People fight. It happens. It’s unpleasant but it’s a necessary part of human interactions you’d best be able to accept and work with, rather than rail against. When I hear couples say they never fight I often think they’re A: lying, or, if they’re not, it’s B: a bit weird. Unhealthy even. People can’t possibly agree on everything. Especially people that spend a lot of time in each other’s company. It’s unrealistic and it puts unrealistic expectations on us if it’s something we’re expected to do. Agreeing and choosing to agree for the sake of civility, are two different things. And though there is definitely a place for that kind of concession, I think for the most part, healthy disagreements are one of the things that help us learn and grow as people. They allow us to be true to ourselves, and know that our opinions don’t have to be the same as others to be accepted. If they do, then you might have other issues to deal with. What you don’t want is to be someone who looks to fight. Someone who’s angry or mean and takes their stress out on others. Conflict for the sake of conflict is not a character building exercise.
The key word in disagreements is “healthy”. There are ways to fight that can be good, proactive discord in order to make a change. There’s a way to stand up for your beliefs that don’t undermine or belittle. This is not always easy to do, and God knows it takes practice and effort, but it’s something worth striving for. What you want to avoid are arguments that lead to petty, cruel behavior that degrade or disparage others. You want to play fair. To be kind even in conflict. And if you can’t muster kind, at least try and be civil. No name calling. No below the belt shots. And an avoidance of tangents and things from the past that cloud the matter in question.
Stick to the issue at hand. No “f*^# you’s” or personal attacks. Try not to interrupt – I’m personally terrible at this – and try to avoid saying anything you’ll regret later. I was fighting with your Dad once – I can’t remember what about – and, in the heat of the moment, I said, “Well maybe you should just divorce me, and…” His face looked like I’d slapped him. I immediately took it back. Acknowledged my idiot behavior and sincerely apologized for it, but your Dad flipped out. Rightly so. I get it. I shouldn’t have said it. It was stupid and my “I’m sorry. I’m angry. I didn’t mean it” wasn’t cutting it for him. But then he did what I will also advise you not to do, which is to milk the situation – when the tables have shifted, for whatever reason, in your favor – and was ‘righteously’ angry for hours. Both of us blew it that day. Me, with my rash, insincere comment, and him in his need to punish me for my mistake.
When fighting, above all, be respectful. You may believe someone is behaving irrationally, stupid or ridiculous, but remember to them, their behavior is totally justified. Keep that in mind. I’m not saying you have to necessarily turn the other cheek, but try and see it from their point of view. Fighting fair means looking for the compromise. Both people matter so really try and listen. When it’s possible to turn off the rushing sound in your head that says “shut up shut up shut up – you’re an idiot – shut up”, what you hear might make sense to you. People are worthy of respect no matter how furious, misunderstood or unjustly attacked you feel. How you treat someone in a period of strife can linger long after the issue has passed. For the most part, this is also true when going head to head with someone you don’t know – a stranger, a person of authority, a jerk in a bar – no matter how much they deserve it – and people often do – try and keep your cool. Civility is more likely to deliver the result you want or, at the very least, help make your point.
When deciding whether to address an issue head on, it’s important you take into account who it is you’re dealing with and what the result of the fallout might be. With my parents or your Dad, I tackle almost every problem because A: they’ve promised to love me always – the unconditional love factor – and B: I interact with them on a daily basis and I’d rather nip issues in the bud than deal with them over and over – Groundhog Day style – for the rest of my life. With friends and acquaintances it’s a different story because it’s not a given that the relationship will be able to survive a fight without changing, and ultimately I don’t see most people enough to justify fighting over something that’s not an incredibly huge deal. A friend who’s always late or insists on always picking the restaurant? Who cares? Go where they want to go and tell them you’re meeting a half an hour earlier than you plan to show up. An acquaintance who has a way of seeing the negative side of every issue? Eh. Just take their advise with a grain of salt and avoid telling them stories about things that really matter to you. A pal who never mentions the birthday cards you send? Suck it up or stop sending the cards, but don’t get into a fight about it. What’s the point? Even if they started thanking you, it would always feel insincere. There are a lot of situations where it’s better to just accept people’s “isms” and move on. In many cases a situation or behavior is so unlikely to occur again that creating conflict around it is just unnecessary.
That being said, I recently had a fight with one of my oldest and dearest friends and the altercation caught me totally unprepared. Without going into too much detail, I became irritated by her constant texting with a potential suitor over the span of 2 days. Granted I am hopelessly out of the loop in the dating scene, but I got tired of playing second fiddle to a phone. The thing was, I was trying to be encouraging and understanding. To help out. I was even open to her ditching me to hang out with him. Ultimately I just wanted her to be happy, and if being with him would have done that, I would have been fine. As it was, she was with me, but not really with me, and as her phone binged for the 100th time in 3 hours, and she stopped half way out the door I was holding to get it, I sighed – a deep, OMFG sigh– and almost immediately after that the fight began. When I say fight, I mean she chewed me out for being essentially bratty and deliberately obtuse, and I chose to act like I was nowhere near as annoyed as I was. The thing is, I was worried about how far the situation could escalate. I was pretty pissed off and if I met her energy in that moment – which I easily could have done – I wasn’t sure we’d get out with our relationship intact. So, in that moment, I made the choice to let her rail against me and then try to patch things up later. That’s the thing about fighting, you must always weigh “winning” over what’s best for the relationship. In this case, I wanted my friend. I love her. And I decided I would rather have her feel superior to me than have us stop speaking. Though it was frustrating to be unable to make my point, I’m sure it was the right thing to do. I know that when we see each other next, enough time will have passed for us both to be truly over it. I can’t say the same thing would be true if we’d gone head to head.
The thing is, I hate fighting. I’m a great debater – and I love to be right – so I’m pretty good at it. But I hate it. It makes me sad. Even if you crush someone’s argument, you still feel empty afterwards. I’ve avoided a lot of fights in my life because no matter how upset or disappointed I was, the fight itself was unlikely to yield anything other than tension and anxiety. Sometimes friends let you down, or people do things that annoy you, or you think a situation should be playing out another way, but you have to consider if the situation is likely to arise again. Is it worth getting in to? I think, as you age, you’re better at letting things slide and just enjoying people’s company. When you’re younger, and you see your friends every day, it’s sometimes necessary to mention smaller annoyances as you’re dealing with them far more often. Annoyance breeds discontent, discontent breeds resentment, resentment breeds hostility, and hostility can destroy a relationship.
You need to really consider which direct conflicts you want a part of. Which ones are likely to yield the outcome you want – a changed behavior or result – and which ones you should just walk away from. These are serious questions to answer – often in just a heartbeat – and will significantly effect how you interact with the world. I was treated terribly by a Director of mine once. I was a major asset to him when he first created a show in New York. We talked everyday, and through collaboration I really helped shape what went onto become one of the most successful Off-Broadway plays of the 2000’s. It was his baby, but I was a pretty good nanny. However, he got it into his head that we should be “collaborating” on more than just the play, and when I wasn’t on board, his behavior changed over night. Not only did he stop listening to me, he also stopped publicly acknowledging me, unless it was to criticize or call me out in front of the cast. I got it. I didn’t like it, but I got it. He was putting me in my place. Showing me who was boss. But I wasn’t going to let it ruin my chances to move forward with the show when it moved to LA.
Unfortunately in LA it got worse. When his reiterated desire to expand our relationship failed, he started a “relationship” with my roommate which resulted in my being fired from the show, being stranded in LA with nowhere to live – I’d subleased my apartment in New York – and, at the request of my ex-roommate – who felt I’d “stolen her agent” – he called my representation to tell them what an awful actress and person I was. I did damage control for weeks and though they didn’t drop me right away, it forever affected how they saw me. A year later – after they had dumped me – that same Director asked me to come back for the new run of the show in New York. People thought I was crazy to go, but I saw it as an opportunity to clear my name – you certainly don’t pay an “unprofessional” actress to fly across the country on your dime – and finally get my Equity card in the process. I ended up doing 5 weeks of the show without fighting with him once. No one could believe I’d ignored the opportunity to give him what for. But really, what would have been the point? He’s not going to change. He knew how I felt. Fighting with him would simply have been a waste of energy.
Often when I fight I just want it to be over. When I was young I asked Granny how to end a fight if you don’t want to apologize. She told me I could say, “I’m sorry we had a fight.”That way I could be contrite about the fight itself, but not have to fake an apology I didn’t mean. That advice has served me well in the past. It works best when the two people involved can agree to disagree – a solid position if you can work with it – for the sake of the relationship. But sometimes agreeing to disagree doesn’t work, and you have to work through a disagreement to get to the other side. That’s when you end up genuinely apologizing. I have to say, your Dad and I are very good at this. Even after our worst, drag out fights, we always come to an understanding and our apologies are specific and clear, as is the plan on which to move forward. This is not to say we don’t have conflict issues. It just means we finish strong.
Your Dad and I see eye to eye on most things and, after almost 10 years together, are still truly best friends. But we can really throw down. Maybe it’s a fire sign thing – he’s a Scorpio, I’m a Leo . Maybe it’s a actor thing – we’re both wildly sensitive and probably too keenly aware of verbal and non-verbal nuances. Or maybe it’s a built up tension thing. We both live under extremely high levels of stress, and when we fight it’s almost like we uncork a bottle that blows up all over us. Over the past year we’ve been trying very hard to take a step back – when we’re in the thick of it – to calm down and reassess. If we don’t, we often find ourselves on a train we can’t get off, and our fights escalate well beyond where they should.
For a long time our disagreements could almost follow a check list of events, which in itself was a problem. It went something like this:
I’d criticize your Dad or bring up something I was unhappy with.
Your Dad would get defensive.
He’d find something I’d done that was similar, or just as bad, and turn the issue around on me.
I’d get furious that I was now somehow supposed to be apologizing and that the original issue had been hijacked.
We’d both raise our voices and one of us would storm out of the room.
The other would follow.
I’d end up saying something like “Forget it, forget it” and shutting down. Preferring to end it than continue with the fight.
We’d take a break – be it 10 minutes, an hour, the whole day.
We’d come back together, calmer, removed from the heat, with some perspective.
We’d discuss the issue calmly.
The issue would be resolved and both of us would feel heard.
We’d both apologize
Though our fights always ended up in a positive place, we really put each other through the ringer to get there. For a while I found I was avoiding saying how I felt in order to avoid the inevitable fight that would follow. Lately though, in large part to your father’s efforts, we are trying to fight more productively. To avoid the middle section and to move faster to the mutual hearing of each other. We tried the marriage councilor trick of repeating what the other said to make sure we were listening and understanding. “So, you’re saying, you’re concerned about blankety blank and that it makes you feel blank. Is that right?” And though this technique has the ability to work – on occasion keeping us calm and on point – sometimes in the heat of a moment you forget to go there and go to the dark place instead. In those instances, your father has taken it on himself to try and avoid his oft repeated step of getting fired up and counterbalancing with something I’ve done – which not only took us way off topic, but made us both super mad – and I’m attempting to stop shutting down when things aren’t going as I’d like. With those steps out of the equation, we’re better able to tackle issues head on without the fear of the fight itself holding us back.
Are we perfect? No. Are we working to be better? Yes. And I would take our fighting any day over the silent seething that other people do. The people who’s go to answer when asked what’s wrong is “Nothing” and then walk around feeling bitter and unheard. Your Granny has a tendency to do that. Her voice, her body language, her entire demeanor says “I’m furious” but when you ask what the issue is, she’s say she’s fine. It’s not true, nor is it productive. I have a tendency to get worked up about things quite quickly, but I’m also quick to move on if we can address the issue at hand. My problem lies in when we can’t because one person isn’t admitting there’s a problem. You can’t get the elephant out of the room if one person is pretending they can’t see it.
Fighting is going to happen. It is. It’s life. Try and keep things civil and kind and if the matter must be discussed, then get on with it. Ignoring the problem doesn’t make it go away. Sometimes it just makes it worse. Maybe that was my mistake with my friend. Perhaps I should have just been like, “Step away from the phone…” earlier and we might have been able to laugh and move on, but as it was, I acted like I was fine until my “nothing” blew up in my face.
One last thing I’d like to mention is physical fighting. Personally, I don’t think there’s ever a need to strike someone in anger. Self-defense and protecting another is understandable, but an assault record will follow you forever so be very careful what position you put yourself in. I don’t get physical fighting but I’m also the first to admit I’m a girl, and I get that it’s different for boys. The only time I really had a sense of what boys go through was after college when I got into a fight leaving a club with one of my closest girlfriends. I hadn’t been drinking but she had, and she refused to let me drive my car home. I was furious. I wasn’t drunk. I needed it the next morning for work and leaving it in a downtown parking lot overnight was a ridiculous inconvenience to give her (inebriated) peace of mind. She was so adamant though that I finally broke down and took a cab home with her. About 3 minutes into the ride – the hostility in the air was so thick you could feel it – she laid off and punched me in the arm. Hard. I was shocked. But I did what any sane person would do and I punched her back. I like to think we grappled in the back of the cab for another minute but it was probably more like flailing, broken wrist, up-and-down-hands that girls often do when they fight. After we’d expelled all our energy, we sat back and took a deep breath and she said, “I feel better don’t you?” And I did. Completely better. All our ire had been extinguished in the rush of physicality and I thought, is this why boys fight? Like literally hitting each other to end the fight? They might have something there. Girls have a way of mind f*^#ing each other for years over an argument. Would we all be better off just to wrestle?
Look, you do what you can – the best you can – to resolve your conflicts with people. Holding grudges is a waste of your energy. I wish I could save you from all pain, all hurt, but sometimes it’s the tough moments in life that really shape who we are. Hit things head on when need be, and walk away when you can. Anger dissipates, but how you behave in moments of anger can define your character forever.
Who do you want to be?
I love you. I trust you’ll make the best choices possible. And remember, I’m always in your corner.
xo your mom
Absolutely brilliant, brilliant, brilliant!
Wow! Fantastic writing on all accounts! I LOVE this piece.
An incredible Blog once again Leigh! Very inspirational and true. XO
Fabulous advice without a doubt! Loch is so lucky to have a mom like you!
Leigh, that was awesome, and something I preach constantly (and do my best to practice!). I wish I could make this required reading for anyone who like to argue politics 🙂 Cheers! — Kelly
I loved this. Especially the sentence ” Anger dissipates, but how you behave in moments of anger can define your character forever.” My childhood best friend and I have terrible fights. Hers usually arrive in written form where she strikes below the belt. It has shredded what once was a beautiful friendship. When my father died she promised to come. When I called her it was inconvenient for her. She then called my phone and left messages saying to call and keep her informed. I was too busy to return the calls and I then received an email saying “It’s always about you.” That’s when I knew that it was time to throw in the towel once and for all.