A trip to Gettysburg, and looking down from Little Round Top into Devil’s Den, and it’s obvious why the North won the battle of Gettysburg; whomever picks the hill, whomever picks the context of the fight has a distinct advantage.
And if your mate picks a fight, be assured that they believe they will win.
Fighting in a relationship is necessary—and healthy. The trick to a healthy relationship however, is to fight FOR the relationship, rather than against each other.
While getting the kids ready for bed, Mary lashed out at her husband Frank about his lack of authority with the kids. At the best of times, getting the 4- and 6-year-olds into bed is challenging, but this night it was like herding cats.
Mary’s expectation was that Frank’s command presence would intimidate the kids into conforming. In the past, Frank would have ignored the comment. Over the previous year, Frank had felt increasingly numb, unable to feel good or bad emotions about Mary, which eventually led to Frank engaging in therapy with a skilled therapist.
With the therapist’s help, Frank was able to correlate the numbness back to his habit of not dealing with his conflict with Mary.
Mary is a wonderful woman, but due to a difficult relationship with her authoritarian father, she doesn’t take criticism well. Frank’s hesitance to bring up Mary’s unkind criticism—and worse, her criticism of his paternal role in front of the kids, is based on a difficult history with Mary.
In the past, Mary reacted to criticism with a nuclear war, scorched earth, all-out assault on Frank for merely breaching the topic. For Frank, it simply hadn’t been worth it. With therapy, however, Frank realized that swallowing the conflict is unhealthy as well, so Frank began the planning of a war.
Frank’s war was for Mary, not against her. Frank needed to have the conflict with Mary, even if Mary went off on him. Frank’s first step, however, was to carefully select the place, time and context of the conflict.
Several nights after the incident, Frank got a babysitter, took Mary to a favorite restaurant, and after a great meal, ordered two desserts and coffee. Because Mary tends to blurt and rant, which causes Frank to shut down, Frank prepared a basic outline of the issue from his own perspective that he used to keep himself on track.
Frank started carefully. “Mary, I want to have a difficult conversation with you, but before I do, I want you to know that I’m doing this because I want to feel close to you, and I want the best for us. I want to tell you what happened from my perspective, but when I’m done, I will listen carefully to what you think and feel. I am not doing this to accuse you of anything.”
“Last week, we were putting the kids to bed, and you said …” Frank recounts the event to Mary, including how it felt to him, and also how he thought Mary might interface with him in the future more effectively. Frank then listened carefully to Mary’s thoughts, including why she felt he should be more authoritative. Frank asked Mary, in the end, how her expectations differed from her experience with her own father, and wasn’t she asking him to be more like her own father.
Mary felt heard, and respected, and Frank was able to express his frustration with the situation. Frank fought for Mary, fought for their healthy relationship, and the end result was a feeling of closeness in a situation that had in the past produced nuclear war.
Vern Hyndman is a husband, father to four, engineer, pastor and founder of the nonprofit Heartforge.