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Fighting…With Love

Fighting…With Love


All partners quarrel. But afterward, do they really heal? A therapist offers words of wisdom for couples who tend to shove disagreements under the rug

Lately I've been hearing the same story from different couples who come to talk to me. Jan and Myrna, for example, have done some work to iron out the kinks in their five-year relationship. ''We only had one minor fight over the weekend,'' Myrna reports in our support session. She looks pleased. Her partner, Jan, doesn't seem so happy. I ask her why that is. ''We didn't make love again,'' Jan says. She thinks the reason was ''some stuff left over from the fight.'' I want to know if that ''stuff'' was addressed in any way? ''No,'' Myrna says, ''with the little time we had, we wanted to do something fun.''

I hear many versions of this story. Fights tend to leave a ''residue'' that is hard to get rid of. But Jan and Myrna, like many other couples, don't want to ''process too much'' because they say it only creates more bad feelings. ''All this talking!'' they complain. ''We just want to move on and forget about it.''

It turns out that this is easier said than done.

When Myrna and Jan do talk, they realize that in their fights accusations are sometimes thrown around like darts -- and then they get stuck and nobody pulls them out. When they look at the grudge they held over the weekend, Jan admits that she was refusing to make love and ''give'' to Myrna even though Myrna had made a sexy overture. Myrna didn't ''deserve'' it, after all.

We all know the situation. We drop our argument but stay at some remove from each other. A hurt or guilt from what we said to each other is stuffed away so we can go on with life. And we succeed. We manage to have a good weekend in spite of our tiff. But we don't make love -- or our lovemaking doesn't truly bring us closer.

From my own experience I can say that I used to waste a lot of time processing angry exchanges with my lovers. Why did it take so long? Because I could not get to that heart space where suddenly it was possible to admit regret over something I had done or said. At the turbulent beginnings of my relationship with my partner, Kim, some 20 years ago, we were stunned to realize what happened when we truly resolved a clash of our differences. When we managed for the first time to fully understand each other's anger and forgive each other. The crumbling of our defenses was almost audible, like a brick wall coming down. The release was like a deep breath that expands the lungs, relaxes the muscles, and lets warmth flow through the body. We suddenly remembered our appreciation for each other, our love.

What makes it so hard, then, to come to a place of healing after a fight?

There is a German fairy tale about a little girl who can't get through the gate to a magical garden because she doesn't know the word ''Please.'' There ought to be another tale about fighting lovers who can't get the gate to open because they can't say ''I am sorry.'' Or ''You have a point.'' Or ''I was wrong.'' These words have a childlike simplicity that is instantly convincing and yet elusive, like magic. If I hear from my lover that I have a point, that I am partly right, the wave of anger subsides by one notch and allows me to reconsider... ''Well, you have a point too.'' Hearing and spelling out that we each have a point makes us feel understood and appreciated for who we are -- even if we don't agree on everything.

I learned that spelling out regret is just like using any muscle one has rarely or never used: It takes some training. Repeating the words, feeling them, and then hearing oneself say them out loud has an amazing effect. The unfamiliar act of sharing the blame comes with a wondrous relief of being part of the warm hub of humanity who happens to be...imperfect. Instead of spinning down and apart from each other in another vicious cycle of resentment, we are experiencing a ''virtuous cycle'' of healing.

I often remind couples that it does not matter who has started the trouble and who begins the process of what is usually called ''giving in.'' Giving in has a bad name among women nowadays and should be reframed because in this context, it is simply a gesture of giving. Giving has the potential of inviting a generous gesture in return. For couples who are particularly concerned about fairness and equality, I suggest that they take turns: This time, after a fight, I am the first to come around and use the magical formula. Next time it's your turn.

Healing in this context is all about communication -- not about endless ''processing.'' I love to tell couples I work with how often I had to hear from Kim ''Why don't you just say you are sorry?'' when I had hurt her feelings. My reaction, ''Because I am NOT sorry!'' or ''Because my father could never say it either!'' turned out not to be very productive communication. The same was true when I protested, ''Why should I be the first to give in? You started it!'' But then we heard how we were talking to each other in our fights: like pesky kids. We realized that most of our triggers led back to childhood patterns and reactions. And if childhood is at the root of so much trouble, we thought, then we had better enlist the child within to help fix the situation.

We gave ourselves and each other names for the traits in us that evoked our unruly, naughty child selves. Instead of using "you" language, which is always very adult and potentially inflammatory (''You have once again hurt me!''), I would address one of Kim's characters, a little critter called Snout, and say, for example, ''Snout has snapped. Snout was a mean, mean Snout again!'' The small fact of not being addressed ''personally'' has a big effect: It implies some degree of humor and forgiveness in the very language used. One of my own child characters has been defined as a boy, and when I am unable to admit that I have been unfair, I manage more easily to say, ''He's sorry. He did bad. He did it again!'' Usually Kim's hurt is instantly soothed by such a slightly comical admission.

We can find encouragement in the fact that as a couple we are usually triggered by the same differences between us, again and again. For example, Kim has a need for unrestrained abundance, whereas my temperament prefers a certain frugality. This pattern shows up everywhere in our life -- when we argue about how much food to prepare for guests, how many plants we need for our garden, or how many books we can keep on our shelves. One day we joked that this difference would be eternalized on our grave: Kim's tombstone (next to mine) would read, ''More!'' whereas mine would read, ''Enough already!'' When a pattern is recognized, it takes no time to find a funny name or label for it in order to jump out of it...and laugh about it.

Sometimes when Kim and I are mad at each other, one of us suddenly suggests, "They are still friends, no?" often accompanied by a nudge or taking hold of a hand. I may even say it in a child's voice, and Kim usually answers, ''Nobody wants you!'' like another pesky child. This never fails to crack me up, so I plead and argue, ''Yes, they want him, they do!'' and move a little closer. ''Who would want him? He's a pest!'' she growls. The playful tone breaks the spell, and soon enough the whole drama has turned around.

Healing from fights does not have to take long if we make use of the simple, childlike, magical ''tools'' that are at our fingertips. In no time at all we are back to liking each other. We see each other as pals, friends, and -- in another blink -- as lovers again.

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