One of the most common frustrations I hear from men is this:
“No matter what I do or how hard I try…my girlfriend/wife and I are ALWAYS fighting.”
And it’s easy to see why…
Few of us are ever taught the tenants of effective communication or the nuances of navigating relational conflict. Sure, we learn all about algebra and ancient history. But how to have a clean argument and get your needs met in a relationship?
Forget about it.
Today, I want to change that.
Over the past decade, I’ve enjoyed many amazing relationships and suffered through many more that were plagued by incessant fighting and irreconcilable differences. And along the way, I learned (the hard way) that avoiding and resolving conflict, although not easy, is much simpler than most people realize.
Here are 6 quick lessons that will help you avoid stupid arguments, get your needs met, and create a happy and lasting relationship that will stand the test of time.
Let’s dive in.
1. Avoid “Statements of Totality” and Attack Behaviors, Not Identities
Of the many egregious errors that partners make when sparks of a conflict begin fly, none is more dangerous than to fall back on what I call “statements of totality.”
They will say things like:
You always do this.
Or, you are never there when I need you.
Apart from being patently false (I have never seen an instance in which “always” or “never” are actually true), these statements distract you both from the root of your conflicts.
You are two human beings, each with different beliefs, habits, and patterns, that interact with one another on a daily basis.
And one partner’s beliefs, habits, or patterns are frustrating or otherwise deemed unacceptable by the other.
Statements of totality attack your partner’s identity. They make claims about who the other person is instead of what they are doing.
And from this place, no change can happen.
You cannot ask your partner to change who they are (and if you feel they need to, you need to find a new partner). But you can ask them to change specific actions and behaviors that are triggering conflict.
So next time you want to ask your partner to make a change—whether it’s in their financial habits, their attitude, their fitness, or simply the fact that they ‘always’ leave their goddamn hair stuck to the shower curtain—try this formula.
First: Identify a Specific Behavior You Want to Change
Remember, you can change a person’s behaviors but not their identity.
So instead of saying, “I wish my partner wasn’t bad with money” which is a statement of identity, say, “I want my partner to spend fewer than $1,000 on our credit cards every month.
Instead of saying, “I wish my partner wasn’t so messy,” say, “I want my partner to fold up the pile of clothes she tries on before she leaves for work.”
Instead of saying, “I wish my partner wasn’t so negative,” say, “I want my partner to quit complaining about her job first thing when I get home every day.”
When you identify a small and specific behavioral change you’d like your partner to make, it becomes much easier to request that change in a manner that will be well received.
So before you pick another fight, pause and ask yourself…What specific outcome do I want and what action must my partner take to make that a reality?
Second: Broach to Conversation Like THIS
Just as important as what you ask of your partner is how you ask it.
If you come out of the blue and say, “Hey! I want you to start picking up your f’ing clothes before you leave for work, m’kay?” the conversation will be just as futile as if you’d said, “You’re such a messy slob!”
Instead, you must approach these conversations with tact.
Specifically, you must start the conversation in the most counter-intuitive way possible.
Start the conversation by acknowledging something that your partner is doing well. Giver her a hug, kiss her, and express something she does for which you are genuinely grateful.
It can be the effort she’s been putting into her work (and how it’s helped you both financially), the fact that dinner is always on the table when you get home, or that she’s a good mother, or that she has been understanding of your crazy work schedule.
Don’t b.s. this. Find something you genuinely appreciate about her and express it.
Then, depending on the severity of the behavioral change, either segue into your request or tell her that you want to talk about something (specify the topic of discussion—e.g. finances—so she does not get anxious) and ask when would be a good time to sit down together.
Then, move onto step three.
Third: Explain the Situation and How it Makes You FEEL
Now that you’ve set a positive tone, it’s time to segue into your request.
You aren’t going to come out directly and ask for the change yet, instead you are going to explain the situation surrounding your request.
For example, if you want your partner to stop spending so much money on credit, you’d start the conversation like this:
“So we’ve been spending a lot of money recently and right now, we have more than $15,000 in debt. I’ve been so stressed about our finances that I keep waking up in the middle of the night thinking about it.”
Or, if you want her to quit complaining about her job when you get home from work, say something like:
“I’ve been under a lot of pressure at work recently and this project I’m working on has left me absolutely exhausted.”
Then, once you’ve expressed what’s going on and how it’s making you feel, it’s finally time to articulate the specific change you’d like her to make.
Four: Articulate the Change You Want, Empathize With Her Feelings, and Create a Clear Benefit for Her
At this point in the conversation, it’s time to express what you want.
However, for this formula to be effective, you must express your desires with empathy and compassion.
Again, do not attack your partner or paint her to be the enemy.
Instead, broach your request from a place of team work and mutual support.
If the change is big enough and related to something integral such as health, finances, or work/life balance, start the conversation by creating a shared vision that excites your partner.
To use the example above regarding finances, you might say:
“I really want us to get out of debt so that we can move into that home we saw the other day and so that you can quit your job, but we can’t do that with the spending habits we have right now. Can we sit down together and create a new budget where we both spend a little bit less so we can achieve financial freedom sooner?”
Or, if it’s a relatively small change, simply make your request with empathy and understanding.
To use the example of the spouse complaining about her job:
“I know you’re dealing with a lot of stress at work too and I want to be there for you to talk about what’s going on and vent after a long day, but I would really appreciate it if we didn’t talk about our jobs first thing when I get home. That way I have a little bit of time to recharge my batteries and unwind so that I can be more present and listen to you whenever you want to share what’s going on in your career.”
Do you see the kind of difference this simple framework can make?
I hope so.
I challenge you to implement this sometime this week and let me know how it goes.
2. Go to Bed Angry as Hell
Conventional wisdom tells us to “Never go to bed angry.”
The idea being that if you go to bed angry, you will wake up angry and the fight will simply continue.
However, I’m here to tell you that this is a load of horse crap.
The American populous is chronically sleep deprived.
And at first glance, you might simply respond by saying, “So what? What does this have to do with the arguments my spouse and I are getting into?”
But when you consider that sleep deprivation has been linked to:
- Impaired Cognition and an Increased Risk of Preventable Accidents
- Not to mention, an increased risk of infections, cancer, and overall mortality.
You begin to realize that sleep deprivation is a big deal.
Not just for your personal health and performance but for your relationship as well.
W you’re sleep deprived, your ability to control your impulses (and your tongue) are lowered. You’re more irritable. You’re less empathetic. And you have less mental and physical energy to appropriately handle conflict.
To be blunt, if you and your partner are fighting late into the night, the best thing you can do for your relationship is to go to bed angry as hell.
Sleep in different rooms if you have to, but commit to getting a good night of sleep and reopening the issue when you are fully recharged and capable of thinking clearly.
You aren’t doing yourself any favors by trying to fight your biology and have important conversations when you’re drained and exhausted.
Get some freaking sleep and fight in the morning.
You’ll both be better for it.
3. Clarify What She Needs
One of the most common causes of relational conflict between men and women is that men are “fixers.” We are solution oriented and tend to reside in a very logical headspace.
And we, (very very very foolishly) assume that women are the same way.
When your partner brings a problem to you, it’s easy to assume that she wants a solution. That she wants a quick fix. That she wants you to be the hero who swoops in and saves the day.
But oftentimes, nothing could be further from the truth.
Women, first and foremost, want to be heard and understood.
They don’t want you to fix their problems. They want you to listen to them. To hear them. To empathize with them.
Sometimes, all they want is reassurance that their complaints and frustrations aren’t unfounded and a simple, “I’m sorry honey, that really sucks.” Is all that is required to assuage her.
However, sometimes women do want solutions and they do want your support and immediate action.
But as men, we are notoriously terrible at clearly determining what she wants and when she wants it.
Instead of immediately offering a solution or simply proffering a shoulder upon which she can cry, look her in the eyes and ask her, “What do you need from me right now? Do you want me to listen or do you want a solution?”
From there, you can give her what she needs without ambiguity and avoid sparking a conflict unnecessarily.
This might sound simple, but it’s wickedly effective.
4. Cultivate Self-Awareness and Always Look for the Root of Your Emotions
Did you know that 90% of your body’s serotonin (the neurotransmitter that is responsible for managing your mood and a whole lot of other things) is produced in the gut?
No? Well, now you do.
But why am I telling you this and what the hell does serotonin have to do with conflicts inside of your relationship?
As it turns out, a LOT.
You see, as human beings, especially human beings in the 21st century with the endless barrage of stimulus that alter both our minds and moods, we are terrible at accurately determining both what we are feeling and why we are feeling it.
We will often mis-attribute feelings to the most convenient scapegoat we can find. And unfortunately, this tends to be our romantic partners.
Let me give you an example of this to show you what I mean.
I have a friend who is severely lactose intolerant.
And while this doesn’t seem like a significant issue on the surface, it actually led to a significant amount of strife inside of his relationship.
Despite his intolerance, my friend loves cheese, yogurt, and protein shakes and, for years, subsisted on a diet that was filled with a substance triggering allergic responses inside of his body that negatively affected his mood.
He fought with his partner constantly, assuming that the problem was with their relationship because, that’s the only factor he knew to blame.
However, one day, after drinking a glass of milk, he noticed that his cheery disposition was soured within minutes and he snapped—taking his anger out on his dog in an unnecessary barrage of verbal abuse.
Realizing that something wasn’t right (his dog was only looking for affection after all), he finally made the connection.
He realized that every time he consumed dairy, his mood dropped and he became more prone to anger and frustration.
So, he quietly set about changing his diet and, within days, the number of arguments he had with his partner dropped by more than 90%.
And now, knowing how profoundly foods can affect his mood, he is quick to address any anger or frustration he feels by explaining to his partner, “Look, I’m in a terrible mood because of something I ate. Yes I’m pissed off and yes you’re annoying me right now, but it isn’t your fault. I’m just cranky because of that damn shake I drank for lunch.”
Now if this all seems silly to you, consider that best-selling author John Gray, the author of Men are from Mars, Women are From Venus, will not take on marriage counseling clients unless they adhere to a very strict diet for 60-days before counseling begins.
If one of the most famous counselors in the world won’t even consider taking on a client that is unwilling to make a change to their eating habits, this should show you just how significant of a factor this can be.
But the purpose of this point isn’t (necessarily) to convince you to change your diet—although it probably wouldn’t hurt.
It’s to have you consider the true root of your emotional states.
Are you really mad at your partner because she’s “such a bitch”?
Or are you frustrated because your boss made a demeaning remark at work today?
Or because you ate something that soured your mood?
Or because you’ve been working 6 days a week and haven’t had any time to yourself to recharge and restore your mind?
Before engaging in conflict, separate your emotions from the immediate situation and ask yourself, “What’s really going on here and is it her fault?”
The answer will often surprise you.
5. Remember the “20-Minute Rule”
The simplest, but most profound way that you can reduce the number of conflicts you have in your relationship is to remember what I call the “20-minute rule.”
And the rule is simple.
If something won’t matter 20-years from today, don’t let it ruin more than 20-minutes of your day.
In other words, make the personal commitment to stop fighting about petty shit.
20-years from today, the dirty laundry won’t matter. No one will care who left the toilet seat up or why. And her simple request for you to turn off the TV and talk with her won’t seem like such an infringement after all.
So drop it.
Forget about it.
Refuse to fight about trivial matters.
If there is a genuine issue that must be addressed then do it. (And follow the exact script I laid out for your earlier).
But don’t waste your life arguing and fighting over spilled milk.
This life is too beautiful and too short to waste in meaningless quibbles.
So let the damn thing go and move on with your life.
6. If the Fights Continue: Separate, Dissect, and Either Reunite or Separate
If, after following everything I’ve laid out in this article, your relationship is still plagued by constant conflict, then you have a decision to make.
But you can’t make it in the heat of the moment.
Set aside a period of time—typically a long weekend is sufficient—where you will separate from your partner to clear your head and gain clarity on what is happening inside of your relationship.
During this time, you’re going to wrestle with a few key questions.
- Are the problems in my relationship due to miscommunication or misalignment (e.g. being with the wrong partner)?
- What is my contribution to these problems? In what ways have I made things worse and what ways can I make them better?
- Does my partner acknowledge her role inside of the conflicts that are happening? If so, is she willing to work together to bring about a positive change?
- What is the simplest way to resolve these problems and whose responsibility is it to implement this solution?
- Is this relationship worth the pain of the conflict we are experiencing?
Think about these questions deeply. Sit with them. Listen to your gut. Write down your answers.
And then, when your time apart has concluded, reunite with your partner and discuss the answers at which you arrived.
From here, it is up to both of you whether to continue the relationship or part ways as amiably as possible.