Put ’em up, put ’em up.

How well do you fight? No, really, how well do you fight? Do you fight fair? Do you start on equal footing? Do you take it as well as you dish it out? Are you known for throwing sucker punches or do you make sure they see you coming? And when someone goes down, do you stop throwing punches and offer a hand to help them up? How about when you go down? Do you take the hand offering to help you up? And would your partner offer to help you up if they knocked you down? This is all metaphor, of course, but it is interesting to think about “fighting” with someone you love in this context. We are not our best selves when we fight, and you might find a “duh” escaping your lips, but what if you could fight better? Not punch harder or knock them out faster but get all the way to the other side of an issue that is emotionally charged.

As a psychologist, helping people learn how to fight seems counter-intuitive, however it is a very useful skill. You will get mad, you will do stupid things, you will make bad choices, you will do and say things that hurt people you love, and you will do these things both intentionally and unintentionally. And so will the person you love. It is the way of the world but somehow, it seems to amaze us when someone does something wrong. Dan Ariely, a professor of Psychology and Behavioral Economics at Duke University has a “deception” lab and studies how, why, when, etc., people lie. His work is fascinating and can be incredibly counter-intuitive. One of the things I learned from him is that we judge other people by their actions, but we judge ourselves by our intentions. So, “I didn’t mean to do that,” psychologically gets you off the hook in your own mind, yet we fail to apply that kind of generosity to anyone else. So, you might feel off the hook, but your partner will not see it that way… oh yeah, and vice-versa. This simple mind twisting causes more fights than I can count.

Why do we fight in the first place? Think: fight or flight. We are designed for survival and our fight or flight mechanism is the main feature. So, any time we feel the least bit threatened, our fight or flight automatically kicks into gear. The automatically part is the hard part to deal with, it is faster than a light switch and much more silent. There are also different kinds of threat, different levels of severity, and then there is how far from your “baseline” you are currently operating from. This is a big one, the baseline. Distance from your baseline has to do with what a lawyer would call, “extenuating circumstances.” It is really where you are based on what you are dealing with. Baseline is a place of neutral, calm, not good or bad, you are prepared but not vigilant, you are even keeled. Things that take you away from baseline are fatigue, anger, upset, overwhelm, illness, worry, and the list goes on. When you have persistent stress on your system, you lose the ability to recover from it regularly, and then you become what I call, “a man down.” Your resources begin to lose their strength because your entire system is losing strength. When you hear yourself starting a sentence or thought with, “I’m over-fill in the blank,” you have left your baseline. Too long away from it and dropping your keys as you walk to your car makes you want to either cry or punch someone.

Over the years, I have worked hard to become aware of my baseline and when I have left it. I joke and say, “Elvis has left the building,” when I feel myself using the “over-tired/whelmed/it” terminology. We are usually aware of when we have become physically fatigued, but I think we have little awareness of mental, emotional, or psychological fatigue and its impact on us. Upset and worry take a tremendous amount of emotional energy to not only experience but sustain. It is like a woodpecker slowly, repetitively picking at you, your heart, your mind, your energy. You become numb to the rhythm and try to ignore the drain, but that doesn’t change it or make it go away. If you have a significant stressor, you have a woodpecker. My dad was diagnosed with a rare and aggressive cancer a little over a year ago. He is hanging in there, but it is a woodpecker in my mind, always there, sometimes louder and stronger than others.  

Going with the metaphor, if you think about the sport of fighting (which is a whole other topic for a later time), fighters need to be emotional enough to want to beat the crap out of someone (get to the other side), but not so emotional they lose connection to their strategy and training (remember you are fighting with someone you love). Getting “hit” emotionally can take just as much out of you as a physical punch. Think about a time when someone said something that was so painful, you felt like it knocked you off your feet. What did you do next? Becoming stunned like that in an interaction or fight temporarily disables your brain and then we really are in fight or flight—which is your go-to? I remember sitting on an airplane a few rows back and across the aisle from an older man. A younger man went to get something out of the overhead bin and an item fell out and landed on the older man’s head. He reflexively punched the younger man. Bam! So fast, no one saw it coming, not even the younger man. But the younger man did not react, he paused, and then did the most remarkable thing, he asked the older man if he was okay. Diffused immediately. Apologies were prolific in the moments following and for the rest of the flight, I could see the older man reviewing the tape of the event in his head because every so often, he would startle and then shake his head in what I interpreted as shame.

A dear friend of mine said to me about her husband, “We don’t know how to fight.” I thought this was rather amazing to have this level of awareness. Most of us spend our time trying to avoid fighting instead of learning how. We are culturally tuned against fighting. It is a bad thing, signals the end of a relationship in the movies, is terrible during, and usually ends in tragedy. But life is not at all like the movies so figuring out how to have disagreements and even fights with the people you love, live with, and even work with is valuable. It is ridiculous to think that someone you spend more than a day with will never disagree with you on anything. And thinking that fighting is wrong or bad is sort of denial that disagreement exists. I have never had an important relationship that didn’t encounter disagreement or even fighting. My sisters and I can go rounds on stuff—heavy, emotional, and heated. And then we get all the way through it and are fine. Sometimes, we are even better than before.

I’d like to say there is one key to fighting well but really, there are several you have to balance simultaneously. One is your self. You have to have a level of awareness to be connected to what is making you upset (perhaps an incident or series of), what is influencing your upset (the stuff that takes you away from baseline), what is making the other person react and be upset (yes, they have a stake in this, too), and how to manage what you say and do so it honors both you and them (don’t lash out, don’t say things to hurt them intentionally, don’t shut down). A tall order, no wonder we suck at fighting. Another factor is what you intend as the outcome for the fight. Do you just want to be right? If so, then forget it, no one wins in that scenario. Do you need to be heard or validated? Then guess what, you have to tell the other person that is what you need otherwise how will they know (and the answer is not “magically”). Sometimes fighting is a natural way to release energy. You know, you get mad, explode, and then embarrassingly feel better and worse at the same time. Time is another important factor to fighting successfully. I have a patient who needs to have a difficult conversation with a loved one. She asked me what time of day should this conversation happen? I thought that was one of the best questions ever. Pick a time when distractions and to-do lists are at a low. Make sure you both have eaten because being physically in the best place will help. And make sure you have enough time to get all the way through it. If it is going to be challenging, then don’t start at 10 pm, already tired, and fight through the night. No one wins then, either.

Who knew there was so much to think about! Start to observe your fighting habits and look for places where you can “improve” them. Not expecting to disagree and even fight with people you spend lots of time with is perhaps unwise. People fuss so just get better at having difficult conversations so they go better and create better connection in the future. And start to watch your baseline. When you are “off” you are not at your best and can’t be your best. What keeps you balanced? What knocks you around? Know these things and be ever vigilant about them. Mostly, know that whomever you are fighting with is struggling with something as well. Sometimes, most of the time, we forget they are human, and they are hurting, too. It’s hard to see pain under anger but I promise you it’s there. Fight so you both win.

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