Sparring in relationships

Tessa Burns MartinCouples Counselling, Tessa Burns

My husband and I were recently having a discussion about the renovations that were happening in our home. This is the fourth time we have undertaken a renovation project; twice while I was pregnant. Our ability to navigate through the stresses of these times provides me the confidence in our relationship that we can make it through almost anything. Though we were disagreeing on the course of action we were going to take moving forward, the argument did not get heated and we were able to resolve the matter in a way that both of us felt heard and we had a great compromise as a solution. But, that is not the point of my story. What was interesting to me after our exchange was that my husband said to me “Great sparring session!” He has never used those terms before and neither had I. Then, I started to think about the word “sparring.” I looked it up and Wikipedia defines it as “‘free-form fighting, with enough rules, customs, or agreements to make injuries unlikely.” That seemed like the perfect description of our discussion. We were fighting because we had opposing points of view that we were trying to show to the other person. But, we have always had rules about how we engage in our fights. Here are some of our rules:

1. We do not have a fight at the peak intensity of our emotions. If either of us is feeling very angry and upset and we can not contain the emotion, we take a time-out and have the discussion when we are less activated. When you have an argument at the peak intensity of your emotion, you are operating in your fight or flight system so you will not be present because you will either be trying to figure out how to leave the situation or you will be seeing the other person as a threat to your well-being that you have to protect yourself against. Either of those situations does not lead healthy communication and building of intimacy.

2. We do not provide our point of view until we can adequately describe what the other person is trying to communicate. I have seen many times in counseling couples where they are fighting over the same thing but because they don’t hear each other, they do not realize they want the same outcome. They get focused on their perception of what their partner is trying to communicate.

3. We use humor. We are not masking the problem but we use humor to lighten the mood. For example, I feel like my husband drops “bombs” of what he is feeling because he holds things in until he hits a breaking point. If we are in the middle of an argument and I feel like he has dropped a bomb, I will make a sound and act as if I have been hit by a bomb. That dramatization may not work for all couples because everyone has their unique sense of humor but it drops my husbands’ defenses so that we can refocus on the issue.

Couples will never be free from disagreements because there are two people coming into the relationship with two very different points of view on the world. But, if you can start sparring with your partner, you will have disagreements that leave both parties feeling seen and heard. And, that is ultimately every person’s most basic need.