How To Have a Fight That Actually Helps Your Relationship

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S1: I can never win any argument because however bad things are for me or however grumpy I am, he lived through a war so I can never win any argument if it comes down to like, who has this worse?

S2: Welcome to How To I’m science writer David Epstein. Conflicts in any relationship are inevitable, no matter how much you love your partner, your roommate or your child, 10 out of ten doctors agree that relationships are smoother when you’re not all stuck inside together during a global pandemic. We’ve had so many listeners write in this year about how the pandemic just amplified the spats they get into those important people in their lives. Even in comparatively simple times, avoiding conflict is just impossible. So you have to have a fight. Can you actually have good ones or at least useful ones? Our listener this week is desperate to find out.

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S1: My name is Diane. I’m an American graphic designer living and working in Amsterdam.

S2: So, Diane, could you tell us why you reached out to us?

S1: I have a very unique situation, I think, in which I’m an American and the father of my sons is a Syrian refugee. And we also live in a third culture. We end up having a lot of conflict and the way conflict is resolved in all three cultures is completely different. So what ends up happening is conflict is not resolved.

S2: Diane moved to the Netherlands 12 years ago to pursue graphic design. In 2015, at the height of the Syrian crisis, she started volunteering with refugees and that’s when she met Mohammed.

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S1: We just ended up falling in love. And yeah, what can you do when you end up falling in love with somebody that was just given?

S2: So can you tell us what is Mohammed like?

S1: He’s a very charming, charming person. He’s a lot of fun to be around. He really is very extroverted.

S2: Mohammed escaped Syria with his now nine year old son, who Diann raises as her own. And then a little while after they got together, the two of them had another son. He’s now four and raising young kids. They can be wonderful, but also stressful.

S1: I feel like one of the most important things that we fight about is, is our kids. And either I’m making all the plans for them or if I step back and tell him you should make the plans for them, then plans just don’t happen. So a really good example is are now nine year olds on his birthday for when he turned eight, I told them, OK, it’s your job, you can go ahead and plan it. He just didn’t. And so eventually I caved in mid-October and organized a party for my son so that he could stop asking

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S2: in October for the August

S1: for the August birthday.

S2: And your son was asking about it

S1: every every week, if not every day, you know, when.

S2: And what was Mohammed saying about that when your son was asking?

S1: So he would just say, oh, well, we’re making a plan. We have to figure it out. I’m not sure, you know, when it’s possible. And that’s the other hard thing for me is sometimes I feel like I end up lying to my kids to cover up for him, for his bad planning. But that’s the other thing, is like Syrians, they don’t make plans like that and especially not Syrians who lived through a war. They’re good at not having plans in the future. That’s how he survived

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S2: Mohammed’s approach to conflict that might have helped him survive during a war. But now in peacetime, that’s endangering his relationship with Diane and the well-being of their kids. On today’s episode, How to Have a Good Fight, we’ll bring on Amanda Ripley, an investigative journalist who studied how to de-escalate conflict and even how we can use conflict to our advantage. Stay with us. When Diane’s partner, Mohammed, first arrived in the Netherlands, he was tired, he was lonely and he was kind of freezing.

S1: He didn’t have any clothes with him, really anything that he needed, especially for the winters. And a Dutch person had a jacket and they offered him like, hey, I have this extra coat, do you need this coat? And he said, no, no, I don’t need it. And the Dutch person just said, like, oh, OK. And then they walked away and he was thinking, oh, my God. Like, I really needed that coat. Like, why didn’t they offer it again to me

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S2: in the Netherlands, Diane says people are blunt. They just say what they mean. That came as a real surprise to Muhammad, who was already feeling culture shock in Syria.

S1: If you know, I offer you a drink of water and you first, you would start off by saying like, no, no, I can’t take it. And then I have to offer again. And you say, no, no, no, I can’t do it. Then by the time I’m telling you, like, please, like the moon and the stars are all going to fall out of the sky if you don’t take this water. And I also don’t think I myself can continue living, then the person should then finally accept the water in practice.

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S2: That leaves Diane often feeling like she has to ramp up the intensity of a conflict just to actually get Muhammad to pay attention.

S1: Sometimes you you have this feeling with him that you sort of have to, like, escalate it to this level, this like normal Syrian level of insisting that, like, I’m going to throw myself into a canal if we can’t solve this problem, for him to actually take it seriously and to think like, oh, well, maybe she does actually want me to do it. If I need you to buy tomatoes, just buy the tomatoes, you know, and if you haven’t bought the tomatoes, just tell me so I can buy the tomatoes. And it’s like that with everything.

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S2: So is this stuff starting to, like, build up?

S1: Everything that happens is just sort of added to this invisible list in my head of like another thing that that happened. And for him, it doesn’t it’s not like that. And the other thing I would say is like the power imbalance between the two of us is is so strong across the board because I’m American, I’m highly educated, I’m extremely organized. And the one place that the power imbalance is completely shifted is when it comes to what have we been through and what is our baggage, what are we bringing with us to this situation? Like, I can never win any argument because however bad things are for me or however grumpy I am, that he hasn’t picked up tomatoes, if it comes down to like who has this worse, it’s always him and I get it. But stuff still needs to get done.

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S3: Well, thanks for sharing this with us, Diane. I think it’s so interesting because in some ways this is like a classic gender conflict, right? Yeah. Like some goofball sitcom. Right. Where the mother’s doing everything, remembering everything, doing all the kind of tedious stuff that has to get done. But because of your backgrounds and cultural differences, you bring these layers of complexity and also frustration and also understanding. And also, I don’t hear any contempt that’s really important. Like anger is good. Contempt is hard.

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S1: Yeah, hard to work with.

S2: This is Amanda Ripley. She’s a journalist and author of the brand new book High Conflict Why We Get Trapped and How We Get Out.

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S3: So about four years ago, I got really burned out on the level of conflict all around me, on the news, on social media. I felt like I had to do something different.

S2: Amanda interviewed people who were dealing with difficult and really different kinds of conflict, divorce, gang violence, politics, even perspective, astronauts training to be stuck together on the space station. That’s where she began to focus on this idea of high conflict.

S3: That’s when conflict distills into a kind of all consuming conflict that operates on autopilot, that is usually feels like an us versus them kind of conflict. Like one side is good and one side is evil. And it can happen with individuals, neighbors, co-workers, countries. But our brain does behave differently. And typically everything we do to try to get out of a high conflict makes it worse. Yeah. The good news is, Diane, I don’t think from what you told me, that you’re in high conflict. And so I

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S1: don’t know about that. I disagree, actually, like what you’re saying.

S3: I say more.

S1: My older son, he just has one pair of underwear that fits. So I told my partner, like, you need to get him more underwear and then I just wash his one pair, like, every single night. And I’ve been doing it for a little bit more than a month. And it’s just this period of time in which I’m trying to see, like, how long is he going to let my son go with just one pair of underwear without actually damaging my son as a human being to only have one pair of underwear.

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S2: So you’re like playing underwear chicken with your

S1: father right now? They really like I’ve just picked this one issue because it’s like across the board. But when we said, I mean, you can’t even do the underwear, you have to figure out a better system like set timers in your phone. Like, I don’t know what it is.

S2: It sounds like there is a little more like anger coming out. When you listen to what Amanda was describing.

S1: There’s this big part of me that knows, especially after living through the pandemic and understanding like one percent of what he must have lived through, that you do stuff to just get through the day. And if that includes going out and seeing your friends or buying some wine so you can relax and that trumps your kid getting underwear when you know you have a partner who’s probably going to cave eventually, as I did last week and just bought my older son underwear. And that that part makes me really angry where I feel like he’s making choices for his own personal pleasure and just leaving the kids to figure it out on their own.

S3: Hmm. I want to just acknowledge, Diana, this is not. Is really not fair, right? Like, I just feel like it needs to be said, you’re caught in a really difficult situation between empathizing with your partner, whom you love and being there for your kids, which you can’t do that alone. Right. And nor should you have to. So quickly, can you tell me a little bit about the tomatoes incident? It sounds like that’s an example where you ask them to pick up tomatoes and you just totally forgot. Is that right?

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S1: If I had to guess, he didn’t have the money for it. OK. And so then what happens sometimes is like instead of admitting he doesn’t have the money for it, then he’ll just say to me, well, you should do that. That’s the thing is like eventually like I just drop I drop it. But I don’t like I left the empty tomato container on the counter. It’s still there for more than six weeks.

S3: Yeah. Know. And you’re keeping that invisible list right in your head and keeping score, which I get. So in most conflicts, there’s usually the thing we’re arguing about and the thing it’s really about. So every conflict has an understorey, so to speak. Just as an example, there was an essay that went viral a few years ago called She Divorced Me because I left the dishes by the sink and the author Matthew Frey realized too late to save his own marriage. But he wrote, I understand that when I leave that glass there, it hurts her. It literally causes her pain because it feels to her, like I just said, hey, I don’t respect or value your thoughts and opinions. Not taking four seconds to put my glass in the dishwasher is more important to me than you are. Yeah. So he he figured out the understory too late in his case. But I wonder, do you have any idea like what in that one example, what did the tomatoes mean to you.

S1: Like if you can’t even bother to get tomatoes then like what hope do I have of you being able to like, pick up and carry any other part of what it means to be a family and to respect like that? My time and effort and my happiness is as important as yours, even though my background is not as horrible as your background. I still deserve to have free time and it’s too hard for me to do this alone. Hmm.

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S3: So it sounds like when you’re asking him to pick up tomatoes, what you’re asking for is help. You need

S1: help. Yeah. Is that right? Yeah.

S2: Here’s our first rule. What are you actually upset about? It’s probably not the tomatoes. When you find yourself getting obsessed over something that seems trivial, just take a step back, try to figure out what’s the actual significance of those forgotten tomatoes or that dirty glass by the sink. Only then can you start to have a real conversation with the person you’re fighting with.

S1: I used to get angry because I thought it should be a 50/50 partnership. And then after talking to other other partners of refugees, just realizing that’s a completely unrealistic goal. And even like ninety 10 percent is more what I should be shooting for. And that if I’m not OK with that, that that I have to get out of the relationship.

S2: So on a scale of one to ten, if ten is if this continues, the relationship is going to end. How serious do you think these conflicts are?

S1: Yeah, that’s the thing is like for me, it’s really serious, like when it comes to on a scale of one to ten. Yeah. It’s all the way out of ten.

S2: So as far as the relationship, the stakes couldn’t be higher. When we come back, we’ll focus on how Diane can set herself up to have healthier conflict. We’re back with our listener, Diane, and our expert, Amanda Ripley, author of High Conflict. Diane and her partner Muhammad have navigated a lot of cultural differences. She’s an American graphic designer. He’s a Syrian refugee, and they both live in the Netherlands. But their varying approaches to conflict have Diane near a breaking point.

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S1: I don’t know if it’s culturally or personality wise, like I tend to, like, escalate conflict. I go to a red zone and he goes to a green zone where he just wants everything to be quiet and to, like, not think about it and to not have conflict. And typically he’ll he’ll go to sleep. And I know sometimes people will be in the middle of a fight and he will actually just fall asleep.

S2: Oh, you mean literally? Not figuratively.

S1: He will literally fall asleep, like while we’re in the middle of a fight, like it’s 100 percent I guess it’s a coping technique where he’s like, this is getting too crazy for me to actually think about. So I’m just I can’t even stay awake anymore.

S2: You can’t keep fighting with someone who’s literally asleep. But Amanda says taking a break, that’s actually a great idea. You could go for a walk for 30 minutes or listen to a podcast episode.

S3: You have to do something totally different, like get your head in a different space. So you may find that that break is as helpful for you as it is for him.

S2: Amanda mentioned that Diane feels like she can never win any argument, but maybe that breaktime can help her step back from the idea of winning entirely and they can let you resume the conversation with a different frame of mind.

S3: There’s a great quote by William Ury, who’s a negotiator who works in conflict zones all over where he says, you know, who’s winning this marriage today? You know, like you can’t win a marriage, unfortunately. But it does feel good to win an argument and it is important to feel heard. So it turns out that in conflict, mostly what people want and almost never get is to feel heard. Yeah. So this technique that I want to tell you about is called looping for understanding whether you can get him to do it or not. You can do it for him and model it right. And for kids, basically, it’s listening to what the person saying whenever there’s any emotion at all, like it can be low level, listen to what they say and then take what you heard and try to distill it into the most elegant language you can muster and play it back to them. Ask This is the important part that’s easy to forget. Ask if you got it right. Like you’re really trying to understand. Yes, it turns out like you can profoundly disagree with someone, but if you prove to them through your actions that you are listening, everything changes. It makes people lower their guard so they can be more open about what they’re really upset about. You know, it’s like a magic wand of conflict. Well, I’m just going to do it right now. So from what you just told me, it sounds like. You’re caught in this position of wanting to to be sympathetic and notice the things he does do and also. Feeling like, you know, basic things are not getting done, like is anyone seeing this, am I crazy? Yeah. Is that right? Yeah. What am I missing in that description?

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S1: I don’t know. It’s like a pretty succinct. OK, what’s going on?

S3: So you see, I tried to take what you told me and play it back to you in my own words. Now, that’s easier for me to do because English is my first language. So he might want to just literally repeat verbatim some of the words you said, OK, and that’s OK. Communication, there’s a great quote. It’s like the biggest mistake in communication is thinking it happened. Yes. So that, you know. Exactly. You have to do this iterative back and forth checking in, especially when you’re dealing with different cultures, different languages and a lot of stress. Right.

S2: Here’s our next rule. Practice looping back what someone said to you that’s repeating what they expressed and then asking, what am I missing? That might sound tedious, might even feel a little cheesy, but just force yourself to just try it. The simple act of making someone feel heard, that’s where productive conflict starts.

S3: One extreme example of this is in outer space now, just bear with me here. So astronauts are unusually good at dealing with stress, but it happens on every single space mission. There’s conflict, right. And so the whole trick from NASA’s point of view is how do we keep this conflict healthy? Because, you know, NASA wants to send astronauts to Mars in the next decade and a Mars mission will take about 520 days, which is longer than any human can resist significant conflict. Even an astronaut. Right. So they what they do is they’ve been doing simulations of deep space missions to see how humans will behave, including on conflict. Right in the longest simulation of a deep space mission to date, six men from four countries spent 17 months in a small concrete building pretending to go to Mars. So one thing they’ve learned over time is to overcommunicate in sort of like looping. And they will say things like, OK, in your last transmission, you said this. Did you mean this? Or because if so, this is what I think. If but if you meant that, you know, so there’s a lot of checking in is an interesting example of how much communication needs to be slowed down and much more iterative than we expect.

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S2: Amanda says there’s another way to make your arguments more productive. It has to do with looking at the conflict from a third party perspective, and the results can be kind of miraculous.

S3: On average, couples experience a slow decline in the quality of their relationship as the years go by. It’s a depressing but well-established pattern, especially if you have kids, right? So here’s the good news. There is a hack. There is a way that has been shown in a good, solid experiment. Social psychologist Eli Finkel and his colleagues had a group of about 60 couples spend seven minutes very long, set a timer on your phone writing about their most recent fight from the perspective of an imaginary neutral third party, who wants the best for all involved. But in your head, you imagine like a mediator or someone in the room who’s watching, how might that person think about this fight? How might he or she find the good that could come from it? And then you write that down for seven minutes from that perspective. Then the next time you have that fight, which you will, or some version of it. Think about that third party perspective, and every four months for a year, they repeated this writing exercise, the couples who did this marriage had reported feeling less upset about their disputes than the couples who hadn’t done it. And more importantly, that usual slow loss of satisfaction did not happen for those couples who did this because it was healthy, it was good conflict.

S2: So that’s another rule. Just takes seven minutes. Write down a version of your fight from the perspective of a third party, who wants the best for both of you and who’s trying to see the good that might come from it. Repeat that exercise every few months and then draw on that perspective next time the fight comes up. I noticed as Amanda and Diane were talking that Amanda sometimes actually seemed to sort of slip into that role of the third party, who wants the best for everyone? And that then led Diane to start highlighting a positive flip side of one of Mohammed’s often frustrating qualities.

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S1: He’s extremely flexible. He can be president. So sometimes it irritates me because when he’s with other people, he’s with his friends, like he’s having so much fun with them. He doesn’t want to leave, but he also works the same way with us where he’ll, like, go late to meet his band or he’ll go late to do other stuff because the kids want him to stay and he’s having a good time playing with them.

S3: I mean, I don’t want to take anything away from everything else we’ve said, which I think is a hundred percent legit. But having a parent who is present in this moment is not a small thing. It’s not enough,

S1: but it’s a big deal. Right. And the other thing I like to say is like his super power is that he’s extremely flexible. I mean, if I called him tonight and told him we have to move houses, we’re moving to a different city, we have to have it all done in three days, he would just be like, OK, let’s do it. He would actually, like, go through it and get it done. So this is highly stressful situation. He actually works very well in that true chaos.

S2: Emphasizing the good stuff within all those frustrating parts, that’s really, really important.

S3: There’s something known as a magic ratio in conflict where the number of positive interactions outweighs the number of negatives and it’s incredibly important to keeping conflict good. So it’s like putting money in the bank and you need to do it all the time with each other in a relationship. So even to go back to the outer space analogy, they knew the conflict was inevitable and they wanted to keep it healthy. So here’s some of the things they did. They always ate dinner together every night. They always exercised in groups. They tried not to single someone out. They had themed dinner, surprise parties, birthdays. I mean, all these things that we think of as sort of silly or corny, they seized every single one of those. Then when the conflict arose, as it does, they had a little more of a buffer to not to avoid it. Right. That you don’t want to do that, but to keep it in that green zone of healthy conflict. So those moments when he is able to be present and sort of acknowledging that. Right. Like, wow, you just did this really cool thing and I couldn’t have done that, you know? And I’m really grateful that our kids have someone who can be present.

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S2: We talk about scorekeeping down scorekeeping in her head a little. Yeah. And so is this this sounds like maybe it’s it’s it’s loading the other side of the of the ledger score. But basically, here’s our last rule. Create that magic ratio. Some researchers like John and Julie Gottman have found that five positives to every one negative is the sweet spot for couples. Other researchers have found the ratio can be three to one when it comes to conflict with strangers. Regardless, capitalise on the good moments, however small, because they’ll help you down the line for the inevitable difficulties.

S1: One story that’s like I keep it in my mind when we’re in conflict. When he was getting on the boat in Turkey to go across the water, yeah, he had a life jacket and the boat is totally full and there’s way too many people for the boat. And of course, everybody’s terrified. And there was a guy in the boat that was just going completely nuts because he didn’t have a life jacket and he wanted a life jacket. And he kept asking everybody, they give me a life jacket, I need a life jacket. And Mohammed, he took off his life jacket and gave it to this guy. And I told him, but you you can’t swim. Like, why did you take off your life jacket and give it to him? And he said that guy was going so crazy that if I took off my life jacket and gave it to him, then he would stop going crazy and everyone could be calm and the boat wouldn’t tip over and nobody would die and. That’s the thing like he’s he’s the sort of man who, like, you know, took off his life jacket and gave it to somebody else. And he’s also the man who got on that boat and believes, like, I’m going to make it to the other side. And just in this completely hopeless situation, like, found it within himself to say, like, I’m going to try, I’m going to make it. And sometimes when I’m fighting with him, I just think, yeah, I’m so grateful he got on that boat. So, like, who cares about underwear and. Yeah, I don’t know.

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S3: Wow, Muhammad sounds like a very, very special person, and so do you like the complexity you are able to carry in your head is a big deal. And I don’t think you’re in high conflict, for what it’s worth.

S1: This is career.

S3: It’s hard to live day by day with that complexity because, you know. Underwear still needs to get bought. Yeah, so. But it’s a beautiful it’s a beautiful. Thing to hear that to hear that complexity in your voice and the frustration and the understanding and the humor and the sadness all at once. Yeah.

S1: We can take a step back and actually say, look, it doesn’t matter if you have underwear or not. Actually, it really doesn’t. You can go commando, no problem. That’s what we’re

S2: coming out with all of this.

S1: That’s to do with commandos. That’s my takeaway. What came out of your conflict resolution? It’s OK to go commando.

S2: Thank you to Diane for sharing her story and to Amanda Ripley for all her useful advice. Be sure to check out her new book, High Conflict Why We Get Trapped and How We Get Out. Do you have a relationship problem that needs solving or some other problem? Send us a note at how to add Slocomb or leave us a voicemail at six four six four nine five four zero zero one. And if you like this episode, you should definitely check out how to win arguments like a hostage negotiator with former FBI agent Chris Voss. How TOS executive producers Derek John, Rachel Allen and Rosemarie Bellson produced the show. Our theme music is by Harness Brown, remixed by Merritt Jacob. Our technical director, Charles Duhigg is host emeritus. I’m David Epstein. See you next time.