Rehashing will never resolve any conflict.
Every couple fights. And they should. Disharmony allows grievances to be aired. And because all relationships change over time, both partners must be willing to hear the other's disappointments and new requests in order to keep their relationship healthy.
Sadly, though, most fights do not result in resolution. They are more often repetitive and unproductive. Once most disputes begin, the issues brought up only serve to create more animosity and disillusionment. Each partner, trying to get what he or she needs, ends up hurting or being hurt and suppressing those feelings until the next battle emerges.
Productive conflict, fortunately, is possible if the partners learn and abide by eight simple rules that can transform frustrating, irresolvable arguments into actual resolutions that sustain over time.
“Abide by” is the critical phrase here. Both partners must not only agree to adopt these rules but implement them as a sacred commitment to each other.
1. Physical distance
It is much easier to hurl accusations, threats, and insults from across a room than it is to do it close up. If you have something angry to say, stay within three feet of your partner, preferably sitting down. Though some people can yell at others in close proximity, most are sobered when they can see the responses of the other. It is much harder to ignore the impact of your words when you can feel what it must be like to be them on the other end of you.
If you, on the other hand, resort to close-up finger jabbing or power yelling to win, you must jettison that behavior. No exceptions.
2. Talk “to” not “at” your partner
Reaching out to a partner for support about grievances requires a welcoming listener in order for that support to be there. As soon as willingness to listen disappears, that opportunity devolves into reacting rather than receiving.
When people continue to talk to a partner who isn’t willing or able to take in what others are saying, they shut down their ability to hear, understand, or help. At that moment, something unproductive and sad occurs. The person airing grievances now is talking at the other partner, no longer to him or her. If that continues, the words and phrases will most certainly be meant for someone from the past, equally unable to hear or support.
3. Don’t hit below the belt
Committed partners share vulnerable information with each other over the years they are together. They know many of the heartbreaks, embarrassments, and mistakes that each have made and how they feel about them.
Those shared moments and feelings must be held sacred. Because they are offered during times of trust, there is an unspoken agreement that they will never be used to hurt the other partner, no matter how angry or upset they may be at the time.
Sadly, many partners, when trying to win an argument, will use their knowledge of those vulnerabilities to hurt, humiliate, or invalidate the other partner. Those breaches of trust are never OK, no matter how much apology may follow, and leave permanent scars.
4. Lean into critique
The most common response to being attacked is to defend. Whether flipping it back to the other partner, stating an exception to the current accusation, making excuses, or making the other feel guilty or crazy, defenses create reciprocal defenses, and the argument becomes a war about who is the righteous person and who is the one without cause. All defenses are attempts to smash the mirror one partner is holding up to the other, putting both on witness stands, defending their innocence at the expense of the other’s guilt.
Too often, people begin arguments with statements that do not reflect what they are actually feeling and struggling with. They either don’t realize what is really going on or don’t know how to gain the support they need for feeling the way they do. If defensive reactions are the first response, those deeper issues will never come to the surface.
If, instead, partners can lean into critique and not take the initial challenges personally, they can get past those barriers. If they can listen without needing to defend, they can help each other get to the deeper issues that are clouded.
Here is just one example for clarification,
Initial statement: “You’re so mean. Don’t you even care?”
Defensive statement: “What? You’re never mean to me? Why don’t you look at yourself?”
Leaning into critique statement: “Help me understand that better. I know I can be mean at times, and I shouldn’t be. Tell me what you would have preferred me to say or act just now.”
You can always tell your end of the story later, and may not even have to.
5. Stop repeating the same statements
After watching a couple fight a few times, I can actually repeat the sequence for them. The sequence, words, timing, and ending are that predictable, and yet they seem unconscious that they are repeating the same scenario over and over, without resolution.
Both partners, as they constantly repeat the exact same patterns, seem almost not there. It is as if they have sent in a robotic replacement while they are thinking or feeling something totally different inside than they are expressing to their partners.
6. No hidden agendas
There are most always self-serving motivations behind every statement anyone makes to another, especially during a fight. Yet, most couples argue dishonestly, presenting themselves as having no underlying self-serving motives.
If a couple wants true resolution, they must, instead, start their disputes with two admissions. The first is to candidly and authentically express what they would want from each other if they could have whatever that is, even if their desires are purely self-serving. The second is to tell each other what they can honestly offer their partners in exchange for those desires.
That process, in and of itself, makes whatever desire for reciprocity more believable. If a partner tells the other what he or she wishes were possible, but also wants to be fair, the other is much more likely to believe the positive part of that process.
7. Don’t bring in outside reinforcements to strengthen your position
One of the most common diverting mechanisms people use when attacking or feeling attacked is to bring in outside allies or information to weaken the position of the other. It is a telltale sign that the partner using this technique feels he or she is losing and is trying to bolster support in another way.
The tactic only works when the other partner believes that the outside reinforcements are legitimate, or isn’t prepared for the army that now has been mobilized. “Even your best friend agrees with me.” “You told me you’ve always done this with other people.” “You don’t get what is happening now in relationships. I have plenty of articles to show you how you’re wrong.” “Just give me one piece of evidence from one person that would support you here.”
If you find yourself bringing in reinforcements, recognize that you are afraid that you, alone, are not enough to withstand the attack. The best response is something like, “I’m feeling overpowered and unable to fight back by all the other stuff you’re bringing in to the argument. If you care about resolving this, just make it between you and me.”
8. Focus on the process, not the content
In the heat of an argument, most people do not recognize it when the other partner is no longer able to take in any more information or is too emotionally overloaded to respond effectively.
The moment that happens, the partner challenging or attacking will cease to have any impact. He or she has lost the most important cue to resolution, recognizing that the other person is defeated, overwhelmed, and shut down. As soon as the experience of the other in the moment is ignored, that crucial piece of data is gone.
Think talking to a child in a stern manner. The child begins to cry, to look away, or to sink into him or herself. Unless you shift at that moment and repair your relationship with that child, he or she will hear nothing but your rejection and disappointment. No resolution or remembering the “lesson” can occur.
Everyone still has that defeated child inside. Words become irrelevant if reception is gone.
* * * * * *
Rehashing will never resolve any conflict. The more it happens, the more the groove of hapless repetition deepens and destroys the possibility of resolution. Following the above eight rules can change rehashing into positive debriefing and ultimate resolution. “What could we have done differently?” “What would have made you feel more heard by me?” “How can we do it better the next time the same argument comes up?” Planning for a better and more productive interaction the next time around puts you on the same team again.