You are finally in love. From a cloud of bliss, you and the adored one look down the enchanted trail ahead. The world seems to pulse with the beat of your hearts. But one day, seemingly out of the blue, when all seems to be unfolding as it should, a stray word will be uttered, a promise betrayed, a sensitivity rubbed raw. Suddenly, you're in the middle of a gut-wrenching fight.
While most lovers have stress-inducing dust-ups from time to time, only wise couples learn the fine art of fair fighting -- a way of settling scores that allows both partners to keep faith with their authentic desires and create a closer, more fertile intimate connection. The biggest skill involved in loving showdowns is to make sure both of you leave the ring with dignity intact.
Don't assume you know the reason behind whatever your beloved has done, because you'll usually be wrong. Instead, play detective and consider every disagreement a source of discovery. Realize that everyone is a mystery and that you'll never fully master what makes the other tick. Be prepared for perpetual amazement -- and learn to see differences as valuable learning opportunities.
WHAT THE EXPERTS SAY
"Once you say something in the heat of anger, you can't take it back. People get hurt, and that erodes trust. Keep your anger about yourself. For example, "I get angry when you don't come home on time.' My getting angry is about me; your not coming home on time is about you. That leaves me free to figure out why your being late triggers me. (Maybe) I think your lateness means I'm not important for you. But there are a million things it could be for you -- we won't find out if I jump you. Make a date to discuss it, so you claim excitement about understanding each other rather than dread about a difference. One person has to listen and reflect back, then the other.'
HANNA McDONOUGH, social worker with Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, specialist in marriage, family therapy, high-conflict divorce, mediation
"(In a dispute) people spend most of the time when someone else is speaking formulating their own arguments. Even if we listen, we don't acknowledge it. If you hear the other person say something more than once, you know they don't feel heard. Don't impute motives to the other person. Rather than assume they're doing something for some negative reason, talk about how it affects you. When someone tells you how something is affecting them, don't tell them it can't possibly be having that effect. Often people blow up at people they think will not reject them. It's a very dangerous way to think."
BARBARA LANDAU, psychologist, lawyer and mediator; SY LANDAU, engineer, organizational consultant and mediator
"Having a disagreement doesn't mean anything is wrong. It's a chance for me to explain my side and you yours. It's how you deal with conflict that creates problems. If two people have never really worked out their first conflict, it gets harder to work out conflicts as the relationship goes on. Rule number one is understanding the cause in an objective, principled way. (Together, you) define the conflict, state how you feel about it, how you can problem-solve it. When we're not satisfied with the resolutions and things are going from bad to worse, it may be time to get help. Violence happens because people don't get help early in the relationship."
CLAUDE GRIMMOND, consultant and trainer
"We get situations all the time where the conflict is really about respect. When you boil it all down, someone doesn't feel he or she was treated with respect. But most people don't identify that right up front. When respect breaks down, people stop listening, start making assumptions and start devaluing what the other is saying. In that state it's very difficult to solve problems. You restore respect by acknowledging that what the other has to say is important, by speaking from your own experience. That essentially asks the other person to also respect and acknowledge you."
PETER BRUER, manager, Conflict Resolution Service, St. Stephen's Community House
"Usually, whatever one side says the other interprets in the worst possible light. My solution is to get them together and proceed as though we were in a formal meeting. I chair very firmly. Each party is allowed to speak only when it's their turn. They don't speak to each other -- they speak to me. When they speak to me, they try to phrase the problem in a rational way, because they have no argument with me. For the first time, they begin to see how their arguments might sound to an outsider. For the first time, they listen attentively to the other party. Now we can look together for a reasonable solution.'
PAUL SANDORI, architect, experienced in construction dispute resolution