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#524: How do I fight with my partner without ruining everything?

Dear Captain Awkward (And Awkwardeers),

I’ve been in a fantastic relationship with my partner for a few years now. He’s incredibly supportive of my mental health, and

Kinky and Healthy are two different - but not mutually exclusive - things

Not an effective fighting strategy.

complements my personality perfectly. However, and this may seem a silly concern, I’m worried about the fact that we never argue. Basically, I’m concerned that this might mean that we aren’t communicating well enough.

We have had disagreements, but usually that happens when I say something that’s concerning me and he agrees with whatever I’m saying. It’s not really an argument because he quickly turns around to my way of thinking. Or, less often, he would air an issue and I would see it as reasonable and agree to help fix it. And for a while, this was great! I felt that our relationship must be going amazingly because we never argue!
But the thing is, I’m now sort of scared about what will happen if we ever do fight. Because when we haven’t even really had any of the little arguments, who knows what will happen if we end up in a big argument? Because surely it can’t always happen that we just agree with the other person’s opinion. What about when we have to start making big decisions like whose job dictates which city we live in? Whether we have kids?
And I’ve noticed that I’ve started avoiding conflict because it’s got to a point where I’m scared of The Fight. The Fight seems to me to be this big inevitable thing looming that sooner or later we both have to deal with… and I don’t know how I’ll handle The Fight. So sometimes, I don’t mention things that upset me because I don’t want to lead to a fight. And that means I’m kind of bottling up grievances which I know full well isn’t healthy. We have an amazing relationship, but I’ve always thought that good relationships were about dealing with the bad as well as the good, and what if it takes us years to realise that we can’t handle the bad?
It’s not like everything’s been sunshine and roses. As I mentioned earlier, he’s been great with my mental health, but that means that he does the majority of the housework, as well as working, and although I’m working hard to be able to contribute more, it’s something that definitely hangs over me. I think the guilt from knowing that he basically just cares for me a lot of the time also means that I’ve stopped talking about things he does that sometimes upsets me, because I feel like I don’t deserve to be unhappy with anything he does when he’s great and supportive and puts so much time, and effort, into making our home a safe place for me. As well as trying to avoid The Fight. And I feel like, hey, I’ll have forgotten the bad thing he said tomorrow, so why argue about it now? It’s probably just me being over sensitive anyway, right? But what actually happens is that it still hurts tomorrow, just feels too late for me to bring it up, so just gets added to the pile of Things That Hurt Me. 
(Note: the things he says aren’t generally actually nasty things but just things that are badly worded and hurt my feelings. For example: “you’re looking beautiful today! I think that dress makes you look thin” and like I’m certain he means well but I’d rather be able to accept the fact that I’m not thin rather than feel like his image of me on beautiful rests on his image of me as thin, y’know?)
Basically, how can I call him out on things that make me sad at the time? I kind of need a method to use when usually I’d just lose my nerve and stay quiet because I’m now kind of really fearing conflict. 
And what if The Fight does happen and we end up having a big argument, either now or in the future? How will I be able to convince myself that this isn’t the end of the world and that our relationship has the potential to survive that, when so far it’s been built on a foundation of mostly harmony and agreement? I feel like we’ve been constructed by all our friends as The Couple Who Never Fight, The Perfect Couple, and I’m scared of realising that we’re not.
~~Conflict Avoidant

Hi there, Conflict Avoidant. Commander Logic here.

I’m going to tackle your last worry first: No one in the history of the earth has been The Perfect Couple. Leave that mountain unclimbed. No one has to be perfect, not for their friends, not for their partners, not for themselves. “The Couple Who Never Fight” can just mean “Who Never Fight In Public.” We can all strive to be that couple, and I’m going to wager that most couples are that couple; fighting in public is a whole other kettle of fish.

You’re also feeling a lot of guilt about being cared for. I don’t know if it helps, but that is a completely normal feeling. Mr. Logic just had knee surgery and for the past three weeks, 90% of all household & baby things have been on my plate in addition to working. He’d try to help more, and I’d order him back to his couch so that he wouldn’t injure his OTHER knee. And it’s ok. Because you know what? 9 months ago I was so enormously pregnant that he had to tie my shoes for me. I had debilitating pelvic girdle pain and couldn’t walk very well. Then I had a baby come out of me and was couchbound again. Whenever I got antsy about all the work he was doing for me, he would tell me that he knew I would do it for him. When he’s gotten antsy and guilty lately, I’ve reminded him of the same thing. “Would you do it for me? Yeah? Then let me do it for you.” I hope you never have a chance to repay all your partner’s care for you, but that’s love.

Another part of love is telling the other person when they can help you better, which from your examples it sounds like you’re doing already. But just as a show of support, a story from the House of Logic just yesterday:
CLASSY

Pudding with flair

Mr. Logic’s family has a tradition of getting pudding when you’ve been in surgery. So I purchased chocolate and pistachio pudding to make parfaits, because why not get fancy for $0.70 a box? Two nights ago I made parfaits. Last night, I was going to make them again, and Mr. Logic said, “Actually, can you just put them side-by-side? I like being able to control the flavors better.” So I made his side-by-side pistachio and chocolate and parfaited mine. Was that a fight? No harm, no foul, just delicious pudding.

I also have a bad habit of leaving clothes strewn about the bedroom, which was a hazard for Mr. Logic when he was on crutches. He said so to me, and I cleared it up (and a couple more times when I forgot). Was that a fight?

But you and your partner don’t fight at all, and that is wigging you out. So I want you to think about what a fight is, versus a disagreement or a need. To me, a FIGHT is insulting and yelling and cursing and slammed doors. It’s rage and wanting to hurt feelings and sticking metaphorical pins in your loved one’s soft places.

Mr. Logic and I have never fought. THAT DOES NOT MEAN:
1 – We will never fight
2 – We never disagree
3 – Life is unicorns and rainbows and rainbow-shitting unicorns
At this moment in my life, the very idea of wanting to hurt Mr. Logic with words is just bizarre to me, like “don’t you throw him out the window on a regular basis? EVERYONE defenestrates the person they love!” levels of bizarre. I’m pretty hard pressed to think of something he would do that would make me mad enough to try – either the yelling or the window murder. It’s just not how we roll. Some day we might find the subject that we legitimately have it out about, but we haven’t found it yet.

We do disagree, though. And we argue.

YOU JUST SAW AN ALIEN. It was swamp gas. AND AN ALIEN.

Same fight every week. Aliens? Not Aliens? JUST KISS ALREADY.

Actually, we try to argue on a weekly basis. Well, we discuss things on a weekly basis, and sometimes it turns into an argument, but that’s okay because we’ve created a space for arguing. Because otherwise,  we would fall prey to Geek Relationship Fallacy #2: Disagreements Mean We Have to Break Up. Before I get to how we figured that out, I want to go back to the days in our relationship BEFORE we made our weekly meetings. Then, I was always nervous about when to bring up something that was bothering me. Should I wait until dinner? After dinner? What if I’m too tired? What if he’s crabby? If it was a chore that wasn’t getting done, was I allowed to ask him about it? Or was that nagging? Who wants to be a nag? UGH!

Usually over brunch on the weekend, we’d have a conversation like this:
Me: Sooooo…. I’ve been thinking about something, probably too much.
Him: Yeah? What?
Me: [explains the thing]
Him: Ok. That’s not a big deal. How about we [do X about thing].
Me: Great! That’s such a relief.
Him: Really? Huh.

And stuff got resolved (because Geek Fallacies are FALLACIES), but with a lot of stress on my end and a lot of “bzuh?” on Mr. Logic’s. After a while, I got much better about saying things in the moment, but that was based first on positive assertions, and then building on that to being direct.

Positive Assertions:

Me: Thank you so much for making dinner! It was awesome!
Him: Of course!
Me: I’m so glad you did the dishes, I just could NOT with dishes today.
Him: Yeah, you seemed pretty tired.
Him: Thank you for driving today.
Me: Sure. I know you hate city traffic.

Being Direct:

Me: Can you change the cat litter? It’s getting seriously funky.
Him: On it.
Me: Thank you!
Me: I threw in your workout clothes with the towels, is that ok?
Him: Oh, great! Thanks! But if you’re the one to change them over, look out for the drip dry shirts?
Me: Will do!
Me: I’m worried about [thing]. Can I just talk about it aloud?
Him: Sure.

Together again at last.

The most competent relationship in Westeros.

We both intentionally developed the practice of thanking the other person whenever they did something. At first it felt like overkill, and Mr. Logic would say stuff like “I don’t feel like you should thank me for doing normal stuff,” but there is just something to having someone notice all the things you’re doing that shores up a relationship. I’ve talked before about how it’s important to tell and show the people you like that you like them, but it’s equally important to acknowledge that you’ve received their messages in return.

But even with all that, it was still hard to get everything sorted. Just because I like Mr. Logic and he likes me doesn’t mean we could read each others minds.

So then in June of this year, I read a great article by Anne at Offbeat Home called “Family Meetings Help My Relationship” – there’s a weekly meeting calendar attachment with that article that I highly recommend. The basic idea is to have a weekly (or monthly if that’s your speed) meeting with your partner where you talk about the upcoming week’s events, meal planning, household to-do list, and (particularly relevant here) any percolating thoughts. Mr. Logic and I tend to focus on the events and to-do list, and ignore the meal planning. The Captain and her fella do meal planning and everything else percolates out of that. But what I think is going to be particularly relevant to you is the “Thoughts” section.

Anne’s thoughts tend to be positive:
The final section, the Thoughts section, is where we’ve been writing the relationship stuff. Things that are going great, things that need improvement, mostly it’s just a nice chance to pat ourselves on the back for being super awesome together. Last week’s said “Sex = Rad. Six days in a row!” “Thanks for making my lunches!” “I want more snuggles!” and “You’re my favorite person of all the persons.”
Since we’re now old hat at our positive affirmations, Mr. Logic and I tend to use that space for disagreements and heavy thoughts. Sometimes, there’s nothing going on and we just high-five and move on. Sometimes, like two weeks ago, we crack a bottle of wine and work through a bunch of future-planning stuff. This past week, I used (some of) that time to tell Mr. Logic about this question and ask if it was okay with him for me to open up about how we do disagreements.

The point is: We set aside a time and a place to tell each other what’s bothering us. And it 100% RULES.

This is the way to fight.

We solve things in our bunk.

When you set aside a time each week to talk about that stuff, that means nothing has to be resolved in that exact moment; you can both think about it and come back to it next week. If you’re using the paper planner, you can even put on the planner what you’re going to talk about. But you could also ignore the paper planner entirely and just have a time you call “Our Therapy Session” where you have a gin & tonic (or other relaxant of choice. tea? cocoa?) and talk about stuff for a half hour by the clock.

And I’m going to warn you now, that first meeting is going to be a doozy. Metaphor time! Right now, your relationship is like a couch that you never sweep underneath. You vacuum the top, flip pillows sometimes, it looks great, but underneath you’re brewing dustbunnies the size of dinosaurs. Now, dustbunnies aren’t dangerous, but the first time you sweep under the couch, HOLY DUSTBUNNIES it’s going to be scary! Maybe you’ll only be able to deal with a quarter of your dustbunnies at first, and that’s okay. Once you get in the routine of regular undercouch sweeping, your dustbunnies will be fewer. Never absent (it’s not all rainbows and unicorns, remember), but much more manageable.

So here’s the dialogue I want you to try:
I’m really struggling to bring up emotional stuff with you. Like, even saying this is really difficult for me. Do you feel like it’s hard for us to talk? (pause, listen) I think it would help me a lot if I had a set time each week where we have a conversation about what’s going on with us. What do you think? (pause, listen) OK, how about we have our meetings (date/time/circumstances/ hey it’s kind of hokey but how about this full weekly schedule thing?)? (negotiate, listen) Thank you for listening to me. I love you.
You might cry during this. That’s okay. And if you want to give him the first dustbunny to tackle, I’d give him this one:

“I’m scared of what would happen if we ever FOUGHT. Does that scare you?”

Good luck, and best love,
Commander Logic
EDITED TO ADD: There is a lot of great advice going on in the comments – I am but one humble person of the internet, and their experiences might help you more than mine. Tolstoi said that “Happy families are all alike.” That’s a great first line, but not actually true. There are a million ways to be happy and to argue fairly (or even to appear to argue fairly but really be a jerk), and the commenters are telling you a few more of them. If you usually skip the comments, I recommend checking them out just this once.
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146 comments
  1. enigmaticblue said:

    My lovely husband and I have been married for four and a half years now, and we very rarely fight, and when we have fought, it has been over truly ridiculous, unimportant things that don’t matter the next day. (As in, I can count the number of fights on one hand, and we’ve been together for six years now.) Part of that is because our “discussion” styles are wildly different. (His family tends to have knock-down-drag-out arguments complete with yelling that are forgotten in a few hours. That….is not how I roll, and I tend to hold a grudge.)

    I have gotten better over the years at recognizing moments when a) what we’re arguing over doesn’t actually matter to our lives together (politics, mostly), and b) an argument is not going to do us any good. And by “better,” I mean I can say, “Hey, I can’t talk about this right now, because it’s late, and I’ll get worked up, and I need to be able to sleep tonight,” before bursting into tears.

    But the thing is, neither of us wants to hurt the other person. We are both invested in making our relationship work, and in making the other person happy. When you have a relationship like that, and one person says, “Hey, babe, could you maybe put your dishes in the dishwasher? It gives me tension when you leave them in the sink,” the other person will say, “Sure!” Because, really, that’s pretty minor in the grand scheme of things.

    And when you have a huge thing that comes up (like having children, or not having them, which is something we’ve had to deal with recently), you will have to make a decision about what’s more important to you: your relationship, or That Thing. But that big thing would still be an issue whether you fought on occasion or not. And if you’re together, if you love each other, then you can work through That Thing, too. It might not be perfect, but you really can make it work.

    • (LW) Conflict Avoidant said:

      You bring up an important point that is pretty big for me, and that’s being able to say “there’s something wrong but I can’t talk about it just now”. That is definitely a thing I want to work on.

  2. Jack said:

    My wife and I both came out of the kind of relationship where our partner seemed to enjoy screaming matches and crying jags and blaming everything on us and how we ruined her life and… well, you get the idea. I think we both go super far out of our way to appreciate each other and talk rationally when things bother us because of that.

    So yeah, we never have the kind of fights that result in dramatically running through an airport or standing out in the rain full of regret and bad takeaway food, and it took me a while to get used to that being Okay and Not Boring and Still Romantic.

    I second the recommendation to check in a lot, and talk and make sure you’re okay if you need that kind of reassurance – I do, and my wife gives it to me when I ask. But the idea that fighting is inherently romantic or necessary is just not true and I hate that it’s permeated the culture so much.

  3. Solestria said:

    My partner and I are also not fighters. We argue and occasionally get upset, but like Commander Logic, I Do Not Get people who hurt each other with words. My partner and I are on the same team, and we both want this to work out–so the question is always, how can we make this work out the best for us (both the individual people of us, and us as a couple)?

    This can be a helpful thing to remember when you do need to call your partner out on something–that you are on the same team. You BOTH need this to work, and that means that your needs are important, as are his.

    Also, I love the weekly meeting idea. I haven’t done that with my partner, but my roommate and I (who tend to hit each other’s triggers on occasion and who are both hesitant to bring things up with each other) started a monthly check-in, which does help things not fester because there is an open time and space for discussion. It’s useful.

    Good luck, LW, and may you and your generally thoughtful partner have excellent communication, whether or not you ever have The Fight.

  4. Anisoptera said:

    Glerk. Yes, that does sound like how a healthy relationship would go! I wish I had know about these techniques 15 years ago, and also I will keep them in mind for future relationships – thanks Commander Logic!

    But to add a counterpoint… (More a What Not To Do section) I had a relationship for more than a decade where my partner never told me anything he thought was wrong. We did fight, but I always, always “started it” by raising some problem. He would shut down and get defensive, and then after a while of me getting more and more upset he would come around to my way of thinking and agree with me. Of course, he didn’t really agree with me, he actually was just really really passive aggressive about it. He would agree to make me stop saying the angry words, and then do whatever he was going to do anyway. With a smokescreen of excuses and redirections and red herrings and weird hostile behaviour that I could never quite pin down.

    But early on in my relationship with him it had felt like we didn’t argue. Because he just agreed with me. And if he actually did raise something, he had such a massive ledger of things he’d done for me that I would feel obliged to go along with him as a sort of pay back.

    And it’s so profoundly, utterly unhelpful. It’s so toxic and broken and horrible. As time went on I was seriously afraid to raise things, because he would on the surface seem rational and then there would be all this weird revenge. He would “forget” to do stuff we’d agreed on or say weird subtly nasty things that were hard to identify, except by the crawling sinking feeling in my guts. He was a spectacular gas lighter. My head was so twisted around by the time we broke up that I had no idea what was true or not anymore.

    So. Look closely at your relationship. Are you nervous about starting a fight because of some undercurrent of resentment? Some people are great at creating a feeling of indebtedness – doing stuff for you and agreeing with you. That your partner is working and caring for you doesn’t mean he gets to subtly deride your body weight.

    Does he have a vibe of People Who Don’t Show Emotion Win? Because that’s another reason you might be afraid to raise stuff. Because if you seem upset he won’t respect you anymore. Which is actually a clever way of silencing any uncomfortable feelings from you.

    Follow the Commander’s fantastic advice and try to calmly raise issues and have discussions. But if during those discussions you feel like you’re flailing at a ghost and feel all awful and twisted around even though you seem to be getting everything your way (except that one tiny thing he said that didn’t register fully until later but was actually really scornful…) see that as a massive red flag. Like, an emotional abuse red flag. Probably it isn’t that and this discussion has just triggered some bad memories of my own, but be aware that “we never fight, but I’m deeply afraid of fighting” can be a bad sign of manipulation and gas lighting.

    • Anisoptera said:

      To clarify – when I say fight I mean a disagreement that has high emotional stakes. One never has to have horrible screaming matches with name calling. But there will be difficult discussions to sort through what to do about areas where you disagree.

    • Pink said:

      I think this is such an important comment-could it be added in to the main text of the commander’s reply so that people don’t miss it? I have seen so many people, clients and friends convinced that their relationship is perfect and healthy, they are just stupid for being so unhappy, when actually it’s the dynamic described so poignantly here. Those clients would, I think, read the commander’s reply as further evidence that there is something wrong with them, not the relationship. That’s not a criticism, lovely and honest post by the commander and it’s generous of her to share how her healthy relationship works, but it might be good to have the unhealthier side of the dynamic named as well.

      best wishes,

      Pink

      • the invisible one said:

        Unfortunately some counsellors don’t see that this pattern is abusive. Or more likely, they only see the part people talk about (I’m so stupid for being upset) and not the actual abusive stuff, so believe the “I shouldn’t be upset” part and miss the abuse entirely.

    • anon//anon//anon said:

      Wow, I just moved out of an apartment that was this. Thanks for laying it all out!

    • Gine said:

      …Oh man. The phrase “People Who Don’t Show Emotion Win” really hit me. I’ve definitely been guilty of that, both in relationships and just my general approach to life, and it’s something I really need to work on.

      • ember said:

        The flipside, which alas I am dealing with in my otherwise lovely relationship, is as follows: “I am crying and you are not so you must be in the wrong”. Bit unfair when your honey picks a fight and then bursts into tears so you can’t call her out on it. I do love her though. *sadface*

        • Muddie Mae said:

          Ugh, yep. My last relationship had me in the “no emotions wins!” and my partner in the “I have all the emotions all of the time so there must be something wrong with YOU!” and it was no good. Basically the only redeeming thing is that after a year of couple’s therapy we were able to split up and remain friends. But it was pretty rough while it lasted and I’m definitely working through some crap from the relationship as I start dating again.

        • Leah said:

          In my relationship I would cry out of anger or frustration or sadness and my partner would get so frustrated that we weren’t discussing things logically and calmly anymore. I ended up having to tell him “Look, just because I’m crying doesn’t mean I want to stop having this discussion, it’s just that sometimes my emotions come out my eye-holes and I can’t prevent it. If I want to stop discussing this, I’ll tell you we need to take a break.” and since then we have lots of discussions and even resolve tons of things that we might not have before because he just asks “do you want to keep talking about this?” And I say yes and we end up resolving things perfectly fine. I really wish I weren’t such a crier, but since I can’t change THAT I’m pleased we found a way to work around it. I don’t consider those fights, though. Arguments/disagreements/discussions? Sure. But we have NEVER used words as weapons against each other. That would utterly gut me.

          • ME TOO. My fiance has finally gotten used to the fact that my feelings come out my eyeballs. Poor guy, that was really hard on him at first, I think it made him feel like a monster because I was crying but still trying to talk about it.

            We come at things completely differently — I tend to make decisions fairly quickly and from an emotional perspective (downside: I get seriously impatient and snappy), and he asks a lot of questions and gathers lots of information and thinks things through logically (downside: he has a hard time operating under time pressure). I think that’s part of the genius of what makes our relationship and our conflict resolution style work really well; we are each good at a way of thinking that the other isn’t. And at the end of the day, we want what’s best. He gets me to slow down and think more carefully, and I help him work better when things need to happen quickly.

          • DFTBAwkward said:

            Same!! I am a big time stress crier, and a lot of times I cry because I’m tired and frustrated and feeling pressure. DFTBBoyfriend thought for awhile this meant he was doing something wrong, but I think he’s finally starting to get it… I just – am going to cry – and it doesn’t mean he’s doing something wrong or that I’m mad at him or that I don’t want to keep working on whatever thing we’re talking about. Your suggestion of saying it plain (“my emotions just come out of my eyeballs”) is a great one to help people understand.

          • +1! My emotions also have a tendency to come out of my eyeballs, and it freaks my spouse the fuck out. I think zie’s starting to have a little bit easier of a time with it, and I’m starting to worry less about how me crying is influencing our discussion.

        • Mary said:

          Crying as a discussion-ender on either side is not Using Your Words! I remember talking to someone who said her husband had been brought up by a mother for whom Crying Was Win – she cried, that meant everyone else was in the wrong, it was all over. So his reaction to that in his marriage was, “You are crying, crying is trying to manipulate me, therefore this discussion is over.” They had to work really hard to get to a stage where he could ignore tears and keep listening to her words.

          I hope you and your sweetie get there!

        • Friendly Hipposcriff said:

          Use Your Words. I’m sure there are people who cry deliberately; I just don’t recall meeting any. (Probably because they never felt it appropriate to cry in front of me?). But I cry. Boy, do I ever cry. It took me until my thirties to work out that a lot of time when my tears would burst forward (and they did, and do, with little provocation, and in a lot of inappropriate situations) this meant that I was FURIOUS. Working on managing my anger – feeling it, expressing it – has helped a little with the crying, but I still have a problem with it.
          Unless your partner has expressed “I am crying and you are not so you must be in the wrong” (which is something you need to bring up separately) *their* perceptions might be completely different, because their crying might not be voluntary.

          Ask them what would be the most helpful reaction to their tears. And add that when she brings up a topic, you *are* willing to discuss it, but you find it difficult when they are crying: do they want a moment to compose themselves? a hug? that you ignore it? (For me, that is the most helpful. No, no, I’m fine, I’m just having a panic attack right now, ignore that, please concentrate on my words.)

          • ember said:

            Did so; was told it was going to keep happening so just to deal with it and not treat it like the end of the discussion. So I will.

      • Jae said:

        Ditto. I definitely fall into the pattern of thinking the way to be successful in a situation is not to have any of my feelings known about it. Because if you know my feelings, then you know my weakness.

        This isn’t logic-based thinking, but it is deeply, deeply, engrained.

      • Consider also its twin “the person in any relationship who cares least wins and therefore calls the shots”. It’s pernicious and nasty, and makes people terrified of communicating openly and of vulnerability.

        • CoolNewAnonymousNickname said:

          So true, the least-invested person as the ‘winner’ is such a toxic narrative in a relationship. Although as Pyrrhic victories go, that is the like the Queen Mother of them, right there. Ultimately, *everyone* loses when someone in the relationship must win at all costs.

          • Exactly -the priority should be two people against their problem, not two people against each other. If you care more about being better than your partner than about solving the issue that’s making you unhappy, you’ll never be happy.

        • Jae said:

          You just put a name to my mother’s whole fighting strategy and perhaps helped me identify a reason why I am terrified of ever speaking up outright or seeming vulnerable.

          I can remember crying during an argument once, like seriously straight-up, full-on sobbing, alone in my room. But she was creeping around the hallway to hear how I was reacting and she said, “You know, therapy and psych meds are covered on our insurance,” in just this sneering voice. Because I was crying.

          To this day, crying feels like some shameful activity that I must avoid or hide at all costs unless I want to lose any dignity I might have.

      • Wow. We had that, in the 28-yr marriage I finally left this year – I just didn’t know what to call it. And it had an important side effect:

        Early in our relationship my emotions were pretty volatile (I came from a family that yelled about everything – not much name calling, but plenty of “I can’t underSTAND why you won’t just __” at maximum volume). My spouse’s emotions were pretty quiet (parental family pattern of ‘silent treatment’ instead of ‘active conflict’ – sometimes for days at a time).

        Eventually I learned to moderate my level of upset and speak calmly even about things that were important. But: having learned that ‘when I’m upset I’m yelling and crying,’ Dear Spouse was unable to trust me when I calmly said, “this is really important to me and I need it to change.” He just thought I was overstating, because if it really was important, I would be yelling.

        On my side, at first I discounted things he said as ‘not important’ because he was so calm – and I ‘knew’ that people who were calm were not seriously affected by whatever. But gradually I came to know that most of the time he never even mentioned the little stuff, so eventually I began to take everything he did say about wanting changes as ‘pretty important.’

        Which meant that there was even more danger, for him, in voicing a request for change, because I was likely to assume that it was at deal-breaker level even when for him it was trivial.

        Toward the end, one of my big issues was that he was never ‘emotionally available’ – and one of his big issues was that I was never ‘really telling him how I felt.’

        (sigh)

    • (LW) Conflict Avoidant said:

      Hey, I’m sorry you had such a bad experience, and I’m glad you’re out of it. I’m pretty sure that’s not what’s happening here, though. I think I definitely have a fear of him becoming like that (becoming resentful and passive aggressive because he, to the outside world, puts way more into the relationship in terms of money and labour than I do) but… I think he’s a good ‘un. The ‘People Who Don’t Show Emotion Win’ is a thing that resonates with me because… that was me for a bit, after a relationship that hurt me and broke my trust completely. So I decided to never show emotion and never let anybody know how deep my emotions were for them. And that’s a shitty place to be in, and I’m glad I’m not there now. My current partner, though, is very into communicating and for me to talk to him when I’m feeling sad and he always says that I should just tell him if he says something that makes me sad. It’s just easier said than done for some reason.

  5. Brynndragon said:

    So, I have two partners, and the fights with each of them are so very different as to be not comprehensibly in the same category to outside observation. With J there can be a lot of anger to the point of one or both of us yelling, which we deal with by separating for a little while until we cool off, then we apologize and hug and decide if we can give it another try right then or if we need to take the rest of the day off from it first (and we always do have whatever it is addressed/resolved by the next day). This is the sort of thing the LW is probably thinking about when they talk about The Fight.

    But with C I end up getting upset/hurt rather than angry (as does he), and we will talk it through or we pause until we can talk while snuggling because that makes me feel safe while we’re discussing something that’s hard (I live with J but not with C so sometimes we have to wait). That doesn’t even sound like fighting, but it happens under the exact same conditions – we’re talking about something that is significantly bothering one or both of us and trying to find a way to make everyone feel heard and ultimately happy even when our needs clash and/or our jerkbrains are on overdrive. Because my relationships and my partners are different, the “fights” play out really differently and the way we deal with them is also really different.

    So I think that it ultimately doesn’t matter if you guys engage in the sort of fighting that looks like A Fight(tm) or not. Either way can actually work, if you mutually figure out how to feel loved and cared for and get the hard things dealt with in the process. That can take some trial and error, or even meta-discussions about how to feel loved while talking about hard things (I’ve used both of these methods with both of my partners), which is something you can do during those weekly meetings that Commander Logic suggested (a notion which I’m planning on modifying and implementing with both of my partners because goddamn that’s awesome :D).

    • Yeah to this! My spouse has angry raised-voices fights with hir partner, whereas when we have similar “fights” it’s usually not even about something important and it’s just because we’re hungry so we eat something and go “Wait, that was SO RIDICULOUS.” When we have actual disagreements about important things it tends to be just as emotionally charged as hir fights with partner, but using a lot more “I” language and feeling like we might be overreacting and reassuring the other person that they’re not overreacting etc.

  6. Katie said:

    Half of another couple who do not really fight here! But we totally do have hard talks, sometimes with crying. It sounds like you two have established a really good basis of caring and respect, and I have a lot of confidence that you can create a space for your needs. Also, my partner listens to a lot of my outsized fears about our relationship and just lets me vent. Most of the time being able to communicate them helps to dissipate them almost entirely.

    • Me to a tee! We argue about stuff that isn’t about us – like whether Atkins is a viable diet strategy, or what’s the best approach to improving my partner’s work situation – and seriously, a Mythbusters episode: All of these “arguments” have had yelling and frustration and even tears but at the same time, zero stakes and no insults of each other. We are definitely on the same page in terms of wanting the best for each other and ourselves and we get heard and understood. Some of this comes from practice with… let’s say less compatible people on both our parts. Some of it is just sheer will to kindness that comes naturally without effort due to how we feel about each other.

      We will have the hard talks sometimes with crying and those are always rough to start and end up feeling much closer. I think if you can make space for the vulnerability of sharing your concerns and trusting your partner to hear you, you can argue without ever fighting.

      • Kelly L. said:

        SO and I don’t really fight either. We do sometimes put off tough talks for a little too long, but when we have them, they tend to be quiet and reasonable. My last two relationships were high-drama and this is such a relief to me, though I sometimes have the same worry the OP does.

        Your mention of the random subjects you argue about rings true for me. Seriously, just about the only thing we ever fight about is baseball. Yes, baseball. And not even opposing-team rivalry–it’s just that I’m a fan and he thinks it’s silly and hates that the players are paid so much.

  7. LA said:

    My husband and I have yet to have a fight in the entire time we’ve known each other. We’ve even talked about it, because of that common (and false) trope that you have to have at least one fight before you get married or you’re doomed to divorce. We already know that if we were to fight, which isn’t likely, it would be okay, because love each other and neither of us wants to hurt each other. It doesn’t mean we don’t sometimes hurt or upset each other, but we talk it out and find a way to fix it.

    Fights just aren’t our style–we both grew up in houses with parents who fought all the time, over big and small things, and I think we both realize how much easier it is to just talk to each other rather than letting things build up and/or hurting each other intentionally. It’s the only way the issue will ever get resolved, and because we love each other, we know we will find a way to resolve it, even if sometimes that just means the other person tries to be more mindful about not doing (or doing) whatever. We don’t have official weekly meetings (that would just stress us out), but we do check in with each other frequently. Sometimes we just ask the other person to listen and say everything’s going to be okay.

    You don’t have to have The Fight or even A Fight to be a proper couple. You get to choose how your relationship works together, and it doesn’t have to adhere to other people’s rules.

    • well said, my ex would ‘seem’ to have a discussion and we ‘seemed’ to agree but he would do passive agressive shit. He would somtimes rage out an apologize. but when he cheated on me well, he suddenly called me controlling. Commander Logic has outlined a healthy dynamic. Be alert that it is not healthy if your partner always agrees with you and then subtly undermines the agreement (and eventually no so subtly)

      • LA said:

        There’s a huge difference between someone being passive aggressive and just making a mistake, too. No one’s perfect, and we all have habits ingrained from years of living with other people, so if I ask my husband to add dryer sheets to the dryer and he forgets to do so occasionally because his family never used them and it’s different from what he’s always done, it’s not because he secretly wants me to suffer from stiff towels–it’s just that he forgot. Same goes for me leaving stuff all over the house sometimes–I have a bad tendency towards clutter, and clutter bothers my husband sooner than it bothers me (being surrounded by chaotic stuff increases his anxiety), but he’s agreed not to say anything unless my clutter gets VERY bad, and I’ve agreed to try to keep it from getting to that point. I’ve never let things get cluttery to mess with him, but sometimes, I forget b/c I’m too tired or too busy during a particular week–when it gets bad, he asks me to help him clean up and I do.

        Those are obviously small examples, but the difference between acting out of passive aggression vs.normal human error is, I suppose, that whoever forgets to do what was agreed upon apologizes and works on correcting it. If they apologize but nothing changes…that’s when you need to start worrying about passive aggression. My husband pretty much always remembers to use dryer sheets now (because he’s felt how much softer the linens and our clothes are when we use them, and knows it’s important to me) and I’m a lot better about keeping the clutter in check, and realizing when it’s getting to a “I should put away my clothes and nail polishes and books and papers and those 20 cat toys I was throwing for the kitties” level before it messes with him, because I appreciate how much nicer everything looks when my stuff isn’t strewn everywhere, and I know how much it helps keep his anxiety levels down.

        I’m pretty lucky in that my husband and I are pretty active and vocal about problems we have, both with others and with each other. It probably doesn’t hurt that we both have a tendency to look at what our parents did (my mother has passive aggression and guilt-tripping down to an art) and do the opposite. To this day, I marvel that we can put furniture together or clean things up without someone losing their temper, without cussing, and without yelling, because that was totally the norm in my house. I can spill water or even soda on the carpet and not get screamed at for 30 minutes. He can be paranoid about double checking locks and running faucets and making sure there’s enough cat food when we leave for a weekend without getting ridiculed. In a lot of ways, coming from messed up households has made us really appreciate how awesome it is to decide how we want to live and treat each other.

  8. DFTBAwkward said:

    Commander Logic’s question at the end is a GREAT one! It’s one I relate to as someone with mental health issues–I often have to tell my boyfriend “I’m scared what will happen to us if X” and then we talk about it. My anxiety disorder tends to manifest as “boyfriend won’t love me if I do X thing.” Above all else, he has asked that I TALK TO HIM about what makes me scared an anxious. So I do, and it’s hard, but it also helps me so much and helps me to not be afraid of X.

    The biggest, most important thing that can be said for how to have discussions/arguments/fights without really seriously damaging your relationship is to not to be mean in the process, not to try and hurt the other person like our good Commander Logic suggested. Don’t make it personal–things like calling each other names and using put downs are poisonous to relationships and really, really hurt. That’s the kind of damage you can’t repair so easily. Avoid that kind of talk.

    Instead, focus on the issue at hand–what behavior upsets you and what you want to change. If you know how your partner could make it better for you, tell him that, too! Any practical behavioral suggestions you can give are great. For an example, I recently got frustrated with my boyfriend for being glued to his phone & laptop when we visit my parents. When I talked to him about it, I avoided accusations (“you’re disrepsectful!”) and focused on what I want him to do (“next time we go spend time with my family, can you please stay off your phone and computer and just hang out?”). Making it about the behavior instead of the person treats them with respect and lets them know what they can specifically do to be a better partner to you. It’s a much more productive discussion to have.

  9. Allie said:

    I was that way too, Letter Writer. I lived in fear for the First Fight. And I do think that there’s something to worrying about not learning how to fight, or argue, or whatever. My husband and I rarely disagree, but when we do, we have such a different style that we end up more upset than makes any sense. Recently, I had to say, “Look, we need to stop talking about this in general and start talking solutions.” It worked out pretty well! I think we’ll have to keep with it to make it a regular part of our lives, except we don’t disagree a lot, so…yeah. Heh. But it’s something that’s worth writing somewhere to remind us if/when there’s a next time.

  10. slfisher said:

    My partner and I are also not fighters, but we do have the little nagging things issue, and we talk about them in the shower. We take a shower nearly every day and always together. Why the shower? It was a place where we were together, had privacy from my daughter, intimate yet not emotionally loaded — I don’t like fighting in bed, for example. So it works for us.

  11. Old fart who’s been married to the same person for 25 years here. We’ve never had A Fight. We’ve had times when one has said something pretty hurtful to the other (not deliberately – every time the sayer had no clue how hurtful it was to the listener), but after a cooling-off period, we always were able to talk it out. We’re both pretty laid-back and patient people. We try to spend some time talking to each other in person every day. Sometimes that just doesn’t work out due to our work schedules, but as long as it’s mostly every day, that seems to work for us.

    We have a few rules:
    1. No Silent Treatment, ever. If one of us doesn’t want to talk to the other one because we’re honked off, we use our words and ask for some space (i.e., I’m too pissed to be coherent, so I’m going off to fume for an hour).
    2. No packing up and leaving. Maybe we’ve watched too many movies, but I think if our relationship has broken down so badly that we can’t even be in our home at the same time, then that’s The End. We don’t want it to be The End unless it really is The End, so that’s something we just don’t do to each other.
    3. It’s OK to be loud during a vigorous discussion, but no screaming and no ad homs. Cursing is allowed as long as it is used for emphasis, not at the other person (i.e., damn it is OK but damn you is not).
    4. No hitting. I kicked him the ankle once when I thought he was being deliberately obtuse about a point I was trying to get across, back when we were engaged, and later he brought it up as something that bothered him. So we have the rule.

    About the gratitude thing: When we were first married, Original Spouse was in a car accident and broke his pelvis and both legs. He was laid up for quite a while. He felt really badly about complaining about anything because I was carrying the load for the household and was pretty stressed as a result. Once he was back to normal, he kept trying to overcompensate because he felt he owed me. And I felt as if I couldn’t complain about anything because he had just survived a car crash. Then we went to a friend’s wedding, and the pastor said something to the effect of “Marriage isn’t about keeping score, it’s about having each other’s back. Even if you think you aren’t pulling your weight right this instant, you are contributing vital ingredients to the relationship just by being there: love, caring, concern.” It took us a while to let go of the habit we had gotten into of not sharing stuff that bugged us, but we did get there eventually, and I think our relationship improved because we consciously worked to get to that point.

    Good luck!

    • (LW) Conflict Avoidant said:

      I think your rules are good rules. Thanks for sharing.

  12. esis0020 said:

    This is perfectly timed. I’m sending it to my partner, as in now. We’ve been having a lot of little arguments. Not fights by Commander’s definition, but we get stuck trying to get both our needs met sometimes or figuring out what those needs are. Then we don’t know how to bring it back up later. I’d hate to ruin a good moment. I’ve brought up scheduled meetings before, he liked the idea, maybe it’s time to implement it.

    Thanks LW and Commander Logic!

  13. FlyBy said:

    I grew up in a household in which the first commandment was Thou Shalt Not Inconvenience The Father and the second commandment was Your Existence Inconveniences The Father. So not asking for or objecting to anything was a necessary survival strategy for a long time. It’s taken me several years (and lots of therapy) to undo that, even when I know from experience that my husband’s quite happy to, say, change his habit of leaving shoes in the middle of the entry way so I don’t trip over them any more.

    I suspect this is a pretty common thing, at least to some degree. It’s hard to undo, but not impossible. It just takes practice and trust that your partner is a reasonable person who cares about you.

    • Jae said:

      Oh boy. That hits close to home. It is very hard to undo… I try to be entirely self-sufficient and have trouble speaking up lest my needs be deemed Too Much.

    • golden peanut said:

      Hi, are we siblings? I’m in my 40s, and I am only now realizing how much my current interactions with people are driven by my father’s treatment of me. It’s a tough pattern to break.

  14. MovingOn said:

    I’m never quite sure what a ‘fight’ is. Is a fight like Commander Logic described, all intentionally hurtful words and shouting? Is it an emotionally heavy disagreement? When is it a fight and when is it an argument? I think it might be helpful to think of what you mean exactly by a fight. What you are most afraid of seems to be your relationship ending in a fight because you’ve never had a fight, but as for the fight itself, what is it exactly that scares you? The major disagreement? Your partner saying things that are meant to hurt you? Raised voices?

    My boyfriend and I argue a lot, but we never fight, I would say. We never intentionally say hurtful things, we never shout, we never storm out of a room so that we had the last word. Mostly we argue late at night in bed. We cuddle and argue, he gets up for a smoke while we continue argueing, then he comes back and we cuddle and argue some more. And these have been some pretty serious arguments, of the “I can’t believe you think X is acceptable, X is an absolute dealbreaker for me and if you ever do it, we will break up immediately” variety. But it really works for us. The combination of serious arguments and cuddling reassures us both that even though we may disagree very strongly on certain points, we’re not about to walk out just because of that.

    • epigraphical said:

      Yes! I have a lot of trouble differentiating fighting and arguing and discussing and such, as well. My partner and I have never had a drag down, name calling, maliciously hurt each other fight. But we have had some heated arguments (voices raising about the worst of it), where both of us were at cross roads with something that was important to both of us (very few), and disagreements that became a bit heated/one of us became hurt/upset because one of us was tired or stressed or unwell (a fair amount), and we’ve had some “this needs to stop/get fixed right now or very soon” road blocks where one person or both were very, very upset (a small amount).

      I think there is a big difference between an emotional discussion or disagreement (which could be seen as a fight, or the word fight could be used) and the kind of “fight-fight” where name-calling, belittling, patronizing and maliciousness comes out full force. I’ll admit I can be patronizing, and my partner can be belittling, but it doesn’t come up in our fights except very, very occasionally, and we always apologise afterwards if we over stepped the mark.

      LW, do you never fight with your partner, or do you never disagree? Those are two very different things. If you do disagree, are your disagreements ever emotional? If they’re not, it might be because both of you are pretty level headed, or it could be that one or both of you is afraid of showing how hurt or upset one thing or another makes you feel. Maybe you could talk about that in your meetings?

      For example, this : ” But what actually happens is that it still hurts tomorrow, just feels too late for me to bring it up, so just gets added to the pile of Things That Hurt Me. ” Seems like, rather than not fighting, you two are not *disagreeing* which I think is healthy and necessary for a relationship. Things That Hurt You need to be brought up – even if it causes a disagreement. Perhaps you could try using a kind of mental disagreement-fight divide, so you can still feel secure in your relationship while being able to bring up needs and hurts? I would start by writing out the difference between the two, and the “grey area” (raised voices? fight or disagreement? waspish remark? fight or disagreement?) in between, and then affirming to yourself “There is a difference between a fight and a disagreement. It is perfectly okay to disagree” if you feel those thoughts about being the Perfect Couple or “it doesn’t matter anyway, I’ll forget by tomorrow (but not really)” coming up.

  15. Ella Ella Ay Ay Ay said:

    I also used to fear getting in a big fight with my boyfriend because I grew up in a family where fighting (yelling, name-calling, intentionally trying to hurt people, etc.) was a daily event. I would never talk about anything upfront with my boyfriend because that was unthinkable to me—it would only lead to a rage explosion or complete withdrawal of love as punishment. Instead, I hoarded everything up waiting for the day when that fight would come and I could use it all as ammunition.

    Then at some point, I just realized, Oh. My boyfriend isn’t like that. He’s not going to do that. It took years to realize this, two years of dating and probably a year of living together. And then I started bringing things up immediately and he would always react very reasonably. We’ve been together 6 years now and still haven’t fought, though we’ve had calm disagreements and discussions. Even those don’t happen very often because we’re really compatible and very similar on pretty much all big issues. Not that that’s necessary for a successful relationship, but in our case, it is actually true that “we just agree with the other person’s opinion” like 90% of the time.

    I see other people commenting about partners who seemed to agree but actually didn’t and would take it out on them passive aggressively. Definitely a possibility. Another possibility might be that you’re used to fighting from your past from family or past boyfriends or whatever, and your current boyfriend just acts differently from what you’re used to.

    I don’t know, just the kind of thing you mentioned where he’s saying you look thin and you know he’s trying to be nice but you’d rather he did so differently…if I brought that up with my boyfriend, he’d be like, “Oh, okay, I get what you’re saying, no problem” and change his behavior. And vice versa. And not just to avoid conflict, but because we both know by now that we can count on the other person not to yell, mock, etc., so we don’t feel like making a request is an indictment of the other person’s worth, or that changing our behavior means we’ve lost a power struggle or whatever.

    • Astral said:

      Thank-you! It’s reassuring to know there’s hope for those of us who grew up in families like this!

  16. Mel R said:

    The only times my husband and I have fought – and I mean fight-fighting, with raised voices and hurtful things said and tears – it was because he was trying NOT to fight with me. I was doing (and not doing) some things that annoyed him, but he thought that if he brought it up my feelings would be hurt. So he didn’t say anything, and I sailed along in happy oblivion assuming everything was fine (still doing The Things), and he stewed on it for a lot longer than was healthy. Annnnd then he had a bad day and a couple of glasses of wine, and it All Came Out in one festering lump! And there was anger and upset and name-calling and I got mad back and you BET my feelings were hurt! A lot more than if he’d brought it up when he was able to have a calm, rational discussion about why he would have appreciated it if I did Thing A and tried to do Thing B less, or not around him.

    After we calmed down, we had a long talk about me not being a telepath and tending to assume that all is well if I don’t get specific feedback to tell me otherwise, and I promised to take constructive feedback seriously and not defensively, and also promised that my feelings weren’t THAT easily hurt, and he promised to bring things up that were bothering him before they got to the point where he couldn’t be calm about it.

    It didn’t stick immediately. We had to have another oh-God-please-just-TELL-me-this-stuff-and-I’ll-FIX-it-without-the-ANGST fight, and another talk about communication and so on, but that time it worked. Now we check in with each other every so often, just “Everything OK with us? Is there anything I need to be thinking about? Anything I’m doing that’s bugging you?” – and when one of us asks that question, the other has to answer HONESTLY, that’s very important. It works.

    TL:DR – if you’re avoiding talking about stuff with your partner because you’re afraid of hurting their feelings and/or having a fight, that’s a good way to end up having a BAD fight and REALLY hurting their feelings.

  17. Well all this is a tremendous relief to me. I grew up with the idea that *all* couples had fights, proper stand up, shouting, insult-hurling fights just short (or not) of physical violence. Being in a relationships where there’s never anything that I would call a “fight” took some getting used to and like the LW, for a long time I was waiting, in fear, for it to finally happen. It’s lovely to find such a chorus of folks in the same boat. In films, couples who don’t fight are either hiding things from each other, or one of them is about to die horribly, spurring the other into action.

    I think it’s worth mentioning that there may be other reactions that the LW may not expect, as well the argument she fears. LW’s may get upset and cry. He may feel dreadfully guilty and require a lot of reassurance that he’s not a terrible person for using a clumsy phrase. Or he may, as Anisoptera describes, fail to engage at all, which presents another problem entirely.

    Also, it may seem pretty obvious, but if the LW follows Commander Logic’s advice, it’s important to propose such meetings at a moment where everyone’s relaxed and there’s time to talk *then*. Because once you’ve given away the fact that there are things you worry about, you may need to tell him everything to save him hours or days of panic.

  18. Just Plain Neddy said:

    Grargh. I’d kinda like to do the regular meeting thing but I can’t. When I was a kid we’d have “family meetings” in which my mother would position us all around the dining table and talk at us about how her life wasn’t worth living because her children had ruined everything and we were so lucky to have her as a mother because nobody else would tolerate our shit (where shit = being children and making there be additional housework. We ruined her life by increasing the amount of housework by living there). “I nearly drove my car into a wall because you didn’t pick up your laundry. It’s your fault.” “Your dad and I nearly got divorced because you forgot to load the dishwasher. It’s your fault.” The words “family meeting” bring me out in a cold sweat to this day. While I think it might be useful I have no idea how to get around that.

    • Erin said:

      Wooow, that is some abusive shit. What other kids get implicitly (my parents are arguing, there must be something wrong with me when I can’t fix it), you got very explicitly.

      The point is to have a space where you can talk about stuff, yes? In my opinion, that doesn’t have to be a set date, if that’s uncomfortable for you. You could for example come up with a plan when to bring up grievances. Just a general “Could we make it work that we speak up when something’s bothering us right away?” And then you could talk whatever bothers you over in the moment or agree to talk about it later, but you could be sure it will be talked about.

      • Just Plain Neddy said:

        In general that’s pretty much what we do. We have a good relationship and tend to resolve things calmly. We’re also both worriers (I have clinical anxiety and he’s not too far off it) so “there’s something wrong but we’ll discuss it later” is a bad idea because our brains will reliably turn it into something much more horrific before later comes. Trouble is that some things are easily brought up immediately, like “I don’t like what you just said” and some things are a bit more difficult. There’s not an obvious time to bring up “dude I love you but you need to take better care of your teeth” for example. Those are the kind of things I struggle with.

        • commanderlogic said:

          Wow, your mom sounds like she held the complete antithesis of a functional Family Meeting. I totally get why the phrase gives you the heebies.

          IF you wanted to go with the concept though, just not the name, I think you could salvage it. The link I provided actually calls it “A Peek at the Week” and you could pick and choose what you want to deal with from it, and scrawl NEDDY AND NEDDY’S PARTNER ARE AMAZING in the “Thoughts” section.

          Team Neddy’s Weekly Scrum?
          Meal Planning TIme?
          Chore Wheel?
          Love-In?

          Or just keep doing what you’re doing. Sounds to me like you’ve found great partners in each other, and you’ll figure out what works best for you.

    • JenniferP said:

      Has the phrase “We need to talk?” ever not made anyone start sweating? Has “calm down!” ever made anyone feel calm? You are not alone in having bad associations with the Family Meeting!

      My dude and I don’t have Family Meetings, but since moving in we have “What are we gonna eat this week?” discussion, usually on Sundays, using this. It gets us at least figuring out what our respective weeks look like and figuring out other stuff besides groceries we need to take care of, like, “My parents are coming, so unpack the living room?” (We did.) Maybe start small and specific?

      • Mary said:

        See also bosses saying, “Can I just have a word with you in my office?” OH GOD OH GOD CLEARLY GOING TO GET FIRED.

        • Adele said:

          I can do this to my (11-16) students with “could you step out of the room, please?” – at that point, they KNOW they’re getting a stern word because I’ve got a strict limit on how hard I’ll tell a kid off in front of her peers.

          I underestimated it last week, when I was trying to demonstrate the idea of an intercept by asking a random girl to leave then intercepting her at the last moment. She and the class laughed, but it was very much “oh, thank fuck” laughter. I apologised, obviously.

      • LA said:

        My now-husband used the “We need to talk” phrase a few times while we were dating, and it freaked me out because I heard it and thought “oh my god, what is wrong?” when he just wanted to ask me…I don’t even remember now. Something totally mundane. Later, I mentioned to him that it was a pretty loaded phrase (neither of us dated a lot, and I suppose I was more familiar with the potential it had for a MAJOR conversation than he was), and how much it freaked me out those first couple of times, and he apologize for freaking me out and we had a good laugh about it. Now it’s actually become a running thing for us to use it for the complete opposite of major problems. “We need to talk” is basically our shorthand for “this is a tiny thing that is irking me but I am also possibly being unreasonably irked because I doubt you have any awareness of this, and I can live with it if things don’t change, but I’m going to mention it just in case I can get my way”.

        • commanderlogic said:

          OMG, we do the “non-important usage of “we need to talk”, too.”

          Me: Mr. Logic. (VERY SRS) We need to talk.
          Him: Yeah?
          Me: We have no red wine.
          Him: NOOOOOOOOOOOOOO! Is there any white?
          Me: Yes.
          Him: Perhaps, in time, we’ll move on.

          HIm: We need to talk about your inability to find the remote.
          Me: We do. I’m always sitting on it and then we can’t find it.
          Him: It’s ruining everything.
          Me: *I’M* ruining everything. With my butt.

          • I do this too, but with the phrase “I have a problem” instead. If I start a discussion with “I have a problem” then 90% of the time the “problem” will be something like “I have the ’90s Cheerios jingle stuck in my head”, and the other 10% of the time it’ll be an actual problem that is not the person I’m talking to’s fault. I had to reassure my current sweetie about this, because she was CONVINCED that every time I said it I was about to tell her she’d done something awful, when really it was more like this:

            Me: I have a problem.
            Sweetie: What’s the matter?
            Me: I’ve rewritten ‘Tik Tok’ in my head so that she’s brushing her teeth with a bottle of guac, and now I can’t unhear it.

    • Commander Banana said:

      Dang, are we related?! I remember my mother leaving a note for my brother and I that she would no longer be our mom because my brother left out some dirty dishes one night. (I was the Peacemaker and the Mess Cleaner Upper and my brother was the Troublemaker, which meant that by age nine I had chronic anxiety, ulcers, and was losing my hair because the strain of trying to keep the house clean and the peace between my parents was too much for Little Me.)

      I will never, ever forget that she did that and I will never, ever forgive her. We have a cordial but distant relationship now and I’m fine with that, but I will remember that until I die.

      • Erin said:

        Holy crap, I’m so sorry. That is … wow.

        • Commander Banana said:

          I know, right? I realized that when you’re a child, you don’t have any other experiences to compare yours with, and a limited perspective, so whatever happens to you seems…normal. And it wasn’t until I grew up a little and saw other people’s families that I realized, hey! This isn’t normal! This is deeply messed up!

          I think in some ways relationships are like that – it took one very very very bad relationship and one very very good one for me to go, ohhh, okay, relationships that work for me have X, Y, and Z, and not A, B, and C, and D is definitely not okay no matter what.

      • AnonForThis said:

        That’s textbook emotional abuse of children.
        My mom used to excel at it, mixing in suicide threats to guilt-trip us. Classic case of a malignant narcissist. It took me 29 years to finally realize it and to start caring for myself because she would only care about herself.

      • Astral said:

        Fellow Peacemaker (with two Troublemaker siblings) here who also tried so very hard to be an empath, because what will be the “right” thing to do this time. The Troublemakers realized early enough that no way was ever right…even if that was what you were told to do when you did it the wrong way the last time. I thought there *had* to be some logic I could figure out. I was way too far into adulthood living far away before I realized, “Hey this is definitely not they way I was instructed to do “thing”
        last time I visited, and it’s a totally random preference, wtf?

        Also, chronic anxiety was rampant in my family (notice the simple cause and effect in this thread??); I manifested the distress through a selection of active unhealthy stuff. Since I found my way to the npd (knowledgeably critical of diagnostic limitations and critiques!) lit, at least I can make so much more sense of that world of hurt I lived through! Work on assertiveness and stating my own needs and wants while worrying I’m asking for too much (we were always “too much of something”) and being totally self-centered is ongoing. I look forward to being able to have a relationship again, where I can try out all the awesome advice here!

  19. I know that scary fighty relationships do happen in real life. I tend to give the ol’ side-eye to couples who fight like that though (ESPECIALLY if it’s happening in front of me, because HELL NO). But mostly, I think reasonable people in healthy relationships do not really want to have massive fights about stuff. They just want to fix the problem, whatever it is.

    I truly do think that the reason the idea of The Great Fight is so prevalent in our culture is because it makes such good drama on TV. There is always a Big Fight in every romantic comedy ever (or at least a massive misunderstanding arising from a lack of communication). And then we get to have a big happy ending where everything is resolved and the music swells and there is kissing and making up, and everyone is happy. It’s very satisfying, on screen.

    IRL? Not so much.

    People have been telling me ‘life isn’t like a movie, you know’ for as long as I can remember. When I was a kid, I thought it just meant there wasn’t really any magic in real life. In my teens, I came to realise that real-life bad guys are nothing like evil genius maniac bad guys. And the older I get, the more I realise that SO. MUCH. of the preconceptions I have about life came from TV and movies, and I have to keep learning over and over again how they are different.

    There doesn’t have to be a Big Fight, LW. You can talk stuff out calmly and that is totally okay. Loud relationship drama is a lot more fun to watch than it is to live through, and I’m seriously skeptical of the idea that intense and emotional fighting is either healthy or necessary.

    • (LW) Conflict Avoidant said:

      I think this is so much it. So much of my ‘How To Life’ came from books, TV and films, and in fiction, not-fighting means a relationship is devoid of passion, or something. So I think I kind of assumed that everybody fights at some point, and that fights often involve somebody sleeping on the sofa or certainly lots of shouting.

  20. (LW) Conflict Avoidant said:

    Hey everybody, LW here!

    First off I want to say how amazing it is to see so many people who feel the same way. The main response to my letter is so so helpful but all the comments from other people saying what has helped for them are really helpful too.

    A lot of you are talking about family backgrounds and past relationships, and I think that’s a big thing for me. One of the main reasons I’m afraid of fighting is because, growing up, fighting with my parents definitely wasn’t a two way thing. It was me being yelled at, mean words used against, punished. Often called a liar if I tried to talk back. A lot of things that looking back make me think ‘hey, that was kinda abusive behaviour’.

    Both me and my partner also previously had long term relationships which in a lot of ways were just plain Bad. Not even that the people in them were bad, I have a very good friendship with my ex now, but when we were together we just fought all the time. Shouting, walking out of rooms, punching walls. That’s the kind of thing I’m talking about being scared of. It’s the kind of thing I’m scared of happening in my current relationship. It also means I can kind of see where a lot of my partner’s good intentions in trying to make me feel better come from, because I know that a previous partner of his, like me, had a poor body image, and unlike me, probably really liked being told she was thin. Whereas I kind of want to be told “your weight doesn’t matter”. I would say that different dynamics work for different relationships, but I’m not sure either of those relationships were really working so those coping mechanisms are really just… that. They prolonged the relationships but didn’t fix them.

    The problem is that as soon as something I don’t like happens, I put up a wall. Not intentionally, and I’m definitely not intending to seem like I’m giving him the silent treatment or whatever, but I kind of emotionally shut down and just go really quiet, and it can take me quite a long time to be ready to say “hey, I didn’t like that”. By which points, things have moved on and it seems too late. If it’s a big thing, he tends to notice, and we’ll talk it through not necessarily right away, but once I’ve got over the Bad Feelings that whatever just happened caused. Because generally these things are statements that don’t just cause me to respond with “oh no my lovely partner said a thing that upset me” but a whole load of other feelings triggered by that statement like, for instant with the weight example, all my fears from over a decade of body issues coming flooding back.

    Somebody asked if it was that we never fight or we never disagree. We probably do disagree about things, but don’t really argue necessarily. It’s a calmer thing than what I imagine as a fight. We do sometimes have moments when there’s something difficult that’s come up, and we usually both cry and/or have a smoke, but I guess I don’t class that as an argument because… we’re always on the same side? It’s never “I think X and I’m right and you’re wrong because you think Y”. It’s usually something like I’m crying because [mental health thing] and he’s upset too because he doesn’t know how to fix it. And we’ve definitely had big talks where we’ve sort of disagreed but we’ve never really been firmly stuck on our own arguments, more like we’ve been laying out our arguments and coming to a decision. Which I guess is a pretty good thing to do, but I’m sure at some point we’ll come to a decision we have to make which we both feel strongly about.

    I do really like the idea of a regular time to check in, but it’s pretty daunting. As the Captain said above, saying “we need to talk” is TERRIFYING. I also feel wary of saying “we should do this to make our relationship better!” because that makes it sound like there’s something wrong with our relationship and I think up until this point we’ve been in a happy bubble of ‘awesome coupleness’. (The planning food sounds like an ace idea though. That is definitely a thing I’d quite like to change, spending ages each day struggling to decide what to eat).

    We do have times sometimes where we have these talks but not as often as I’d like, especially since when we do have them, they’re super helpful. But they’re a spontaneous thing and it scares me a lot to try and make them more official. I think it is something I’d like to do, though. So I’m going to try hard to make that happen. And I think the Captain’s suggestion of starting small and specific might be a starting point, and maybe setting a regular time to discuss meals will help with that too.

    Thanks for all your help!

    • commanderlogic said:

      SO glad that everyone could help you!

      And word. “We need to talk” is scary as hell! I’d posit that it’s not so much, as you say, “we should do this to make our relationship better” but rather “we should do this to keep our relationship awesome.” It is awesome! You are awesome at relationshipping. But if the winningest sportball (or ice disk) team in the world needs to have regular meetings to maintain their abilities and record, you probably do too.

      There is no time when you will achieve relationship greatness and then never have to do anything relationship-related again. It’s always in motion, which is both a relief and terrifying. You are allowed to try all kinds of things and have them fail. Maybe meetings won’t work for you, and that’s ok. Maybe they’ll work for a few years and then you feel like you should try something else, and that’s ok. Like I said up in my post, I tried judging “the right time” for a long part of our relationship, and it got us through just fine. Nothing is set in stone as the One Way We Will Always Do Things.

      Well, one thing for us. The only thing we always do and always WILL do is say “I love you” before we go to sleep.
      In case a meteor hits.
      ROMANCE.

      • (LW) Conflict Avoidant said:

        It was super helpful, your response was exactly what I needed! I think I definitely do need to remind myself that there is no Point of Maximum Relationship and that it’s okay for things to change around when they need to.

    • clodia said:

      Hey, LW, I’m so glad you’re getting things sorted out!

      I’ve been in a relationship with my partner for 10 years, and have been living together for 7. We used to fight all the time, and not in a good way. Now we have discussions and the occasional heated moment. The biggest difference comes down to something you said in your reply:

      “we’re always on the same side”

      We started having the most luck in discussing things well once we were able to remember that we’re a team and that we want this to work, and that it’s okay to bring things up because the other person wants to make things work. I respect him and want him to be happy, and he feels the same way for me. Even when we disagree vehemently, it really all comes down to this. So it sounds like you’re on the right track!

      It can be scary to express yourself when you’re not sure what the reception will be. You’ve identified a lot of reasons why you’re sometimes scared, and I can understand them. Practice makes permanent. The more you can bring something up, discuss it calmly, and have it work out okay, the easier it will be.

      There’s lots of good advice going on here, so I don’t want to be too lengthy. Just remember: you’re on the same team, disagreeing doesn’t mean you’re not on the same team, feeling hurt by something he said doesn’t mean you’re not on the same team, it just means you need to explain how that wasn’t the most perfect thing he’s ever said to you, and he’ll want to listen to you, because you’re on the same team.

      Good luck! I know y’all will do awesome.

    • LA said:

      Re:a previous partner of his, like me, had a poor body image, and unlike me, probably really liked being told she was thin. Whereas I kind of want to be told “your weight doesn’t matter.”

      Have you tried telling him exactly that? Because if he doesn’t know that’s what you want to hear, it’s going to be hard for him to come up with that, even though it’s probably a sentiment he would agree with. I’d even phrase it pretty much like that: “I know So-and-So liked to hear that, but it actually makes me feel worse, even though I don’t think that’s what you’re intending. I want to know that you like me whatever my weight is.”

      I have a lot of body issues, and it’s taken a lot of discussion to help my husband understand what sounds to him like a compliment doesn’t always sound that way to me. Just because I told him I don’t want him to tell me I look like I’ve lost weight/whatever and that I’d prefer compliments that aren’t weight-specific doesn’t mean he’s just parroting back what I want to hear.

      • (LW) Conflict Avoidant said:

        This is another thing I’d like to work on (maybe in a therapy environment) because I have Weird Irrational Jealousy over my partner’s exes. So I would love to say that more than anything, but that extra layer of jealousy on top of the sad leads to my brain just totally shutting down.

        And then by the time I feel okay talking again, it’s a happy moment and I don’t want to drag it back into an area which will upset me.

    • It’s never too late to bring up a thing that annoyed you, as long as you can remember what it was. Especially since you know that you shut down at the time. So you can start with “You know I shut down at the time something unpleasant happens, right? Well, four days ago you said this thing, you might not even remember, but it hurt me in this way.”

      You can do this anytime. It doesn’t have to be a Thing. You don’t have to preface it with a “Let’s Talk” or anything.

      You can also set up, like, a corkboard, or send emails, or find some other way of notifying each other that there’s a minor issue to be addressed at the next convenient moment.

      • Tabitha said:

        Yes. If your partner is really on your side it doesn’t matter when you bring it up, he should still listen to you and respect your feelings. It can also make it a lot easier to bring up in the moment if he slips up. I’ve found it less stressful to remind my partner that he agreed not to say X than it is to start that discussion from scratch if I’m still hurt by X.

    • FlyBy said:

      “The problem is that as soon as something I don’t like happens, I put up a wall. Not intentionally, and I’m definitely not intending to seem like I’m giving him the silent treatment or whatever, but I kind of emotionally shut down and just go really quiet, and it can take me quite a long time to be ready to say “hey, I didn’t like that”. By which points, things have moved on and it seems too late.”

      Yeah, I know what you mean. That freeze-and-say-nothing response seems to be a pretty common defensive mechanism in people who have been abused for daring to object to bad treatment. The good news is that it does relax with time and practice, and you’ll get more capable of saying stuff in the moment. Therapy helps too.

      Until then, it’s totally valid to bring stuff up later. I usually say something to the effect of “Hey, a couple of days ago you said this joke. I’m sorry I didn’t say anything at the moment, but it’s been bothering me. Could you please stop using that joke?” And my husband says “Okay” and goes back to whatever he’s doing. After having that experience half a dozen times, it got a lot easier to speak up sooner.

  21. AMM said:

    This may be stating the obvious, but: when you do fight/disagree, it’s important to respect (!= agree with) your partner’s point of view, esp. zir feelings, no matter how stupid or wrong they may seem to you.

    This was not obvious to my ex. One of the big problems in my marriage was that when I tried to explain my point of view or even just my feelings to my ex, they would slide off her mind like it was made of Teflon(tm). I distinctly remember a discussion where I said something like, I feel X, or maybe X is how Y seems to me, and she said, no you don’t feel that way, you feel Z. What can you say to that?

    She also insisted that the problem in our relationship was that we didn’t have enough screaming fights. One time, I think within a few months of when I filed for divorce, she talked me into going down into the basement to have the screaming fight she thought we needed. I screamed on cue, but it resolved nothing. And my younger son to this day remembers how awful he felt hearing us (and still feels.)
    tl;dr: BAD idea.

    • Erin said:

      What the HELL, scheduled screaming fights (scheduled healthy thing okay, but scheduled everyone feels awful thing: nope). And “you don’t feel that” is major gas lighting, so glad you got divorced.

      • AMM said:

        Is it still gaslighting if it didn’t make me doubt myself? (What it mainly did was to, over time, convince me that discussion was impossible with her. Even now, I don’t discuss with her, I just take unilateral action.)

        As for the scheduled screaming fight: I had serious doubts about it even at the time, but if you’ve ever gotten divorced from someone you once really cared about, you know how you want to know you’ve tried everything before you pull the plug.

        • Erin said:

          I didn’t mean to shame you because of the screaming fights (saying to be sure it’s been said). I totally get that you would try everything, even if it felt weird. I mean that’s how we sometimes discover stuff that works great for us. As with those fights, I think that falls under stuff where you only discover after a while that your feeling of uneasiness with the whole thing was justified. Been there, done that.

          Re gaslighting: You could argue semantics. To me, roughly, gaslighting is behavior that is intended to or (not necessarily knowingly) designed to make the recipient doubt themself over time. Just like behavior can be abusive, even when you are not strongly affected by it (e.g. you have great boundaries and a reliable support system), behavior can be gaslighting, even when it does not make you doubt yourself.

  22. Megan M. said:

    My husband and I have been together for over seven years now and I wouldn’t say we’ve had a fight, but as “Katie” said up above, we have had Hard Talks, Sometimes With Crying. We disagree about plenty of things, but as other people have said, we don’t want to hurt each other. We want to work things out.

    My very first serious boyfriend and I, however, never fought or disagreed about anything, but that was because I was too afraid to be myself around him or disagree with him. It took me a while to realize it, but he was a controlling jerk and eventually I broke up with him.

    My relationship with my husband feels so much better than my relationship with Controlling Jerk did, because I feel safe enough to be myself, and disagree, and have Hard Talks. I know that my husband isn’t going to Stop Loving Me Because I’m Not Perfect.

    LW, I love Commander Logic’s advice to you. I think you have to stop being terrified of disagreeing or bringing up things that you would like changed, because it will do more harm to your relationship than good. I wish you the best of luck and I believe that your relationship is going to be much stronger after this.

  23. Sascha said:

    Just wanted to share a recent-ish situation with OP where we *could* have had a big fight, and the days preceeding it had me so frazzled I was having panic attacks.

    Background: Mr. Sascha and I have been together for nearly 9 years, and our relationship is characterized by “not fighting,” as you describe, OP. We don’t often disagree, and when we do, we usually talk it out. We employ most of the methods Commander Logic describes, and this has worked well for us. In the early stages of our relationship, I had thoughts similar to yours where I thought, why aren’t we fighting? are we supposed to be fighting? are we communicating enough? By working through some things and using those methods CL describes, I generally moved past those types of thoughts. We had never had a Big Fight before, or anything that would really be considered “worthy” of a big fight.

    So fast forward to several months ago. I got screwed over by a credit card. I found out and was terrified to tell Mr. Sascha because this meant DEBT. It was sort of my fault because I hadn’t watched things as closely as I should have. Like I said, I was having panic attacks at just the thought of bringing up the conversation. I really had no basis for this fear, as he is generally pretty cool and keeps his head about most everything. So anyway, I brought up The Thing. I told him The Thing, apologized for allowing it to happen, and told him my plan for fixing it. He paused, and reflected, and said he was angry at the situation, and he had some anger at me, but agreed with my plan and said “we’ll get through this together.”

    So he acknowledged his feelings towards me, but he didn’t shout or insult me or make me feel awful. He wasn’t happy about The Thing, but he was willing to move forward and work on it together.

    TL;DNR: we had a situation that COULD have been the Big Fight, but it turned out alright because we have learned to communicate in a healthy manner, using the techniques Commander Logic describes. So even if you do get to a point where you have something that could be a Big Fight, it probably won’t be nearly as bad you imagine it will, if you focus on healthy communication and problem resolution methods.

    • Mary said:

      Saying, “I am actually really angry about this” is ridiculously powerful, isn’t it? I grew up in a house where you shouted and stomped to PROVE how angry you were, and learning that it was possible to be angry, acknowledge that you are angry and yet not make everyone around you bow down before your mighty angerness was a huge thing for me.

      I remember one of our most “successful” fights being when my partner had legitimately fucked something up – I think she was supposed to organise tickets or annual leave or something for a thing that I was looking forward to, and she’d forgotten. Not like her! We realised she hadn’t done it and that it was too late and the Thing wasn’t going to happen right before I left for work one morning, and I said, “Oh well, that’s a shame, it doesn’t matter.”

      And then, over the course of the day, I realised I was actually really angry and disappointed, and got angrier and angrier over the course of the day. I managed to dredge up at least TWO other similar incidents, which turned into how this ALWAYS happens, and what’s more she thought it was NO BIG DEAL and DIDN’T EVEN CARE, and I came home totally steaming for a fight which I’d been rehearsing all day in my head. I stepped in the door (she was working from home at the time) and said, “You know, I’m actually not OK about this, I’m really angry. It’s not OK!” She said, “I know, I’ve been feeling bad about it all day. I’m so sorry, it was really stupid of me. Shall I just get out of your way and let you be angry?”

      Well, *that* took the wind out of my sails. “OK!” I said, angrily. I stomped angrily into the living room, sat angrily on the sofa and angrily read my Kindle, whilst it angrily got dark. My partner stayed upstairs working, and then came down and made herself some dinner, and I … slightly angrily hoped she’d bring me some dinner. She finished her dinner and went back upstairs. I deflated, mostly non-angrily. And then I crept out of the living room and upstairs and said, “Sweetie? I’m bored of being angry now? Can we be friends again?”

      It was such a good lesson for me that I can be angry, I can say I’m angry, I can express your anger … and the anger will burn itself out in a few hours anyway and I can move on. Shouting and stomping not required!

      • Sascha said:

        I really like this story. :) I grew up in a household where anger was usually suppressed. I often acted as the peacekeeper and bottled things up, so having the freedom to say “I’m angry” is powerful in experiencing that feeling in a constructive way.

      • Natalie said:

        “I stomped angrily into the living room, sat angrily on the sofa and angrily read my Kindle, whilst it angrily got dark.”

        That was amazing. =)

      • greening said:

        That is a great story, and makes me smile.

      • (LW) Conflict Avoidant said:

        These stories are super helpful, thanks for sharing. I think it’s important for me to remember that people can be angry with each other and that’s okay but not necessarily… blame the other person as a person or think that they’re the Worst Person Ever, if that makes sense? Like, it’s about the actions rather than the person. I’m the kind of person who’d respond to “I am angry with you right now” by thinking “nooo I am horrible and terrible and the worst person ever and ALL OF THE GUILT and also my partner now hates me”.

        I think I need to remember that if my partner gets angry at me, it does mean I did a bad thing so should be aware of how my actions have affected him and I should try hard not to upset him again, but that it doesn’t mean he hates me.

        I think I’m used to anger and fights leaving to Massive Seething Grudges that last forever, basically. And the idea that as each fight occurs, the relationship gets a bit more hatey and grudgey. But no, I think fights can occur and the people can still love each other just as much as before. And that’s the thing to remember, that it won’t ruin things.

    • Whereas I had a very similar situation recently which went in the completely opposite direction. My partner got screwed over by bank charges, but instead of asking to borrow/have £50 from my account to sort it out quickly, he pretended it never happened and lied to me about it for months, all the while accruing a.rolling mess of overdraft fees that keep knocking over into the next month, and the next, and the next…

      Six months later, he told me what had happened, and the elaborate lies he’d constructed to keep me from finding out (that his bank had cancelled his card due to a fraud attempt, so I had to cover much more of the bills that I usually did, which was financially crippling for me on my low pay. I had to cancel some important healthcare things due to this.).

      Needless to say, I was furious. There was an argument. It was the mother of all arguments. I was so angry that I was shaking, and felt utterly humiliated that he’d lied to me for months, even when I specifically asked if there was anything wrong and anything I could do to help. He said that he’d lied because he hadn’t wanted to fight, and because he’d seen himself as “the breadwinner” and for him to not be able to provide for me made him feel like a failure.

      To which my response was: “How on earth is this the better option?! How is this ‘providing’ anything for me?”

      I felt betrayed that he felt he couldn’t talk to me, but I explained that I felt me were a team, and that we should be able to work on these problems together as a team. We worked ourselves out of the debt together, but my trust in him regarding financial issues has been thoroughly smashed. We’re working on building it back up, but it’s going to be a long time before I trust implicitly that he wouldn’t ever do something like that again.

      TL;DR – Avoiding a discussion in the short term often just makes everything snowball into a bigger problem.

  24. Robiewankenobie said:

    Hello! I’m going to admit, I don’t have time to scroll through all these awesome comments right now, so please forgive me if I repeat.

    I’ve been a conflict-avoider my whole life – my dad was a debate coach and had trouble dialing that back when talking to his children (and by trouble, I mean that he never dialed it back). Conflict was a messy, yucky thing for me.

    Good news! I found a fantastic dude to marry. Bad news…his family saved every hurt and piled them together until they exploded. So, I avoid conflict…and so does he…and kablooey! I’m a problem solver, though. And I adore his pea-pickin’ heart. So, I learned about conflict. And then I learned more. And then I started a non-profit to teach people how to peacefully handle conflict! Turns out? These are just skills. Skills that everyone can learn!

    “I messages” are the A #1 way to positively enter into a conflict or state a request. They come in a handy-dandy easy-to-use formula. Here is a link to a pretty great explanation: http://www.only-effective-communication-skills.com/imessages.html

    –break time is over, so I have to go, but I did want to mention that my co-trainer at the non-profit has been doing a lot of work with the “non-violent communication” book series and highly recommends it.

    ~rwkn

    • FlyBy said:

      I’ve become wary of “I messages” since I grew up with a dad whose reply to anything beginning with “I feel” was “Well if you feel that way, that’s your choice and I can’t do anything about it.” Any suggestions for dealing with those types of people?

      • Mary said:

        That is an absolutely clear signal that they aren’t invested in making you happy. You can try and call them out on that: “It’s true that you can’t change how I feel, but if you care about the fact that I feel sad/frustrated/angry/unappreciated, then please listen to me tell you about it and what I think you might be able to do to help. Do you care?”

        Sometimes they will care but have genuinely internalised the idea that they can’t affect other people, and making a clear statement about something they can do to demonstrate that they care will be a good kick up the arse. But sometimes it’s just an excuse for “I don’t actually care enough to put the energy into hearing about how you feel.” If it’s the latter, unfortunately there isn’t much else to do except hear the message that they don’t care and adjust your own expectations accordingly. You can’t get someone to change unless they care about changing for you, so you have to find another way of working around the immoveable object. It can take a long time to do that and feel OK about it, though.

        • golden peanut said:

          OK, so this is a major problem I have with therapy and self-help. One of the things you are taught is that you are not responsible for how other people feel or how other people react. I feel that is a blithe way of brushing off the effect of your actions on people. “OK, I didn’t do the dishes, but I didn’t make you feel angry about this, you are responsible for your feelings.” It’s troublesome in reverse, too: “Partner put my sweater in the dryer even though I’ve asked them not to and it shrunk, but they didn’t make me angry about this, I’m responsible for my own feelings.” I’m interested in thoughts on how to balance, “One’s actions affect other people and sometimes others feel bad after something you did,” with “Everybody is responsible for their own feelings.”

          • golden peanut said:

            And I just realized that my question might be a derail from the original problem. Sorry about that. Just ignore me if I’m not contributing to the thread at hand.

          • (LW) Conflict Avoidant said:

            I know what you mean and I think I definitely stick to “I” statements when it’s absolutely not the person’s fault (eg “I find this innocuous word that other people are totally okay with to be really hurtful because reasons so please don’t use it to apply to me”) but then I think there’s nothing wrong with being more direct depending on the situation (“you keep saying the word despite me telling you not to and that’s harmful to my MH”).

            I guess maybe I’d be more likely to make it about me the first time but more about their actions on subsequent occasions? Like in your example, those were things that the partner did despite being asked to do otherwise, so I think it’s okay to make it clear that you are upset because of Thing They Did rather than you being upset because How You React To Things.

            IDK, though. Not the best at communicating, as is evident by my need to write in! :D

          • FlyBy said:

            Hm, I’ve always heard “your feelings are real and valid” as one of the key messages of therapy. The distinction is that you’re responsible for how you *handle* your emotions. That means not using them as an excuse to hurt other people, but it also means listening to your own emotions and taking care of yourself accordingly. Sometimes it means giving yourself a break, sometimes it means pursuing something you’re interested in, sometimes it means standing up for yourself. It doesn’t mean that you don’t feel your feelings, or that they’re completely under conscious control (hah!), or that they’re irrelevant – quite the opposite. They’re important messages from your brain to you, and you’re responsible to listen to them and take action as needed.

            Concerning other people’s emotions, it means that you’re responsible for being a decent human being, but no more. Sometimes you can be perfectly decent and other people still feel hurt or angry. The Captain discusses situations like that all the time. It doesn’t mean you don’t care, it just means that your responsibility is limited to your actions and you can’t manage someone else’s feelings for them. Does that make sense?

            Sometimes self-help stuff goes down the rabbit trail of not giving other people space in your head, or not letting your emotions rule your life, and the like. It’s a good bit of advice that has its place, but sometimes the line gets blurred between that and “you should be able to control everything you feel”, which isn’t true in the slightest. It’s supposed to be more about keeping emotions in perspective and handling them in constructive ways. The Captain has a good post about the Rageasaurus that talks more about it, if I recall correctly.

          • atma said:

            I would say that you are responsible for handling your own emotions. Being in a relationship (at least as an adult) is a voluntary thing. If you bring up your feelings to a partner who doesn’t care about them, you can not make them change. You can take that information into account when you decide if it’s worth it to you to be with that person.

            Of course, feelings aren’t also reasons. Sometimes it goes the other way – if one partner feels, for instance, left out and lonely when the other person does their separate friend-things, it is not necessarily a reason that they have to give up all their friends and interests.

            I think it’s important to know we have the right to our feelings, feelings aren’t “wrong”. We are responsible for our actions. Using a self help idea in order not to take responsibility in the relationship is more of a rules-lawyer thing to do.

  25. TextGrrl said:

    My DH and I have been together for 13 years and it took us a loooooong time to learn how to fight. We’re pretty good at it now, but boy did it ever take a lot of hard work and really, really awkward conversations and lots of learning new patterns.

    One big thing we had to struggle with was different ways of fighting in our families. My family is very much the big, loud, knock-down-drag-out fight with drama, yelling, screaming, insincere insults and exeunt with maximum huff. That is what I was used to, and my family had rules . . . you could use some insults but not others, you couldn’t compromise on (x) topic, etc. No physical altercations. And somewhere in there, you have to have the forgiveness ritual – you must ask, and be granted, forgiveness to signify that the fight is over. Not healthy, in sooooo many ways.

    In addition, in my family it was pretty common to always talk tangentially about what you really want or really mean. You would say something, but the true meaning would be off at a 45 degree angle. I was used to this, too. I could function, but communicating effectively and receiving communication.

    My husband’s family has worked on conversation in both structured and unstructured ways – they took communication classes together. That’s pretty awesome. He’s also very stubborn and convinced that he’s right, so he has this idea that since he took a class, his way of communicating *must* be *right.* He would often tell me *You’re not doing it right.* Just what you want to hear when you’re angry.

    Well, he was right some of the time, of course. He kept telling me that he doesn’t second guess what people say and that he always says exactly what he means – when I was trying to receive the 45 degree interpretation, and act on it. It took me a long time to believe that he was saying exactly what he meant, and that the 45 degree things I was hearing weren’t really there. Of course, it didn’t help that he would yell, “I never said that! You’re putting words in my mouth!”

    The first time I raised my voice with him he *freaked out.* He told me that wasn’t good communication and that he couldn’t take it when I would yell. So I stopped. He also couldn’t handle me crying – he was convinced that I was trying to manipulate him. I explained that it’s just how I let out emotion – I’ve been socialized to express sadness and anger through tears (that’s another issue). He finally understood and now just lets me get on with crying.

    He would still raise his voice, though. When I pointed out that he could raise his voice but he’d asked me not to do it, he *freaked out* again. He said I was trying to keep him from expressing himself. When I explained that a raised voice brought back bad memories of my own family, though, he made a conscious effort to keep from raising his voice, and when he doesn’t succeed, he stops himself. That means so much to me, it’s hard to express.

    So those are the bad old patterns we had to get through – and we did! Now, we check in frequently about our emotions and we make sure to discuss upcoming social engagements and needs pretty frequently. If we have a disagreement, we take it in chunks – if one person is experiencing too much anger to keep talking, we take a break, and then start talking again later. The result of this is that we’ve talked over the same thing over and over and over again, sometimes without resolution – but it’s the respect for each other and the will to keep talking about it, to keep trying to find a way through, that’s working.

    We still aren’t perfect. There are some exeunt with maximum huffs. That used to really bother me, because I saw it as giving up on the conversation. Now, I see it as a symptom to treat – a symptom of strong emotion. Address the emotion before continuing to discuss the subject – and that is working wonders. Make space to discuss feelings and how they affect the topic, take some time to offer comfort. It is difficult to stick to that with an angry person, to stay through the anger and be present until it’s possible to discuss the topic. But for us, that is what’s working.

    • Kelly L. said:

      Your family sounds like my ex’s! Everything was a shouting match. Couldn’t find the phillips head screwdriver? Screaming match. Exeunt in a huff. Etc. Right down to the forgiveness ritual, which I never did quite know or understand. I’d think we’d made up our fight and he’d get mad because I “hadn’t forgiven him,” when in fact I just didn’t know the precise ritual for forgiving him.

      And I was raised in a household where shouting was a Big Deal, and it was only allowed to my father. Only he could shout, and when he was shouting, he was ROYALLY PISSED OFF and had saved up resentments for months or years and would sling horrible insults. When Ex shouted, I reacted like he was my dad, and assumed he really was volcanically pissed and would get correspondingly upset. But in his family, shouting matches ensued every time someone was mildly annoyed, and then blew over quickly, and so he couldn’t understand why I thought he was actually, you know, angry.

  26. Felicity said:

    I cannot believe there are 54 comments and none of them are useless off-topic flings about your Mulder/Scully caption. So I’ll do it: Chris Carter is the one person on the planet who went out of his way to depict a functional, caring platonic relationship between male and female partners, and emphasized that it was and always would be platonic, and nooooooooo everyone still had to make it Sam and Diane. Not everything is Moonlighting, people! You maniacs! You blew it up!

    geroffmylawn

    Signed because I really should own this unconstructive piece of fluffery like a brave person,
    Felicity
    who will now actually read all the comments.

    • commanderlogic said:

      HA! I’m actually 100% with you in Platonia. Mulder + Scully = BFFs != Twu wuv. At some point, I need to do an essay about how friendships get short shrift in most storytelling, and romantic love is seen as the end-all be-all. It’s not true to reality, and it means that we have very few scripts from media about how to be FRIENDS.

      • felicityanne said:

        Yay! I agree with you so much about friendships, and I’d love to see that essay!

      • Esti said:

        Are you watching Elementary? Sherlock and Watson (Jonny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu) have a fantastic, deep friendship and the creator has sworn up and down he’s never going to let them get romantic. I deeply adore everything about their relationship, and most especially that it’s entirely non-romantic.

        • felicityanne said:

          I had heard only a bit about that, and I have been thinking of giving it a try :) Thanks for the recommendation!

  27. Commander Banana said:

    I think two different things going on in this question.

    One of the things I had to learn when I was wee in Relationshipland is that you can fight without it meaning that you have to end the relationship. I dated someone for two years who absolutely didn’t understand that fighting didn’t mean you had to dump the other person, which meant that we fought, and broke up, and got back together, approximately 4.7 million times by my count over the course of two years.

    It was exhausting and emotionally battering. This person (and, also, me) didn’t understand how to have a disagreement without it escalating to a fight without it escalating to LET’S JUST BREAK UP THEN.

    Yikes.

    I think that having a successful disagreement with your partner – and by successful I mean, you talk it out without hurt feelings/grudges and come to a mutually satisfying agreement – are like any other life skill. It takes practice to get good at it. Even people who absolutely can’t stand confrontation can get good at it! Sometimes it’s just as simple as reframing it so that it doesn’t feel like confrontation – maybe have the discussion out in public, sitting side by side, instead of angrily squaring off in the living room and chucking pillows at each other.

    The second part of this question is a little more troubling. Dear LW, your mental illness, ability to contribute, etc., all aside, you do deserve to be happy! Taking care of each other is what partners do, and this does not mean that you aren’t ever allowed to be unhappy or to disagree. This sounds like something you need to unpack in a safe space, maybe with a competent and trusted therapist, so that you can be comfortable and confident in using your words to ask for what you need.

    • (LW) Conflict Avoidant said:

      Wow yeah, the whole ‘being able to fight without breaking up’ thing is something I’ve struggled to get into my head. Because in the choice between fight and flight, I’m definitely flight. I’m constantly looking ahead in my relationships and working out the next big point of conflict and whether it’s worth the ‘risk’. Even tiny conflicts make me panic and think ‘maybe I should get out now before I’m completely emotionally invested’. I think it’s better now I’m in a relationship that is much more stable.

      And yeah, I’m working on going back to therapy at the moment. It’s definitely something I could use.

      • felicityanne said:

        Wonderful! Therapy is wonderful, and so is knowing yourself.

        I call the tendency to flight being a “bailer” because I am a nerd and it’s a Buffy reference. But I think it’s good to know that you’re that person, so you don’t actually start thinking it’s a reasonable response to everything, and so you don’t actually put it on the table when it’s just your jerkbrain saying “Relationships are hard! You should ride off into the distance on your motorcycle/Appaloosa! Then you won’t need or hurt anyone but yourself!” or “It’s so much work to fix everything! BURN IT DOWN!”

        Not that I, umm, have any experience with the Post-Apocalyptic Cowboy Loner Jerkbrain. *shifty*

        • Muse142 said:

          “Post-Apocalyptic Cowboy Loner Jerkbrain.”
          SO MUCH LOVE

      • Commander Banana said:

        Yeah, it didn’t finally click for me until I was in my mid-20s, and then it was like “Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh I gettttttttt it.” My parents didn’t model good arguing skills when I was growing up, so it was, quite simply, something I hadn’t learned. It took me getting into a relationship with someone who absolutely never raised his voice and refused to escalate arguments, so even when we disagreed it was always in a very gentle way, and then years went by, and then I realized, holy moley, I could get into a giant fight with him tomorrow and we’d still be together! Amazing!

        I mean, I definitely think part of it is constantly envisioning you and your partner on the same team – Team Us! – and not in opposite corners of the ring, so the argument isn’t how I win, but how do WE win together?

        And, just speaking from experience (and I don’t think this is germane to the LW), if you’re having the same fight over and over, theeeeeeeeeeeeeere might be a problem there.

  28. salted_caramel said:

    Lots of commenters are saying they rarely disagree with their partners, and awesome! But the flip side is that you can OFTEN disagree and still not have “fights” (in the mean words/screaming/punching walls/storming out sense of the word).

    My husband and I are both very smart and very opinionated. We disagree (have different opinions on) something almost every day – a current event, a political issue, how to optimize closet space. Almost every day! And we do it respectfully – we listen, we state our opinion, we find a compromise solution for issues that need solving, or we just reach the “agree to disagree” point on intellectual topics. If it’s something we’re both passionate about, the debate can get heated, but there’s no name-calling or storming out. Sometimes there are Hard Talks, Perhaps With Crying that others have mentioned – because sometimes, there are hard things that life throws at you, and you have to manage them.

    I have a friend who would look at us having these daily small disagreements and say, “OMG you guys FIGHT all the time.” Because to her, any disagreement in a relationship – no matter how friendly, respectful, or insignificant – equals a fight. When she says, “My husband and I NEVER fight,” she really means that she bites her tongue and goes along with whatever he says, which leads to resentment and frustration that gets vented to me rather than shared constructively with her partner.

    I think this is what a lot of people mean when they express the sentiment that it’s healthy to “argue” in a relationship – it’s healthy to be honest about and respectful of differing opinions and needs as they arise; it’s not healthy for one or both partners to bottle up their own opinions/needs for the sake of keeping the disagreement tally at 0.

    • Sascha said:

      I’m glad you made this distinction. My best friend and her husband have a relationship similar to what you described, although sometimes they get more passionate in their tone of voice, and when they first got together, it looked a lot like “fighting” to me. But they’ve been working on a communication style throughout the years that suits them best, just as I have with my husband, and although they look very different, they achieve the same goal – talking openly and even disagreeing without hurting the other person.

  29. LW, this suggestion may not be for you, because of your and your partner’s history. But for people who are not triggered by yelling voices…

    I sometimes have high emotional variability. I don’t fight with yelling or anything like that; when I get truly upset, I’ll cry or shut down, but usually for our conflicts my partner and I are calm and negotiating and compassionate with each other. We are sometimes surprised, when something happens and then we don’t have a fight and then we have a moment of “Huh, with many couples, that would have been a HUGE fight. Cool.”

    But anyway, sometimes I have the emotional feeling of wanting to yell, and my husband is the one who is there. Instead of taking myself away, I will loudly tell him how awesome his and escalate until I am yelling how much I love him. If I am grumpy and turn any yelling on me, I make sure to escalate the topic to ridiculousness, so that AND I WAS LATE TO WORK AGAIN eventually ends up with AND THAT IS WHY THE UNIVERSE IS GOING TO EXPLODE, EXCEPT YOU SAVED US ALL, YOU GORGEOUS AWESOME MAN. My husband is, generally, bemused and amused by this.

    But sometimes when our discussions get a little more heated, and my voice starts to get louder, I find myself following the previously established verbal escalation pattern. So it might go something like “no, that’s completely WRONG HOW CAN YOU ARGH I LOVE YOU RAAAAAR DINOSAURS ARE MONKEYS wait, what?” Then we laugh, and we can decide to postpone or start over with calmer heads.

    Obviously, not every couple can successfully defuse tension during conflict by implementing a randomness and positivity generator in one partner, but it was a totally useful way for me to turn my emotional instability and tendency to catastrophize into a force for good in our relationship.

    • unlurking said:

      (ahahahaha but you are so great!)
      ARGH I LOVE YOU RAAAAAR DINOSAURS ARE MONKEYS!! is the perfect response for potentially anything, really.

    • Lieutenant Right said:

      I’ve always been afraid of yelling — especially since my parents yell and I sometimes slip into that as well, so I LOVE THIS. I’ve done this a couple times when fighting with parents, but I will adopt it all the next few times I get yelly!

  30. felicityanne said:

    I definitely agree with Commander Banana that disagreeing successfully is a life skill. And, while I haven’t read all of it yet, I second Robiewankenoble’s recommendation of Nonviolent Communication, the book — and as Rwn’s comment indicates, there are classes and seminars and such too.

    I am a little concerned that in some of the discussion there’s some judginess toward people who DO fight and DO bring out the barbed words. Yes, it is definitely not the best thing to do toward someone you love. But no, that doesn’t mean that doing it means you’re not really a good, loving person. It’s also better not to fight your Sith Lord father, and you can say “I’m not going to fight you any more, father!” and then BAM there’s your lightsaber again, in your hand. Even if we know what is the best way for us to behave and be, it’s hard to put it into practice when emotions run high. I have to admit, after decades, I am still not a Jedi.

    I think one thing that is really hard to get over is if either of you, or gods forfend, both, have a need to be Morally Right, which is related to the adversarial thing someone mentioned above. Especially if you have even a little bit of a martyr complex, those piles of aggrievements then become ammunition in every completely unrelated argument where you feel you’re losing the moral high ground, and even things that aren’t directly attacks can be designed to change the footing in a destructive way.

    I think it’s important to learn how you argue and react naturally, and then see how that interacts with your partner. Communication styles, ways of showing emotion, reaction to hurt, speed and severity of temper… Some people luck out, some don’t — and you may never fight with one person, then end up with another with whom you are constantly escalating. It is a big, hard, ongoing act of love and self-improvement to find ways to finesse your instincts and training so that they don’t interact badly with your partner’s. It’s awesome if your natural styles work together so that you don’t have to go through that (painful) process to get to something productive, but it’s also luck. It doesn’t necessarily mean you’re more evolved, and it doesn’t necessarily mean that you won’t have to do all this work with another partner (or another person, non-romantic!) someday.

    • Commander Banana said:

      True true true. I have accepted that there are some people I cannot have a gentle disagreement with, or even a spirited discussion, without it devolving into screaming and interrupting (and, ugh, seriously, those people who say they “just like to debate!” Blarf.). My solution is to simply never get into a discussion about anything beyond very superficial things with these people. I have a very clear sense of my limits, so, for example, I absolutely cannot and will not handle raised voices during a disagreement. So I don’t. I also recognize that some people, even nice people, bring out the worst in me and my strategy is to avoid. I’m not saying that’s the best or right strategy but it’s working for me right now.

      It’s also important to look at whether you’re having the fight that you’re having – as in, are you using the fight as a staging place for all of your past grievances/unresolved childhood issues?

      So many things to think about! Just re: the LW, some of the things in their letter made me think they need a safe space to practice this skill and that a therapist might be a good option for them. It’s just like how you wouldn’t go on the high beam your first time doing gymnastics – start on the safe padded mat until you are more confident.

  31. phalanxgirl said:

    Hi LW,

    My fiance and I sometimes refer to ourselves as the Bingleys, Our “…tempers are by no means unlike. (We) are each of (us) so complying, that nothing will ever be resolved on; so easy, that every servant will cheat (us); and so generous, that (we) will always exceed (our) income.”

    We do not really fight. Both of us came from homes and relationships that gave us both major triggers when voices are raised. In my case, I was emotionally neutered by overbearing, somewhat narcissistic parents. In my fiance’s case, he was trained to respond to emotional abuse with utter obedience by a domineering ex wife who loved to argue and manipulate. Raised voices, guilt trips, and blame-assigning don’t work for either of us.

    We do, however, often encounter conflict – what relationship doesn’t? Here’s how we settle conflict without fighting. If these steps look familiar to you, I wouldn’t freak out about not fighting. You’re doing the work without the fireworks!

    1. Leave your ego at the door. If you are more concerned with “winning” the conversation than dealing with the conflict, you need to lose that attitude pronto. It only creates resentment. Have faith that if something is really important to you, your partner will recognize it and you can deal with the conflict accordingly.

    2. I find it helpful to avoid blame statements and approach the issue as though you are any team that need to pool intellectual resources in order to solve a problem. If you have an issue with something your partner does, use “I” statements if you are bothered by the motives you might think are behind the behaviour. Listen thoroughly to what the other person is saying and don’t be afraid to offer your opinion on the matter. Both of you might learn something about where the other person is coming from. Teamwork is key.

    3. Always treat the other person with respect, even if you’re not very happy with them. They probably don’t realize their transgression. Shutting people down, treating them like they are children, and choosing a passive-aggressive response is not respectful. I had one relationship where whenever I tried to raise the issue of housework with my partner, I was always told “If you’d just do your share/pull your weight/not be so lazy, there would be no problem.” It made it very difficult for me to get any kind of help and the problem did not go away. Additionally, I became resentful enough of his inflexibility in all areas of our relationship that I eventually left him. Also, beware creating a caricature of your partner in your head – Fiance’s ex had this image of him as this incapable man-child who wouldn’t be able to get dressed if he wasn’t reminded. She was convinced that he would starve and perish were it not for her and told other people (most noteably their daughter) this regularly. Guess what? It was complete crap! Remember that you love your partner and they love you.

  32. Anothermous said:

    This is actually a topic for which I can potentially address your Worst Case Scenario, LW, because I went through it about a year and a half ago.

    My partner and I were The Couple That Never Fought. Until shit happened, and then we FOUGHT. Yelling, slamming doors, sleeping in separate bedrooms, the whole shebang. It was ugly.

    Background: a few years ago, my partner and I moved to a new city because of his job. Initially, I had a lot of trouble finding work and was underemployed and at home a lot. His job, on the other hand, was (and sadly, remains) extremely demanding mostly thanks to colossally poor management which results in him having to work extreme hours with little support. It’s still bad for him now, on the job front, unfortunately, but then it was REALLY bad.

    And he never talked about it. I mean, obviously I knew he was working long hours, but he never talked to me about the stress, or about his stupid manager, or about things I could do to help him manage (like, picking up more of the chores around the house, or doing nice things for him, or whatever).

    I am the chattier one of the two of us, and I would make no secret of things I was unhappy about, or would happy complain about my frustrating job hunt (one of 3 interviewees for a position that had had over 1000 applicants! AND I DIDN’T GET IT AUGH) and whatever. I was completely oblivious to how unhappy my partner was.

    Then weird things started happening. He started coming home *extra* late. He started ignoring my calls when he was out. He started telling me he’d be home by X time, only to be home hours later.

    I bet you all can see where this is going, right?

    He’d started seeing someone else.

    He came home one Saturday (he had to go into work). And told me he had feelings for someone else and was considering leaving me. Awkwardeers, let me tell you how furious I was. My partner and I had been together for 7 years. My partner and I are of two different nationalities, and had met when I was studying in his home country. We had made it work across an ocean for 5 whole years, AND my family had sponsored his immigration here (to the USA, where I live)–at considerable cost to ourselves. And then when he’d gotten his new job (which was a “dream job” for him–let this be a warning to people seeking a “dream job”, sometimes the reality isn’t all that rosy), it had required we both move across the US (which is a BIG place!) and that I leave my previous job for his sake. And now, after all this, he was telling me he was thinking of leaving me for a secretary at his work whom he had know for less than six weeks.

    Six weeks! I bet you can guess why there was yelling.

    We agreed to go to couples counseling. And it eventually started to come out: my partner had been unhappy for a while. He was stressed at work, he was scared of the future, he was getting older and worried he might not achieve all the things he wanted to. And he had convinced himself that it would be The Most Terrible Thing if he were to bring any of this up with me. The reasons for why are long, complicated, and rooted in his upbringing, but he had internalized the idea that he was not allowed to voice concern or worry to the point where it nearly destroyed our relationship.

    We talked, and we worked, and it wasn’t always easy, but eventually we made it through. There were lots and lots of tears and apologies, from both of us. It was a hard and unpleasant time. We are married now, and yeah we do argue sometimes, but I am always glad to wake up beside him in the morning. I miss him when he’s not around, he’s still my best friend, and there is plenty of love and joy between us.

    LW, I tell that long, awful story not to scare you, but to let you know: even if The Worst Case Scenario comes to pass, and there IS some huge, horrible blow up–even then, it’s still possible to come through. I don’t recommend going through what we did, it sure sucked, but we’re better for having been through it. Now we talk before it gets that bad. And now I’m no longer afraid of The Fight. I hope you can figure out the ways to communicate constructively with your partner and head off The Fight before it even happens. I’d also recommend looking for a couples counselor, because having a Conversation Referee can help immensely, even if there’s nothing immediately wrong. Good luck! You can do it, I promise. <3

  33. Esti said:

    Wow, lots of never-really-fights people here. Which is great. But as someone who often fights with partners (never physical and rarely name-calling, but often raised voices/snippy or cutting comments/someone leaves angrily and we both stew for a while), I just want to say: if when you do start speaking up, you end up fighting — that’s okay, too.

    I mean, I would obviously love if I was the kind of person who only ever had non-angry disagreements with partners, and when next in a relationship I would like to work on better communication and resisting my tendency to start/participate in/escalate fights. But I have a family that (verbally) fights all the time, and a personality type that lends itself to that, and I doubt I’ll ever fully eradicate those tendencies. I don’t think I’m alone in that, and I suspect that for the vast majority of relationships there will in fact be some fights (after all, there’s a reason the first fight thing became a cliche, even if it doesn’t happen to literally every couple).

    So LW, if, one day, you and your partner end up snarling at each other about something before one of you storms out the door to go to work still angry, I promise that it will not be the end of either the world or your relationship. It won’t mean that you don’t love each other, or that either of you are bad people. It is normal, if not universal, for those kinds of fights to happen, much as we’d all like them not to, and it can and does happen even in healthy and happy relationships.

    And Commander, while I really love a lot of your response, I have to admit that this part rubbed me the wrong way: At this moment in my life, the very idea of wanting to hurt Mr. Logic with words is just bizarre to me, like “don’t you throw him out the window on a regular basis? EVERYONE defenestrates the person they love!” levels of bizarre. It is fantastic (sincerely!) that you have never felt like that about Mr. Logic, and maybe (probably) I am just feeling defensive, but I don’t think it’s helpful to paint angry verbal fighting as some kind of bizarre thing akin to violence against loved ones. I think it’s actually pretty common and understandable for someone angry to raise their voice or say something nasty in the heat of the moment, or even to want to hurt the other person’s feelings a little in return. That doesn’t make it admirable, but even if you’ve never felt it yourself towards the person you love, I have trouble understanding why it’s so unfathomable.

    • commanderlogic said:

      I think the key phrase here is “At this moment in my life,” and in specific reference to my relationship with Mr. Logic. With someone else, in another life, it could all be different.

      To be perfectly honest, I thought very long and hard about how to write my response to LW without sounding like a smug asshole. I don’t think I completely succeeded, but I did my best. =/

      Your life and experience is different to mine, and what is common and understandable is different for different people. I’m willing to bet there are people in the world who would find it common and understandable to hit a loved one when they’re angry, or throw something at the wall as long as no one got hurt. You find physical violence against abstract loved ones bizarre, as do I, but I happen to take it a step further and find verbal violence – which raising your voice and saying something nasty would be – against Mr. Logic specifically to be outside my experience.

      CAN people fight dirty and put each other down and then recover? Absolutely! I never said they couldn’t. That other couples fight mean and survive is not unfathomable to me, and the people who make it work that way are not less admirable than me and Mr. Logic. But that hasn’t ever been my experience, so I can’t advise from the standpoint of someone who FIGHT-fights. Thank various deities and the non-corporeal essence of the universe for the commenters!

      • Esti said:

        Fair enough that you were only speaking of your experience — I did get that, which is why I hesitated saying anything at all about my reaction to that part of your response. And obviously emotional and verbal abuse is a very real, very damaging thing, and I probably should have clarified in my original comment that I was not at all talking about those situations.

        But I’m just really taken aback by the idea that it’s “fighting dirty” and “fighting mean” and “verbal violence” to raise your voice or say something nasty in an argument. That feels like a whole lot of judgment for people who don’t or aren’t able to communicate the way you do.

        • Mary said:

          For me there’s a big difference between raising your voice or snapping, and saying mean things intended to hurt. I grew up in a fairly shouty household and I’m OK with a displays of anger and impatience that you then apologise for (although I don’t have that in my relationship because my partner is not OK with it, and I am happier without, even if I might adopt that style with another person.) If both people are comfortable and energised by it, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a big old shout as a way of relieving the tension and getting everything out there before you sit down more sensibly and sort it out.

          But saying mean or contemptuous stuff, even in the heat of the moment is just – unacceptable. I had a relationship where we did that, and the shame that I felt about saying things that deliberately hurt (“in order to show my partner how much she’d hurt me”, was the logic) and the pain of the things that my partner said when she was doing the same lasted long after we’d formally made up, and now the relationship’s over I thank heavens I don’t have to live like that. Similarly, my dad used to say contemptuous things like, “You stupid woman” to my mum when they argued. They had a long and mostly very happy marriage and were each other’s best friends, but now that he’s widowed, you bet your life that it’s stuff like that that keeps him up at night and he’d do anything to be able to take it back.

          I’m not sure which you’re claiming as OK, Esti? If you just mean being cross or angry or impatient and less careful of your partner’s feelings than you’d ideally like to be, then fair enough. But if you mean actively saying mean things with the specific intent of hurting someone because in that moment you want to hurt them, or contemptuous things that belittle and diminish them – maybe there are some relationships where that stuff’s not destructive of love and trust, but I have to say, I’ve never seen them. I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s abusive because (certainly in the relationship I described above) I think we were equal-opportunity nasty, and I don’t think either of us felt like the other had all the power. But it was horribly unhealthy and nasty.

          • Commander Banana said:

            Have to agree 100% here – if you’re having the fight about X, and you start bringing up Y and Z to hurt the other person, then – you’re not really having the fight about X. And I personally could not handle being in a relationship where deliberately trying to inflict pain with words is considered acceptable.

            Allow me to use an example from my life: a little over a year ago I was committed to the psychiatric ward of a local hospital for about week and put on a craptonne of drugs, all of which I promptly quit taking once I left (I am not saying this was smart, but it’s relevant to this story). Because I thought I might need the drugs again, I kept them and just stuck them on top of my bookcase and left them there.
            Several months later, I was petsitting for a friend and, for work reasons, couldn’t make it to the their house one evening to walk the dog and asked my brother to do it. He agreed. Then I got a phone call from him, about three hours after the dog should have been walked, saying he was on his way to their house and was late because of ‘getting caught up in things.’
            When I asked why he hadn’t given me a buzz when he knew he was going to be that late, because I live close to their house and could have zipped over, he began screaming at me about every thing he’d ever been upset about in the past couple years.

            Then, he snapped that I was clearly the one with the problems because of all the drugs on the bookcase, which I obviously needed because I was such a crazy bitch. A crazy bitch who would dare to ask him why he hadn’t let me know to go take the dog out, when he was doing me a favor!

            So. Hence. The disagreement quickly went from it would have been better if you had let me know that you were going to be three hours late so I could have taken care of this obligation and so that the dog wouldn’t be in distress waiting for someone to walk her to let me tell you every single thing I’m angry about and, while I’m at it, completely derail this argument AND say nasty things about something that I KNOW you are ashamed of, because I want to hurt you, and hurting you is more important to me than anything else right now.

            Therefore.

            I consider our relationship irreparably damaged. I’m sure my brother thinks I’ve forgotten about it since I haven’t brought it up again. I’m civil when I see him, but I do not consider us friends and I never will again. This is my choice, because I am responsible for protecting myself.

            I think Cmdr Logic is completely accurate when she talks about verbal violence. If this is your style of fighting (the royal you, not you in particular) then that is also your choice, because this is something you can train yourself not to do. It’s not easy, especially if this is a habit, but personally speaking, no, I would not be with someone who prioritizes being able to be hurtful and cruel over their partner’s feelings. Being angry or having a fight doesn’t give you full license to say whatever you want to say without consequences because you happen to be fighting.

          • Esti said:

            I think that’s a helpful distinction. I meant snapping at each other or being dismissive or sarcastic. I did not mean thinking of things your partner is sensitive about and insulting them, or anything like that.

          • CoolNewAnonymousNickname said:

            I do think that contempt and disgust are the destroyers of any kind of relationship built on trust, because trust is based on a feeling of safety with a person. And both of those things undermine the safety, because a cruel person who thinks they have the right to define you is not a safe person. Anyone can say cruel things, but cruelty itself is a pattern of behaviors designed and utilized with the specific intent of diminishing someone else. The ongoing pattern of cruelty is more of an issue than a one-off where someone makes real, sustained effort to repair the damage they did from an offhand remark. I need more coffee, because I’m rambling, but I hope that made sense?

        • Anon said:

          Thank you Esti, for writing what you have. I too am someone who has fights sometimes. I wouldn’t say frequently, but when I am stressed or hurt or angry it sometimes comes out at sarcastic comments and sometimes it comes out as shouting/raised voice/over dramatic wording. I’m definitely not proud of that but it is a thing that happens and my boyfriend and I get over these fights very very quickly. I also find that we are both able to communicate much more effectively once the anger is out of the way.

          And yeah, if this was happening every month or every week, it might be cause for concern, but it is generally triggered by something extremely stressful in one, or both, of our lives.

          I must admit after reading these comments I thought “what’s wrong with me?” and “how can I change?” But having given it some thought I’m happy with how things are.

          Again, thank you for putting the alternative out there. Much appreciated.

        • 30ish said:

          I agree with you, Esti. I think the advice by Commander Logic is great, but I disagree with the equation of “fighting” and “wanting to hurt your partner”. There is such a thing as passionately disagreeing, speaking with raised voices, and even getting really angry, without wanting to hurt the other person or put them down. Fighting can be totally non-abusive. The important thing in my opinion is the ability to come back from the fighting, to apologize, and truly make up. I don’t think couples HAVE to fight, but I don’t think it’s a bad thing to fight either, as long as there’s no name calling or other abusive behavior. And it’s a questions of tempers: There are couples that can talk calmly about everything and there are other couples whose conflict resolution is a bit more intense.

      • I think there’s a small distinction to be made here: while a person might say something that at the time seems like a reasonable, dispassionate expression of their feelings but that later reflection reveals to be kind of mean, there is no similar grey area around a physically violent act (at least, not in my mind). I’m absolutely not saying that verbal abuse isn’t real – it is – but I know I’ve said things that sounded totally calm and helpful in my head and then, after sitting on them for a while, realized they were actually pretty shitty and concern-trolly. Just another $0.02 on the table.

        • MamaCheshire said:

          LOL yeah, just had an example of this on this fine evening.

          I asked a question of Spouse (“Should I even buy a Thanksgiving turkey, or do we need to plan something else?”) that, from my own perspective, was probably about 1/2 genuine “how is this scenario going to work?” plus 1/4 frustration at a possible impending logistics trainwreck plus 1/4 trying not to have a panic attack about the same possible logistics trainwreck.

          Spouse heard this as my covering up for what he thought I really wanted to say, a profanity-laden tirade regarding why he hadn’t cleaned the kitchen like I asked him to.

          And this became, “No. I have a half-my-final-grade term paper due at midnight on Black Friday. I cannot take any time off from work whatsoever because Black Friday is also my last day at my current job. I’m coming off a bout of serious illness, and I know you injured your shoulder recently. Is cooking viable? I know it makes us happy, but is the requisite pre-and-post work involved in cooking something we can do given the rest of this situation?”

          I can see how he took it the way he did. And I probably should have said what I meant to say while I wasn’t in the middle of trying to find a (literal) spoon to stir my stir-fry with tonight. I’m still feeling a bit defensive though, because “the spoon math doesn’t add up, can we acknowledge that please?” =/= “you are lazy scum!” :(

  34. syrens said:

    My wife and I have a thing called “The couch of relationship angst”. The term is actually from a previous relationship of mine and the couch in question spends most of its time just being, y’know, the couch. We eat dinner while sitting on it. We make out on it. We cover it with craft supplies (okay, that’s mostly me)… That kind of thing.

    The whole idea behind The Couch of Relationship Angst is that it puts our Big Relationship Discussions inside a container. It’s like the weekly calendar thing in Comander Logic’s answer to the LW, but bounded by space rather than time.

    The fact that it has a funny name is actually really helpful, for me in particular. Even though I know that, when processing Stuff on the Couch of Relationship Angst, I can say whatever I need to say and basically think out loud and all the other stuff (like: “feelings are not static states”, and “you can change your mind”) that I had to learn was okay to do in a relationship… calling the metaphorical space in-which I put that stuff into practice “the couch of relationship angst” also lets me snicker at myself when I know that whatever’s spinning me is a product of my brian weasels rather than anything that’s Really Going On.

    LW, your letter sounds like you’ve got a massive nest of brain weasels running around in circles inside your skull going “What If, What If, What If”. I agree with Comander Logic that you would probably do really well with a designated time/space to let the weasels out in a controlled manner and show them to your partner as “these are my brain weasels,a nd this is what they tend to go on about” rather than having them show up as the uninvited guests in the kind of fight you’re worried about having.

    • misspiggy said:

      I love the idea of Brain Weasel Show ‘n’ Tell (which is how the couch idea appears to me).

      I realise I should have done that for the last ten years during arguments/discussions, instead of mixing brain weasel stuff in with legitimate issues. Or at least when I realise I’ve just said a thing that brain weasels are responsible for, I could say, ‘oops, sorry, that one should have gone into Brain Weasel Show ‘n’ Tell. But what shall we cook for dinner?’

      • syrens said:

        Brain Weasel Show ‘n’ Tell is a great way of describing it. :-)
        I’ve heard it referred to as “I would like to name a fear” as well. Basically, just a way of acknowledging that the Jerk Brain is trying to contribute to (and/or derail) the conversation. Y’know?
        I tend to do things like “Okay, my brain weasels are acting up” or “I think something’s escaped the Weasel Pit in my brain – can I talk about that?” or whatever. :-)

        • (LW) Conflict Avoidant said:

          Brain weasels is an excellent way of describing them!

          • syrens said:

            I think you can thank my wife for that one. I’m pretty sure she came up with it, not me. :-) But it does work well, doesn’t it. :-)

  35. Knights Who Say Knit said:

    Just want to add in one more thing that I haven’t seen mentioned that has been really beneficial when conflicts/different styles of conflict have arisen in my relationship, and that’s meta-discussions.

    One example of what I mean: boyfriend tends towards catastrophizing when he’s anxious or stressed; he calls this “thinking through all the possible outcomes” and sometimes it is but often it can get into spirals of increasingly unlikely and terrible possibilities. This kind of thinking and talking tends to really stress me out, and so I often react by telling him something like “there’s no way that will happen, it’s totally unlikely.” Which sometimes helps him get out of the spiral, but sometimes it’s not at all helpful, instead it’s the opposite of helpful. So I’ve gotten into the habit of saying things like “Would it be helpful right now if I told you there was no way that’s going to happen?” and he can say yes or no, or things like “I know you need to talk through this, but right now it’s just stressing me out too much, so can we delay this conversation to another time?”– basically, I try not to just disagree with him or state my needs, but also, in doing so, talk about how we are currently communicating and whether that’s working.

    Another example: I am a person who gets grouchy and irritable very easily, because of stress or sometimes just for reasons I can’t quite put my finger on. And I tend to take that irritability out on the people closest to me– not physically or by being mean or anything, but by being grumpy and yeah, sometimes yelling or talking with a raised voice or otherwise getting upset over relatively minor things. When I was younger, that meant my parents, particularly my mom, who, while completely wonderful, has a communication style/disposition that meshes with mine in such a way that me being irritable for a completely unrelated reason could lead to a huge argument. Now, the person I take my grumpiness out on is my boyfriend, and we’ve gotten in a pattern where it’s ok for him to ask– without judgment– “are you mad at me or just grumpy?” And I can say that I’m just grumpy, or that I really wish he wouldn’t do XYZ, or that it’s a little bit of both. And I’ve gotten to a place where I can identify my grumpiness and after asking him to please do the dishes he never does the dishes I’ve done the dishes all week (in an annoyed or even mildly shouty voice) I can say something like “sorry I used that tone; stuff is really stressful right now and it’s making me grumpy.” This has caused me to get better at identifying my grumpiness and addressing it with other people in my life, and reduces the conflicts that I have with my mom. But the important thing is: in the moment, it doesn’t make me less grumpy or irritable. I try to not lash out, but sometimes I do; the difference is that we’ve talked about the change in my mood and thus my communication style, and so my boyfriend knows later that night that if I ask him somewhat snappily to please stop singing because I’m trying to read, when I would normally tolerate it, that he shouldn’t take it personally.

    These are both just real life examples as they have come up in my life and relationship. The point is broader, LW– talking about how you’re communicating and why, rather than just discussing the what of what you’re talking about, can, in my personal experience at least, keep a disagreement from becoming an argument and an argument from becoming a fight.

    My boyfriend and I don’t do the scheduled relationship meeting thing– scheduling that wouldn’t work for us, and we don’t really need to do it because we are fine with what we do have, for now. But I think that one reason that we are fine with what we do is that we are good at both addressing issues and going to a meta level and discussion the way we are talking about issues when disagreement arises. YMMV, of course, LW. But just thought I’d mention it as I haven’t seen anyone else do so. And also, LW, what you mention about the way you handle the disagreements you do have– the “we are on the same side” thing– sounds like a massive green flag to me, a sign that things are working in the way you handle things. Just try to start raising other, smaller issues that bother you, and try to bring that same attitude into those, too.

  36. (LW) Conflict Avoidant said:

    Quick update: so I talked to my partner about this today., I told him I’d written in, what I’d said, and outlined some of the responses. He said the ideal scenario would be if I could just tell him right away when I felt hurt by something, and I agreed. Hopefully at some point I’ll get to that stage. We took a walk and talked about things. He seems unsure about an official meeting but willing to try it. I also bought the meal planner notepad that Captain Awkward recommended in the comments, so hopefully that might be a good place to start.

    • Mary said:

      Aw, yay you!

      Have you asked him how he thinks he’ll respond if you did bring up something that he said that hurt you? It’s great that he is encouraging you to bring stuff up, but just talking through his reaction might be extra reassuring for you: “Well, to be honest, it’s possible that my first response will be a little bit defensive – I’ll be sad because I hurt you, and I might even justify why I said the thing I said and how I didn’t mean it to be hurtful. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have said it or that I don’t want you to say it, and as soon as I get over my initial reaction I will apologise and tell you that I’m going to try and take it on board. I might still mess it up a couple of times, but again, that doesn’t mean I’m not trying, and you are allowed to remind me that I said I wouldn’t do that.” (That would be my answer – his might be totally different!)

      Sometimes people’s immediate reactions are negative, and sometimes they don’t immediately make the changes you’ve asked them to make, and if you’re conflict-avoidant anyway, then that can really reinforce the “don’t say anything!” message from the back of your head. But if you’ve talked that through, then you can be prepared for it and you’ll know it’s not his final answer.

      • (LW) Conflict Avoidant said:

        Well despite my usual response being the emotional shutdown thing, I have in the past managed to bring up some things, just not as often as I’d like. I can usually manage to mention the big things, it’s more little things I struggle with (I think the actions that the internalised misogynist part of my jerkbrain has labelled “nagging”).

        His responses are usually pretty good, maybe a little sad or guilty, but generally not too defensive, or at least not in a way that might make me think he doesn’t take it seriously.

        • Mary said:

          Aww, he sounds nice! I hope you guys figure it out. :)

        • Katie said:

          just wanted to say good for you for bringing it up!!!

  37. duaecat said:

    Not sure if it’s been covered yet, but one thing that was a small bump in the road and we had to deal with for healthy conflict resolution was “I am mad at the thing you did, not at you.” Because that very well may happen! Even with the best of couples.

    “I am so sorry, I was carrying your heirloom vase that was your only only link to your great great grandmother and I dropped it and it shattered and I’m so sorry.”*
    And it’s 100% an accident, and they’re sorry, but you’re still allowed to be hurt/upset/angry that the vase is gone. They’re not automatically punishing you if they’re upset something happened, and you’re not automatically punishing them by being upset. But oh, jerkbrain likes to say all sorts of things about that situation.

    So we developed a sort of “Hey, I’m not mad at you, but I am mad, can you give me a little time?” And one of us goes to another room or just sits quietly reading until the other person has processed and is ready to talk again.

    • Elizabeth said:

      Oh my god if I could tattoo that on the inside of the eyelids of certain members of my family….

      Like we say a lot around here: I am not having feelings AT you. (I mean, sometimes you are. But not always!)

  38. Stardust said:

    I have a question for the army that I feel is related, but if not, please feel free to delete this comment.

    So, I apparently have a really loud voice. It’s a thing that runs in the family and while I can sometimes feel my eardrums humming when my mum talks to me I can’t ever really hear how loud my own voice is. I’m regularly being asked to talk more quietly and immediately comply – only, apparently I don’t, because while I think I’m toning down deliberately it doesn’t make a difference at all for others?

    Which leads to situations where I think I’m calmy and rationally voicing my disagreement and people think I’m having a full-on shouting match with them. Even my little sister, who has a loud voice herself (albeit to a somewhat lesser degree), and who knows me really, really well told me there’s no need to be getting all worked up over issue X a few weeks ago when I felt like I was just trying to make my point (and actually didn’t feel that passionate about X anyway, but it must have seemed that way).

    Do any of you have similar problems and tips on how to avoid coming off like the angriest and most aggressive person in the place all the time?

    • atma said:

      I’ve noticed something similar with facial expressions. Apparently, as soon as I’m not smiling, I can come across as intimidating. So I’m sitting there and thinking we’re exchanging views and the other person experiences this as me being angry.

      Maybe if this is recurring, try to film yourself? Then you have the chance to see yourself from the outside

    • MovingOn said:

      I do this. I do exactly this. And I get the most criticism on it from my father, from whom I inherited this trait (but don’t I dare tell him that his voice is also loud and would he mind talking more softly… noooo, this is a one-way street). For me, the solution has been: whispering. Seriously. Making it a habit of talking so softly that I’m convinced no one can hear me at all. Because my sense of what is ‘normal volume’ is apparently so skewed, that means I end up talking normally. I still get really loud when I get worked up over something, but, y’know, fine. At least in day-to-day conversation I don’t seem all IN YOUR FACE LOUD.

    • (LW) Conflict Avoidant said:

      Ah! This is a thing that both me and my partner do- which is unfortunate because I find loud voices upsetting. Mine goes up and down, apparently it’s related to being autistic, which I am. But sometimes this makes it worse because I’ll be talking ‘normally’ and then it’ll seem to others like I’ve raised my voice, when I can’t tell any change!

      I just can’t tell the difference between “loud” and “appropriate level”. Whereas my partner just has a loud voice all of the time. He speaks more softly when we’re having a serious conversation though. I think one of my main fears is him properly raising his voice during an argument :(

  39. So, having been joyfully married since 1986, I can say that we depend on the rules we stated at the beginning of the relationship (in 1979. Yes, I was an infant.) The Rules were in response to a series of stressful relationships we’d both been through. After a couple years being married, we found that the book How to talk so Kids Will Listen and Listen so Kids Will Talk (Farber and Mazlish) contained a lot of the same ideas and helped refine The Rules some more. And as a huge bonus, had a lot of useful ways to cope with children. We’ve got two daughters, and so far, we haven’t fucked them up.

    The Rules:

    I cannot read your mind
    I will not willingly hurt you
    nobody wins (which translates to: we’re on the same side and removes “rightness” and “wrongness” from the equation)

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