Fights are an unavoidable part of any relationship. Spend enough time together, and sooner or later one of you is going to blow up. But, if you’re the kind of person who thrives on conflict, or someone who is naturally a bit more aggressive, then disagreements can become more complicated. Your base level during the argument might be too much for others and lead to frustration, defensiveness, and distance. So what can those of us who are more conflict-oriented do to keep ourselves in check during a fight?
“This is a tricky question,” says Lesli Doares, therapist and author of Blueprint for a Lasting Marriage: How to Create Your Happily Ever After with More Intention, Less Work, “because someone with aggressive instincts needs to work on not arguing. Once emotions get high, it will become harder to keep a lid on the instinct to get aggressive.”
While difficult, it’s certainly not impossible to keep your tendencies under control. The first step, per Doares, is to take a moment to understand why you need to win or why you can never be wrong. Getting to the source of your aggression — perhaps you were raised in an overly argumentative environment? — can provide some important answers. So can identifying and acknowledging your triggers.
“Once the cause is understood, work can be done around choosing different ways of dealing with it,” she says. “Breaking down the sequence that leads to the expression of aggression is key.”
After you’ve identified the trigger, you can start to learn how to manage those aggressive impulses. For this, Doares proposes a 1-10 scale, with one representing when you’re completely calm and 10 indicating your aggression is out of your control.
“A good rule of thumb is to never open your mouth if you are higher than a three. If you are higher than that, the sole goal is to calm yourself down,” she says. “You can use this scale with a partner. Letting them know you are at a six or eight and that you need to get a handle on yourself is better than exploding or just walking away with no explanation.”
In a relationship disagreement, there is often the need to resolve the issue immediately. This can sometimes prove impossible when emotions are running high. In such moments, Doares proposes that you let go of that desire to solve the problem on the spot and take time to cool off and clear your respective heads.
“It’s better to take a time out and come back to the conversation when you’re calm than annihilate your partner and damage your relationship,” she says.
Fair enough. But what steps can you take to ice you aggression during an argument? Dr. Bernard Golden, the founder of Anger Management Education in Chicago and the author of Overcoming Destructive Anger: Strategies That Work, has coined the acronym BEAR as a reminder of what one can do when they feel the anger begin to surge. Here’s what it entails:
E-Evoke physical calmness. “The ability to do this requires ongoing practice of body relaxation exercises,” Golden says.
A-Arouse a compassionate internal dialogue.
R-Reflection. “Identify the feelings behind your anger, your expectations and what key desire may feel threatened,” says Golden, “i.e. safety, trust, connection, respect or dependability.”
Above all, it’s vital to keep the ego in check and to control that all-consuming need to win. According to relationship coaches Diana and Todd Mitchem, a little ego can be a good thing. “It can build confidence and help to give you a sense of belonging,” they say. “But, if the ego is allowed to run rampant and get out of control, it can breed contempt and lead to sarcasm and the constant impulse to put your partner in his or her place.” That, of course, can be incredibly damaging to any relationship.
The biggest thing to keep in mind is how your behavior affects others. “Remember, if you seek to be the victor over your spouse, it means someone has to be the victim,” the Mitchems say. “And that someone is the one person you dedicated your love to for life. Is that someone you want to treat as an adversary?”
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