This was first published on KSL.com
My spouse and I keep getting in these fights where she does something like ignores me when I am trying to talk to her, and this offends me and I get angry and slam a door, which really offends her and makes her feel attacked, which starts a big fight that lasts all week. The fight morphs and quickly becomes about who treats who worse. And in this drawn out fight, no one wins. After days of being mad and miserable we will start to move past it, but only until one of us offends the other again. What can we do to break this cycle of offending each other?
The root cause of these fights is you both functioning in a fear state where you feel unsafe with each other, and this is making you wear what I call "mistreatment glasses." Mistreatment glasses means you are subconsciously looking for mistreatment and offenses that will prove that you aren't safe with your partner and that they are the "bad one." Whatever you are looking for you will find. If you are looking for mistreatment, you will find it. If you are looking for proof your partner loves you, you will find that too.
Unfortunately, almost all of us feel unsafe in the world (at the subconscious level), and this keeps us on the defensive a lot of the time. When you feel unsafe, your ego steps up to try and protect you. It does this through defensiveness and casting the other person as the bad one. That is why it feels like a win (to your ego) when you can show that your partner treated you worse and you are the victim. But this is really not a win; no one wins when you get offended by small things and always see your partner as the enemy.
Below is a process you can use when someone offends you. Following it will help you step back out of ego to see the situation more accurately and respond more maturely.
Note: In this article I am only addressing how to deal with the garden variety of arguments, not situations that involve abuse. The National Domestic Violence Hotline has information on how to identify the warning signs of abuse and how one can get help.
See the other person's bad behavior accurately
When someone behaves badly or offends you, there are four possible reasons for this behavior. Knowing them will help you accurately access what is happening in each situation. The four reasons people behave badly:
If this offense happened for any of the other three reasons, you must step back, stop taking this personally, and choose to not get offended — because it isn't about you. They don't feel safe in the world, and a person who doesn't feel safe has no choice but to focus on finding a sense of safety; they aren't capable of anything else. They may need some professional help to work on their fears around not being good enough and things not being right. So, the negative coping behaviors can be negated.
Be responsible for your response to the offense
You are responsible for your reactions and responses, and this should be your only concern. It is the only thing you have control over and the only thing that matters now. You must choose to respond with love, not fear.
If you get defensive and respond from a fear state, you are now doing the exact same thing the other person did to you. You are demonstrating fear-based bad behavior, and responding badly back is just as bad as responding badly first. It's the same bad behavior driven by the same cause.
Respond to an offense with love
Offenses and your reactions happen fast though, so you will need to practice and prepare ahead of time to be able to remember these steps in the heat of the moment. You might want to read through this procedure daily or replay past offenses that you reacted badly to, running through these steps to see what you should have done.
Procedure for reacting to offenses:
You and your partner may also need some coaching or counseling to work on the underlying fear issues that cause you to feel unsafe with each other. I find most couples who fight a lot need individual coaching to get their subconscious fears under control before they can create a healthy relationship. Always be willing to take this on and work on yourself.
You can do this.
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Kimberly Giles is the president and founder of Claritypoint Life Coaching and 12 SHAPES INC. She is an author and professional speaker. She was named one of the top 20 advice gurus in the country by Good Morning America in 2010. She appears regularly on local and national TV and Radio.