Are you stuck at an impasse after weeks (or even months) of arguing with your partner over the same issue? We asked family therapists and a mediator to explain what modern daters can learn from the mother of all feuds. If you’re caught up in romantic strife with your partner, follow this advice:
Tip #1: Don’t strive for “fairness”
It seems counterintuitive, but Portland, OR-based licensed marital/family therapist Jacob Spilman says that “two people are always going to value things differently, especially when it comes to what is fair. Life isn’t fair. Relationships are not fair.” Instead, try talking about your needs with your partner, and then make a request that will help fulfill them. “Instead of saying, ‘You never pay enough attention to me,’ make a request like, ‘Would you like to go out to a movie with me?’” counsels Spilman. “If you and your partner can get your needs met in the relationship, you might both wind up happy — [and] happy is usually more achievable than fair.”
Tip #2: Remember to breathe!
When things get heated, take six or seven deep breaths before doing or saying anything. “You will have enough oxygen in your brain to realize you are not 10 years old, that you do love this person, that he or she has some issues (but who doesn’t?), and that your life is bigger than this one argument,” says Judy Whisnant, a family law attorney and trained mediator in Durham, N.C. This will cut down on impulsive actions and utterances that you’ll almost certainly regret later.
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Tip #3: Don’t be adversarial with your partner
It might sound impossible, but a fight is the perfect opportunity for couples to learn how to work together as a team, says Dean Haddock, marriage/family therapist and clinical psychologist in Bakersfield, CA. “Acknowledge that tensions are flaring and… stand on common ground,” he explains. “Say, ‘We will combat this together.’” Or at least be aware of your body language, adds Spilman: “So long as your partner reads your body language as being angry, [he or she] will react to what your body language [is saying] instead of your words.” Standing with your hands on your hips, pointing your fingers, and crossing your arms in front of your chest all signal “anger” to your partner. “How you communicate is just as important as the words you are saying,” notes Spilman.
Tip #4: Seek professional help
This is especially important if you’ve been having the same argument over and over, or can’t move on from something that happened in the past. “Try some effective counseling before throwing in the towel,” Haddock suggests. “Most people… are trying the same solutions and getting the same outcomes. A counselor can often give you new tools.” There are two types of mediation to consider: the first type includes a psychologist who can help sort out your issues, act as a referee, teach you both some new strategies, and serve as a sounding board or witness to both parties; and the second type happens with an attorney who’s been trained to help couples mediate their issues when they’ve decided to break up.
Tip #5: Call an end to these mutual hostilities — and your relationship
Sometimes, your differences are irreconcilable no matter how hard you try to resolve them. “Usually what signifies the end of a partnership — when counseling, starting over, and even long weekends in paradise no longer work — is the withdrawal of one party from [his or her emotional] investment,” Whisnant explains. “People’s differences are not irreconcilable until they reach that point. And when they do, no amount of repair work really fixes it. Of course there are exceptions and miracles, and one should always look for them. But usually, the healthiest thing then is to simply disentangle [from the relationship] and move on.”
The Hatfield and McCoy families began their epic feud in 1863 and fought off and on until 1891. The feud reached new heights of intensity in August of 1882, which many experts hail as the month in which full-on family warfare began. And while today’s fighting couples aren’t necessarily headed for the Supreme Court, like the Hatfields and McCoys were in their day, some of them might be headed for divorce court if they can’t learn how to amicably settle their differences. “Emotional intimacy is as much about putting up with someone’s shortcomings and dealing with each other’s irrationalities as it is about moonlight walks and candlelight dinners,” Spilman concludes. “You know you have marriage material when you can both look at each other and say: ‘You’ve thrown the worst you could at me, and I’m still here — and I’m not going anywhere.’”
Margot Carmichael Lester is a freelance writer living and working in Carrboro, NC.