In intimate relationships, our awareness, attitude and commitment to prioritising our partner's feelings over the actual issue go a long way.

In intimate relationships, our awareness, attitude and commitment to prioritising our partner's feelings over the actual issue go a long way. Photo: Getty

QUESTION: When we argue, my wife cannot stick to the issue. She always brings in other things that are irrelevant or happened so long ago I can't even remember them and then it all goes out the window. Can you suggest some techniques for fighting more fairly?

ANSWER: When we're trying hard to follow someone else's train of thought, keep up with them and digest what they're saying, a "laundry list" of complaints being peppered at us can be confusing and irritating. It's possibly even more annoying when we're not actually listening to someone else but mentally trying to formulate our response. If you are like most couples, you will end up in a power struggle of who-needs-to-listen-to-who-more, with no resolution and even less enthusiasm for broaching the subject again. But not discussing issues is just as damaging to a relationship as arguing about them.

I suspect what might seem irrelevant to you is important to your wife – so it needs to be heard. In long-term relationships, old hurts keep resurfacing, often in times of stress or vulnerability, until they are healed, so it's important to distinguish the need for a "problem-solving" talk from a "healing hurt" one. They each require different skills.

Our relationship with our partner is like no other, so it makes sense that the way we communicate with them should be different, too. Intimate relationships are emotional; we need to communicate feelings as well as fact – and be open to hearing our partner's. A resolution might be only one goal; having a better understanding of each other or repairing hurt are more important, and these conversations require more from us than just "fighting fair".

In intimate relationships, our awareness, attitude and commitment to prioritising our partner's feelings over the actual issue go a long way. Openness, curiosity and a desire to really know the fullness and depth of our partner creates trust and intimacy. Fair-fighting guidelines (one person speaks at a time, "be hard on the issue and soft on the person" and take time-outs to cool down) create safety. As well, intimate conversations take time and need to be private. Maintain eye contact, you are more likely to pay attention. Give information in small chunks, otherwise it feels like a lecture. Allow for silence. People often shift emotional gears during conversations and it's the deeper, quieter feelings underneath we want to access and give voice to. Ask questions: how long have you felt that way? What do you need from me? If you fall silent, explain what's going on inside. If you don't understand something your partner has said, ask for clarification before you move on. If you say something hurtful, apologise before continuing. Aim to be heard and understood by each other, rather than come up with a solution – that can come later.

All of this might feel awkward in the beginning. Be learners together, make mistakes and forgive each other, and you will both soon be fluent communicators. And your relationship will be all the richer.

Elly Taylor is a relationship counsellor and the author of Becoming Us: Loving, Learning and Growing Together.

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