agreed upon.

Passive-aggressive communicating feels safer—nobody actually says what they mean, they just insinuate it. It becomes the other person’s job to do the emotional labor of figuring out what it is you really want and need and frankly what it is you mean, because sometimes you don’t even know. Being mean to somebody because you’re upset about something but aren’t clear about why—while sometimes the result of misdirected irritation—is one of the most persistent ways that women avoid articulating their needs.

So when we get into conflict with our sweethearts, we often don’t have a lot of experience saying what we mean directly. When we get overwhelmed, our feelings curl up and get spikey like a little hedgehog that got poked by somebody too many times. Depending on the life experiences this hedgehog has had, it may get spikey pretty quick if it hears too many loud noises or if it gets ignored for too long. 

Another thing that happens in the enmeshment of ladygay loving is that we get in the habit of making other people responsible for our feelings. We expect our honeys to anticipate our needs, because we feel so close to them. It’s a very vulnerable state to be in!

While love does make lots of things better, it does not change the fact that you are two people who need to express your needs to one another and coordinate your shifting locations across time and space. In the same way that it is really lovely when your sweetheart remembers to pick up almond milk on the way home, there is also the old saying that “Relationships are just texting back and forth ‘do we need anything from the store?’ until one of us dies.” It is better to practice articulating your needs then to rely upon their inconsistent ability to intuit your needs.

So when we are in conflict, it is easy to escalate, easy to hear our partner’s statements as threats to abandon us, as ultimatums, as a moratorium on our looks and personalities. If you can slow the conflict down, articulate the emotion behind the withdrawal or anger (these are usually closer to fear, sadness, disappointment) connection can feel less scary.

Often we lead with a sense of anger (because our person is withdrawing from our attempts to connect, and we respond with protests) or by withdrawing (the protests feel overwhelming, and if I pull away maybe the overwhelming thing will go away—though this withdrawal usually causes the protests to escalate).  But behind that anger is a sense of fear, or of sadness that we are too much, that we will only ever be abandoned by the people we love, that if we tuck ourselves away from the conflict, it will get quieter.

Slow down your moments of conflict where you can, and see what is really going on. Look under the anger and defensiveness to see if you can grasp at the vulnerable threads of reality. If you can share these thoughts with your sweetheart, you have the opportunity to reveal your fears and have them heard and seen. Vulnerability can be the bridge that you build between the two of you to make a safer space for both your tender hearts.

Maria Turner-Carney is a therapist and writer who lives in Seattle. You can follow her work at seattlefeministtherapy.com/blog.

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