How to fight fair, we are therapists, we just had a fight

Therapist is with a couple and is writing notes

He’s a therapist, I’m a therapist, we just had a fight.

My friends speculate that therapists don’t argue. Or if they do, that the disagreements are low key, even pleasant. But that is not the case with me and my long-time partner, Jim. We don’t disagree often and when we do, it is pretty civilized. But we are not immune to intense feelings.

A few days ago, we disagreed about whether talent had much of an impact on a person’s achievements. Jim contended that it was hardly a factor. He had been a hardworking high school and college basketball player with standing records at both schools. I offered that talent was useful. What I thought I heard Jim say is that it had little to no effect. “What about the class my friends and I just took?” I insisted. We had just taken a painting class for the first time together for fun. We were supposed to paint a boat in a bay. Only one of our group produced an identifiable vessel. I attributed it to a natural ability, talent.  Mine looked like a rectangle that was having an identity crisis. Jim took a break by walking away. My temperature shot up. 

We know the rules of fighting fair.

Humorous fight with couple, the woman appears to have kicked the man into the air

We know how to fight fair. We are not tempted to call each other names, we stick to the topic. We walk away when we need a break, we give the other person permission to take a break.  But we are not immune to strong emotion.

The break gave me time to realize we were both passionate about driving our point, neither of us was listening. Who was winning this argument? Then I figured it out, it was the Amygdala.  

Your Frontal Cortex is a natural at fighting fair

Each of us has a pair of Amygdalae which are part of the limbic system. This part of the brain processes emotion. The dictionary definition of Amygdala ” one of the four basal ganglia in each cerebral hemisphere that is part of the limbic system and consists of an almond-shaped mass of gray matter in the roof of the lateral ventricle” The Amygdala wants what it wants. I wanted Jim to agree with my point, he wanted to convince me that his idea was based on facts. 

Resilient People Listen

Older couple talking happily on their couch

One of the most valuable skills of resilient people is the ability to listen. Usually, arguments pick up the normal pace of communication. This is a good time to slow down. It is a good time to breathe slowly and deliberately. Slow down the pace and think. Try to listen and get clarity. This is a good time to be sure you know what you are hearing. What is the person actually saying? Is there some underlying reason that is driving the argument? The goal is to disengage the emotion and try to access the prefrontal cortex. That is the part of the brain that governs executive functioning. 

…. research shows that conscious breathing patterns can lower cortisol levels and can even downregulate the amygdala, the anxiety center in the brain.Scientists believe exercise increases blood circulation to the brain, especially areas like the amygdala and hippocampus — which both have roles in controlling motivation, mood and response to stress.

Sandee Lamotte, CNN, “5 natural ways to boost your mental health during stressful times,” 2 June 2020

Other research shows that conscious breathing patterns can lower cortisol levels and can even downregulate the amygdala, the anxiety center in the brain.

Author: Daphne Miller, Anchorage Daily News, “Coronavirus anxiety overwhelmed this doctor. Deep breathing helped.,” 30 Mar. 2020

The Frontal Cortex Wins The Fight 

So after the break, and my remembering to breathe slowly, I could take time to be more aware. I realized that I didn’t want to convince Jim I was right, I just wanted him to acknowledge that I had a point.  I also realized that I wasn’t truly listening to what he was saying.  I asked him to repeat his assertion.  He wasn’t saying there was no such thing as talent, he was saying he felt talent wasn’t nearly as useful to success as sweat equity.  I asked him to verify that I finally got what he was saying, “Yes, that is what I have been saying. ” Well, I thought, I can agree with that. 

man and woman with boxing gloves on reconciling

Resilience and a good fight

As we mention in our course, Sustaining a Good Relationship , fighting isn’t bad, but there are good ways and bad ways to fight.  Sometimes, fighting is the only way a couple really communicates what they are feeling.  That is not a great plan but it is better than not communicating.  Fighting is ok as long as it is fair and respectful. For more info, check out our courses on our website.

Myriam Mayshark, LMHC is a licensed mental health therapist in New York State.