Ask a Therapist: Conflict in a Relationship and Differing Perceptions of Behavior

Counselors Roy Fisher and Liz Covey answer readers’ questions for South Seattle Emerald’s “Ask A Therapist.” Have a question about a relationship? Wondering about the struggles of being a parent? Others likely have the same questions and Covey and Fisher bring years of professional experience to provide their insights.

In this article, Roy Fisher addresses a reader’s question regarding conflicts with their partner, and their partner’s perception of their behavior.

If you have a question, please click here and let us know. We will select two questions each month to answer. The form requires no email address or identification and is completely anonymous. If you are in crisis or in immediate need of care, please contact Crisis Connections at 1-866-427-4747.

My girlfriend tells me that I’m “in a rage” when we are fighting, even though I would never hurt her or anything like that. I yell sometimes, but so does she. She says it’s a huge problem and I’m afraid we might break up because of this. How do I know if she’s right, or if it’s just her being sensitive? The way I grew up was rough, and she didn’t have it so bad, so maybe she just can’t handle anyone being upset. I’m not sure what to do because all we do is fight about who is right, making it all the more likely we will break up.

Dear Reader,

Having disagreements with our partner is a challenging part of relationships. The frequency and intensity of our fights can make us wonder if the relationship will last. It is important to realize that we bring to our relationships conflict resolution strategies learned from multiple places, among them being our family of origin and previous intimate relationships. We must also take into consideration that our partners may not share the same strategies. Learning how to deal with conflict is a vital part of a healthy relationship. Coming to a mutual agreement on what is acceptable behavior during disagreements is an essential task in determining the viability of any relationship.

When our goal is to be “right,” an ongoing fight is guaranteed. Right or wrong is subjective and based on more than the current disagreement. In order to be right, someone usually must be “wrong.” In order to “win” someone has to “lose.” In a competition, nobody wants to be on the losing team, but when we approach our relationships through the lens of winning or losing, or right or wrong, we tend to dig in our heels and defend our position, oftentimes escalating and prolonging the disagreement. Healthy relationships aren’t competitions determined by a score, or by who’s right most – and certainly not who “wins” most.  

With all of that said, your girlfriend is 100 percent right in however she feels – this part is not subjective. If she is fearful of your behavior, that needs to be addressed. It is necessary to know not only what you do (i.e. your behavior) but also the context in which it occurs. What are the consequences, emotionally and/or physically? What meaning does your girlfriend make of the behavior? You describe the way you grew up as “rough” and that she didn’t have the same experiences. It would make sense that she would assign a different meaning to the interactions.

How would you describe the way you express yourself during these “fights?” What emotions are you unaware of that are feeding your anger and lead to the behavior that your girlfriend sees as “rage?” By the time we acknowledge our anger, we’ve likely missed a number of other emotions. Imagine what it would be like if, instead of responding from anger, you instead responded to feelings of confusion or sadness. When we are angry, we tend to raise our voices, clench our fists, pace, etc. Depending on the experiences of our partner those behavior can be seen as threatening. Even if we say that we’d never hurt them, their experiences could say otherwise. When we are confused, we ask questions, rather than make demands. When we are sad, we often speak softer, rather than yelling. When we are able to identify the emotions feeding the anger, we increase our chances of being able to change the pattern of problematic behavior.

At the core of my work is the belief that each of us wants to be in a satisfying relationship with our partner, so I have no reason not to believe this is what you want as well. Taking the time to understand how your childhood experiences contribute to your view of conflict will help you acknowledge how those behaviors are getting in the way of having the relationship that you want to have with your girlfriend.

I hope you found this helpful.

– Roy Fisher, MA LMFT

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