The Right Way to Fight with Your Spouse

[Above: This intimate moment brought to you by clear communication.]

It’s 2 a.m. Baby cries. Mother wakes immediately. Father snores on. “Typical,” she huffs and tears herself from the sheets again to go to the baby.

I’ve been writing about how to thrive postpartum. In my last post I took exception to our culture’s demonization of postpartum hormones. I argued that, rather than being rogue agents within us, they ultimately play a constructive role. By intensifying our emotions, our postpartum hormones force us to reckon with the changes the new baby brings and to get our (new) needs met.

“Ultimately” is a tricky word, though. It acknowledges that there will be mess before you arrive at the new normal. In order for your life to expand to accommodate baby, the old will have to be torn down: established patterns dismantled and built to new specs. The “Ten Steps to Postpartum Thriving” will help you build a solid foundation.

Established relationships – namely your relationship with your spouse – also will have to be renegotiated as you grow from couple to parents. There’s a lot to figure out, and you won’t always agree – like the couple I imagine in the epigraph to this post. But you can learn to “fight right,” and your relationship can be better than ever for it.

That’s what today’s post is about. I give you my formula for Clear Communication so you can see yourself and your partner clearly and then communicate in a way that invites intimacy and problem-solving.

The Clear Communication Formula:

  1. Notice Your Judgment.
  2. Ask, “What Am I Afraid Of?”
  3. Do the Work.
  4. Reflect & Invite.

Notice Your Judgment.  You love each other, and you will judge one another. As Byron Katie says, it’s what we humans do here on Planet Earth. Judging the actions of others is so ingrained that we may not even notice we’re doing it. It’s also so taboo that we may tell ourselves that we’re not doing it. That’s why noticing that you are judging is the first step.

What you may notice more easily is contraction or heaviness in your body. You make a face, hold your breath. You may want to say something but stop yourself.

Ask, “What Am I Afraid Of?” Once you notice those physical sensations, ask, “What am I afraid of?” This simple question, posed in the privacy of your own head, will get to the heart of what’s bothering you right away. Go with the first image or phrase that pops into your head, before you have a chance to censor yourself. That’s your painful thought.

Do the Work. Once you have identified the thought that is causing you pain, do the Work on it. Chances are you’ve made the judged behavior mean something enduring, catastrophic and probably untrue.

  • If you’re new to this blog, the Work is Byron Katie’s process for questioning thoughts that cause pain. You read about it, watch Katie do it, and do it yourself at her website. I’ve also shown you my Work here and here.

The Work will help you see yourself, your partner and the situation more clearly.

Reflect & Invite. Having done the Work, you are now ready to problem solve with your partner from a place of curiosity and openness. Begin the conversation by reflecting and inviting.

To reflect is to name, simply, what you see, as if you were holding a mirror up to your partner. For example, “You’re crying.” This little technique contains so much compassion. It says, “I see you.” It doesn’t place any demands on the person I’m talking to or make his behavior about me.

Invite dialogue with the words, “What do you want to tell me?” This technique is much gentler than asking why. “Why” requires the person to justify herself. Invitation tells the person, “I am here to listen.”

Now let’s go back to our imagined couple and see how the clear communication formula would work for them.

It’s 2 a.m. Baby cries. Mother wakes immediately. Father snores on. “Typical,” she thinks. . .

But wait! She knows the clear communication formula, so she doesn’t huff and tear herself from the bed this time. She (1) notices her eyes roll and her face scrunch up in a look of contempt. She moves to step 2:

  1. What am I afraid of? That he’ll never wake up for baby. I’ll have to do it forever. Nothing in his life has changed, but everything in my life has changed! He gets to sleep all night, wake up rested, then just leave us behind without a second thought, while I stay here trapped. Ah! That’s what kills me, the belief that I’m trapped and he’s free.
  1. Do the Work. “I’m trapped.” Is it true?  “Nothing in his life has changed.” Is it true?  Doing the Work she notices all the ways she is not trapped, but rather would feel trapped if she could not be with her baby. She notices how helpful the father has been, remembers how he wishes he could take more paternity leave. This doesn’t take away all her fatigue, but it helps her to feel less burdened and to enjoy this moment with her baby.
  1. Reflect & Invite. In the morning she broaches the subject with more clarity and neutrality than she had before she noticed, identified and questioned her thoughts.  She reflects the circumstances: “Baby got me up three times last night. I’m so tired. Here she is reflecting what’s going on with her, because she’s the one with the problem. She could also have said, “The baby didn’t wake you last night.”  Now she invites problem solving with curiosity and openness: “Let’s talk about how I can get more unbroken sleep in the night.”

Do You Want to Be Right, or Do You Want to Be Happy?

Every judgment you have about your partner is an opportunity either to erect a barrier between you or to grow more intimate. As Dr. Phil says, “Do you want to be right, or do you want to be happy?” The clear communication formula is a formula for happiness. It directs you to take responsibility for yourself first, before you bring your partner into it. It helps you to see yourself, your thinking and your partner more clearly. In my experience, clarity always increases love. When you begin a conversation with your partner from a place of clarity and love, you problem-solve more effectively and intimacy blossoms.  That’s fighting right.

The transition from couple to parents is not for the faint of heart. It will be messy and probably tear-stained, but like every other aspect of this transition, an opportunity for conscious growth and, ultimately, thriving.

Do you and your beloved have a tip to share for resolving differences and increasing intimacy? Let us know in the comments!

 

2 thoughts on “The Right Way to Fight with Your Spouse

  1. rebecca@altaredspaces says:

    Allison this is so tender and heartfelt. I am just taken with this.

    “In order for your life to expand to accommodate baby, the old will have to be torn down” I feel like the word “baby” could be substituted with any word and this would be true.

    “Invite dialogue with the words, “What do you want to tell me?” This technique is much gentler than asking why. “Why” requires the person to justify herself. Invitation tells the person, “I am here to listen.” This is so HUGE!!! Sometimes my partner would say nothing in answer to this question, because he is quiet. But when I ask this of MYSELF…I often have lots of answers. I feel very vulnerable answering, but I’m going to give this to him. I often say icky things because I’ve been asked “why?” I can feel the softness of “What do you want to tell me?” That begins with “I am afraid…and I love you…and I want you to love me…”

    Beautiful post. Just so tender. Thank you.

  2. Sue Ann Gleason says:

    I am a big fan of Byron Katie and ‘the work.’ I also have a very high regard for any work that teaches us how to get our needs met through open, honest communication. That is so very tricky in the moment, when we are feeling weary, resentful or afraid. For me, learning how to ask for what I need has been a lifelong learning. Deep breathing, giving myself time and space to seek my truth, finding compassion for my partner, and then becoming an advocate for myself and my needs has been so very important in the growth of my marriage. What has helped me the most is practice. Learning how to speak my truth in nonthreatening situations and then calling on that felt sense of strength in the more vulnerable spaces with my beloved. Thank you for a thoughtful and thought provoking post.

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