My husband Thom and I married 38 years ago and never once did I think our fights contributed to our great marriage. Until now. Both of us are verbally energetic which is wonderful when we are happy, excited and in harmony. However, just mention the word “no,” or express an opposing opinion, and the words can fly fast and furious. Fortunately, after all these years we’ve learned a great deal about each other and what triggers defensive or aggressive retaliation. These days our energetic discussions usually end quickly, and are far fewer and further between. But now, a new book titled, The Heart Of The Fight by Judith and Bob Wright, EdDs, puts our arguments in a positive new perspective. According to the Wrights, at the heart of the every fight is a tremendous opportunity for all relationships, and for each individual to grow and thrive. Who knew?
A big part of the problem is that most of us grow up believing that fighting signals a bad relationship. Then add that together with a belief in fairy tales like Cinderella and Snow White that teach us that all we need to do is find the right and perfect person and then we will live happily-ever-after. It’s easy to understand the problem. But the Wrights claim otherwise—and if Thom and I’s relationship is any example—they are on to something important. After reading their book, I’ve discovered three ways I believe that fighting can help us all create the best relationships possible.
#1 Fighting correctly leads to a more authentic and real you, capable of genuine interactions with others. I doubt there is any one of us who will deny the fact that arguments are tough. Most of the time, they don’t feel good regardless if either of us wins. So what do most of us do? Avoid them if possible. After years of avoiding, denying and tiptoeing around to avoid rocking the boat, we often become merely a shadow of our real selves. Instead, by learning to address conflict as “creative engagement” we find a release from our self-imposed fake identity.
Does that mean we will sometimes lose friends or disappoint others? Yes. But the freedom and self-awareness that comes from being authentic and in touch with our feelings more than compensates for a fake and numb life. As the Wrights say in their book, “…see your fights not as a problem, but as a powerful doorway to self-knowledge, growth, deep understanding, and intimacy as you unearth the unconscious layers that trigger them.”
#2 Your arguments will help your relationship become more alive, growing, thriving and resilient. Unfortunately, most of us do the opposite and try to keep our relationships on a smooth and easy keel. Then instead of making them strong and adaptable, we make them weak and susceptible to an explosive end. The Wrights offer a different suggestion. They say, “True love means you both dig in the dirt of the relationship and pull the weeds to create an ever-growing intimacy. It means kissing and yelling, playing and fighting, comforting and challenging each other. It means being real, not careful.”
According to the Wrights, any couple who doesn’t fight isn’t growing, and neither is their relationship. They believe, “Couples don’t get divorced because they fight; they split up because they don’t know how to use conflict to create a new depth of intimacy…” Rather than avoiding a fight, trying to get through a fight, or win, we should instead learn to mine our disagreements and get to the rich information hidden underneath.
Interestingly enough, studies show that couples who fight vigorously and early in their relationships have better ones in the end. In other words, having short-term discomfort is nearly always better than festering long-term problems. Perhaps even more remarkable is that aggressive fighters are not the most problematic. Instead, when one partner wants to work on the issue but the other withdraws or avoids the problem, the relationship is unlikely to continue for long.
#3 Rather than seeking to live happily-ever-after you discover the far greater benefits of living deeply-ever-after. The Wrights believe that as long as we insist on pursuing outdated models of relationships, those happy endings we seek will never happen. The big problem with happily-ever-after is that it implies an unexamined, unconscious, superficial and static ways of being. Settling into a boring routine can be deadly for a relationship. Instead, the Wrights recommend, “Living deeply-ever-after is what matters.” Making an even stronger point, the Wrights say, “If you want to live happily-ever-after, you don’t want enough.”
What is far better is to see our relationships and our lives as a growing, evolving, adventures. However, to do that we must honestly look at some of the misconceptions we bought into along the way. The big relationship myths shared by the Wrights are:
Myth 1: If I only had a relationship then I would be happy. Ultimately, “we alone have the power to change our level of happiness.” If we want to be happy, it is mostly up to us.
Myth 2: Love means you love and accept me for who I am. Contrary to that myth, “Relationship research shows that helping others become their best selves and reach their ideal, creates the most satisfying relationships.”
Myth 3: Finding the “one” or my “soul mate” is the answer. Rather, relationship research shows that those who believe in a soul mate and those who are looking for their soul mate “actually make it more difficult to experience the intimate relationship you seek!” And perhaps not as emotionally rewarding in the beginning, those who look for a partner who wants to learn, grow and deepen their relationship over the long haul report greater satisfaction.
Myth 4: Compatibility matters. According to the Wrights, “What matters most is common values, not common interests.”
Myth 5: Chemistry is what counts. Not only does chemistry sometimes get in the way of a couple having meaningful discussions, it often clouds the real issues needing to be addressed. Getting past the passion to companionate love is far better for relationships.
Myth 6. Attraction means it’s right. The Wrights claim that we all form unconscious patterns of what love looks like and feels like from our family of origin. Usually, that pull is what attracts us in the first place in our relationships, and that isn’t always best.
Myth 7. All you need is love. While this statement makes a great song lyric, the Wrights point out that, “Relationships, like any growing, organic thing, require maintenance and nurturing to grow.” While it would be pleasant to believe that love is easy, much of the time it requires attention and effort to fulfill it’s potential.
Once we accept that our arguments and fights can offer tremendous benefits, how do we go about learning skills to make it happen? Fortunately, the book offers dozens of ideas that the Wrights have learned over the years in their private practice and workshops. Included are the 15 most common fight topics, along with a short list of “Rules For Creative Engagement.” In other words, they offer rules to teach us to fight fair. While not easy nor quick solutions, anyone who enjoys learning and becoming more self-aware is sure to see the benefits of such an ongoing practice. Calling their process “creative engagement,” they remind us “The purpose of a relationship is not to find the right partner but to be the right partner, where you both are working toward something greater and becoming all you can be.”
Behind it all, this book is a strong reminder that each of us is solely responsible for our own happiness in this life. Although challenging to imagine my life without Thom by my side, it is important for me to remember that he was not created to serve me and insure my happiness. Instead by creatively engaging in our relationship, we are each gifted the opportunity to become the best possible people we were born to be, and then to help one another share that with the world. Anything else is less than SMART.