Brawlers: Are you a street fighter or boxer?

David Olsen, Ph.D., LCSW and Erin Belanger, LMHC

Conflict is a necessary part of all intimate relationships. Even better, if done well, conflict can lead to greater closeness and can strengthen relationships by allowing both partners to feel seen. As the first article in this series “Happy Wife, Happy Life?” discussed, those who tell you they never fight with their partner may be conflict avoidant. Or they may be be trying to hide the fact that they do fight, or they might be practiced passive-aggressives. These behaviors can destroy intimacy. In this second article in our series, we will focus on our brawlers.

Let’s start by thinking about boxing as a metaphor for fair fighting. Boxing may look a little barbaric from outside the ring, but if we take a step inside, we find that there are clearly defined rules for the fight. There are places you hit and places you don't. There is a referee to keep it under control. There are timed rounds ending in time-outs where boxers return to their corners to regroup. It may be rough, but in a lot of ways it is a very orderly sport.

Now… think about street fighting. While boxing is a sport safe enough for spectators, most people would not want to be anywhere near a street fight. Street fights are not safe, in part because there are no rules - anything can happen and people can get badly hurt. This is violent conflict at its worst!

So, how do we begin to navigate into the world of healthy conflict with our loved ones. What is this type of conflict that can lead to intimacy? From a fighting perspective - we must be good boxers where certain ground rules are in place and fighting is fair. As soon as the rules are out and fighting gets dirty, all bets are off and intimacy is badly damaged. For the health of your relationship, consider these ground rules to provide a frame for your conflict:

  1. Start soft. Don't begin an argument when you are already highly emotional, tired, or feeling triggered. And of course, don't get into an argument if there is alcohol involved as it will always go badly.
  2. Stay on track. Too often when conflict escalates, multiple topics are thrown at each other, emotions escalate, and phrases like "you always," "it must be nice to be perfect," "you never..." get introduced. All of this intensifies both the emotion and the argument and guarantees that nothing will be resolved, and that both partners will feel even more distant.
  3. Take time outs when necessary.  If you are emotionally overwhelmed, or intensely agitated, call for a brief time out. Continuing when you feel out of control is bound to go badly.
  4. Be able to recognize when the argument is getting away from you. That is your cue to slow it down and do something different.  Don't keep doing what you always do, since you will always get the same outcome. Rather than focus on your next response, tell your partner you really want to better understand their perspective, and work on really listening to them.
  5. Finally, any argument can be slowed down if you try to listen carefully to your partner, summarize what they are saying, and then ask if they feel like you are understanding them. This simple technique, while difficult when emotions are high, will keep arguments from escalating.

Remember, conflict is unavoidable… you didn’t marry your clone, after all. Done well, conflict will result in greater closeness. Use these techniques to better assess how your conflict pattern is working, and begin to experiment with making some changes for the health of your relationship. If you need, hire a trained therapist to referee the fight so that it stays fair and adds to the health of your relationship.