How Two Alpha Personalities Can Argue Without Losing Their Heads
When a marriage is made up of two dominant personalities, even the smallest issue can evolve into a 12-round slugfest. Here's how to minimize the conflict.
Neil knows his wife has a strong personality. “Bottle it up and it’s pretty much moonshine,” he says, lovingly. That’s one of the main reasons Neil was so drawn to her. They met in college, members of the same marketing class, and her attitude immediately drew him to her. “It’s one of her best qualities,” says the 39-year-old. “She’s ambitious and hardworking and doesn’t have time to waste on the little things. She wants to get to the heart of the matter so she can then enjoy more of the good stuff. And at the same time, she’s incredibly loving.”
The manager of a financial firm, Neil says he would describe himself in much the same way as his wife: driven and hardworking, with little time to waste on the non-essentials. They’ve been married for seven years now. There’s just one more thing: “We’re both stubborn as hell,” he says. “And when we fight, we fight. It can definitely get ugly.”
Opposites attract, yes. But that’s not the golden rule. It’s no surprise Type A personalities like Neil and his wife are naturally drawn to each other, says family therapist Jill Whitney. “They probably share common values and have similar styles, which can make for a strong relationship,” she says. They’re outgoing, ambitious, and often exhaustingly accomplished.
The problem, of course, is that such personalities can often be aggressive, impatient, and competitive to the point where even casual games of Monopoly deteriorate into bitter feuds over the cost of a night’s stay at St. James’s place. And marital spats? Even the smallest issue can easily evolve into 12-round title matches, with neither party backing down. So what’s the key to keeping the gloves off? Here are a few rules.
Understand That Compromise Is Not The Same As Losing
“When couples approach conflict with a win/lose attitude, both end up losing,” says Jim Seibold, a licensed marriage and family therapist. “People become entrenched in the need to be right. Either the argument does not get resolved at all or one ends up with an inappropriate sense of superiority and the other with a sense of inferiority.”
If you find yourself one-half of a double alpha couple in the midst of a brewing, volcanic disagreement, Seibold says the best way to defuse it is to remember that compromise is not the same as giving in.
“[Compromise] involves an agreement that both partners take personal responsibility for and implement,” he says. “It is open to revision later, if needed. Collaboration encourages a sense of working together and mutual respect.” That means that no matter how physically difficult it might be to meet halfway and “lose,” both parties have to remember that there is no loss involved. In fact, as self-helpy as it may sound, compromising is a path towards winning.
It’s also important to understand that by compromising no one’s actually losing control. As Siebold points out, during a compromise, you’re controlling both how much you give up and what you’re willing to let slide in this relationship.
“When couples argue to be right, they are allowing their selfish motivation for dominance to dictate the argument,” Siebold explains. “With collaboration, the search for a useful solution takes precedence over a feeling of personal power.”
Order Up a Compliment Sandwich
Alpha personalities are domineering often to conceal “tender, vulnerable inner wounds which their controlling nature covers up,” says Renee Cunningham, a Jungian marriage therapist specializing in couples caught in power struggles. And negotiating with a Type A personality necessitates the compliment sandwich strategy.
It works like this: Point out what your partner does well, and mean it. Then, point out what you’re being bothered by in the current dynamic. Then ask what they — not you — need to achieve even ground.
“For example, if one partner feels they need to be in charge of the money and the other wants equal access to financial decisions, one can say, ‘I trust you with our money, and value the decision you have been making on our behalf, and want you to continue to do so, but I also need to be part of the process because it’s my responsibility as your partner to equally understand where our money is going.'”
However juvenile this may seem, such framing keeps the focus positive and above the fray, and beneficially builds trust and support, Cunningham explains, which is exactly what you need in the midst of an argument.
Practice Active Listening
Aside from changing the size of the battles you win, Siebold points out that there’s a gigantic difference between hearing words and actually listening, and doing the old “walk a mile in their shoes” exercise is extremely valuable in the heat of the moment. Why are they upset? What is ticking your partner off about your behavior? You don’t have to agree, but taking a moment to understand is important.
If you’re having trouble seeing your partner’s point of view, Cunningham advises practicing active listening and repeating what you hear your partner saying. It’s easy to get caught up in the dizzying tornado of your own anger in an argument, and you can literally not hear what your partner is saying. Taking the effort and time to repeat what your spouse is saying will ensure there’s no disagreement and restore the power balance, forcing you both to talk about what’s going on here. “This often evokes compassion, and sometimes embarrassment,” she says.
The second step is to — take a deep breath — not interrupt. You’re going to be tempted to do so; after all, talking over the other person is how a power dynamic is established, right? But don’t. In fact, contrary to what you might think, staying silent allows you to establish not only power, but also time to digest what the other person is saying and understand what’s going on. “Remember that you trust this person enough to be with them,” Siebold says. “Demonstrate that by respecting their perspective, even when you feel strongly about your own.”
Don’t Take Any Cheap Shots … But if You Must, Make It a Joke
When the going gets tough, it’s easy to go nuclear on your partner. And Type A people are going to feel an urge to spit out those insults. Remember: You’re trying to understand, and silently. It will take all the energy in the world not to point out hypocrisies in their argument if you feel as such, or things your partner does that you think are worse than the behavior you are accused of doing. Instead, shut up and just listen. Your marriage will be stronger if you don’t resort to cheap shots.
If you absolutely must run your mouth, make a joke — lovingly. Don’t cut your partner down, don’t be sarcastic; be genuinely, truly funny. Using humor to defuse a situation can be the difference between war and peace at home. “The key here is tone,” Whitney says. “It has to be smiling, self-deprecating, and loving, not sarcastic or critical.”
Quit Being So Damn Stubborn
It takes a lot of maturity and self-restraint to not resort to name-calling and petty comments to your partner, and it takes even more to see if you actually have a role in the problem at hand. Siebold says that he’s seen patients who are unwilling to ever admit that they’re wrong in any way, which is basically a billboard for insecurity. Man up and realize you’re not perfect; it’s possible you could be at fault here in some way.
Mind Your Body Language
Siebold has one last bit of advice while you and your partner argue: Don’t pull a Trump and creep and hover. Body language is important in any argument, and dominant personalities are more likely to feed into using their body to express dominance: standing threateningly close to someone, yelling decibels louder than necessary, and more. It’s obviously rude, and if you’re sending signals that you must win and you won’t compromise, well, it’s not going to be much of a surprise when you land on the couch for the night.
In the heat of the moment, it can be hard to remember to silently take stock of your own role in a conflict and understand where your partner is coming from, especially when you’re a dominant personality. It’s not easy, but in the end, your powerful marriage will be even more so if you learn how to argue effectively. And isn’t that the biggest win?