Post this on your fridge. Walk to fridge during your next fight. Follow the directions.
In my last dispatch I explored the perspective that fear is at the core of every fight. Conflict in a relationship is inevitable. Without conflict, couples don’t seem to develop the depth necessary to keep a relationship alive. This is why conflict is an opportunity. We create intimacy with our partners when we share what is going on for us below the anger.
As a former divorce lawyer, I’ve witnessed a lot of fights—more than most of us will see during our entire lives. And of course I’ve had my fair share throughout the course of my own relationships. Here’s the process I’ve come to employ to understand my internal mechanism during a fight:
Step 1. Get out of your lizard brain. When threats are perceived, the brain triggers our “fight, flight or freeze” reaction. You’ll notice in times of stress that your vision narrows, your breathing becomes more labored, your heart rate increases, and most importantly for our purposes, your critical thinking capacity plummets. If you’re going to behave in a way that you can later be proud of, you’ve got to pause this fight-or-flight response. Here’s how: Breathe deeply, widen your peripheral vision, and mentally focus on one thing you cherish about your partner. The simple act of awareness can bring you back from the brink of pure instinctive reaction.
Step 2. Ask yourself what you’re scared about. What is at risk right now? What are you so desperately trying to protect in this moment? Usually, the immediate answer comes pretty quickly—I’m afraid I’m being taken advantage of, I’m afraid of giving up control—but that is never the end of the story.
Step 3. Explore the fears beneath the top-layer fear. For instance, you might be upset that you partner is disrespecting you, which means you’re avoiding disrespect. Below that could be the fear that if you are disrespected, nobody will like you. And below that fear is a more abstract but very real fear of being an outcast. And so on. Once you’ve gotten as deep with the fear as you’re capable of going, move on to the next step.
Step 4. Ask whether you’re really in danger in this moment. For me, the answer is always no if I’m being truly honest. But the next step is the same no matter what your answer.
Step 5. Consider what the best possible action is, given the degree to which you love your partner. That’s the thing I do next. Whatever the answer is to that question—take her hand, apologize, ask a genuine question—is what I try to do. Granted, I’ve usually got a lot of adrenaline still pumping at this point, so I’m typically not very graceful about it, but this is what guides my action from that point on.
Step 6. Share what happened as soon as is practical. This is the whole point. You create intimacy by sharing what’s true for you. Your fears are at the core of your deepest possible truths. This may be the entire reason that we fight so heatedly to begin with.
These steps take time, and that’s tough when you’re in the middle of a fight. You will be clumsy at first, but don’t waste the opportunity. This is your moment to create true intimacy with your partner. Explain your trigger. Take responsibility for your own experience. Apologize if necessary. Ask for what you need. Don’t worry about being perfect, just share. This is how we grow.
Erik Newton is the founder of Together.