When we fight, I feel like my boyfriend’s goal is to “win” the argument. How can I help him realize this doesn’t help either of us?
Disagreeing with loved ones (whether a partner, friend, or family member) is a normal part of every human relationship. In fact, we tend to argue more with those that are closer to us, often as they tend to see both the good and bad parts of us, they see us during times of stress, and often our defences are much lower with the people we love.
Fighting with your partner can be really upsetting, and the frustration is further amplified when one or both partners feel the other is not “fighting fair.”
Longterm success of your relationship really depends on how you fight – arguments are healthy when they are focused on coming to effective solutions (ideally) or agreeing to disagree.
The reality is that often the way we fight is much more important to the quality of a relationship than what we fight about (many couples I see for couples treatment will recall precise details on the days, times and outcomes of arguments, but it is stunning how often they will forgot what started the fight or what they were fighting about!).
I would first ask you to identify (for yourself) how your boyfriend’s style is unhelpful or ineffective. Try thinking of two or three recent arguments you had. Is he focusing on irrelevant issues/parts of the issue that created the disagreement? Is he inappropriately criticizing you? Is he bringing up issues from the past that are not tied to the issue at hand? Is he trying to intimidate you verbally or nonverbally (e.g., getting loud, inappropriate)?
I would also ask you to identify what contribution you may be having to the argument that leads him to feel he needs to just focus on “winning”. For example, if he “loses” a fight is that brought up to him in the future? Is he reminded about it incessantly? Does he feel he needs to “win” to be heard?
Then, have an open conversation with your boyfriend when you are getting along well, not in the middle of an argument.
Start by letting him know that you feel your recent arguments have not ended up well, and that your hope is that the two of you either come to effective solutions or respectfully agree to disagree when you are fighting.
Be specific about the things that you observe him to be doing that you think get in the way (don’t blame, just try to be very objective and specific, using examples). Let him know that you realize some of your behaviours may also be contributing (and again, be objective and specific about the things you do). Let him know that you care about him and you want both of you to come to more effective resolutions.
Ask him if there are things he thinks you could do differently during arguments. Then make an action plan – where both of you agree to specifically change one or two things about how you approach your next argument. Remember: all communication is bidirectional, and both individuals in an argument play a part in the end result.
Excerpted from Dr. Joti Samra’s “Ask the Psychologist” weekly column in The Globe and Mail.