Some ways to identify a relationship in trouble
By Patti Carmalt-Vener 08/15/2013
Because my parents had a horrible divorce, I’ve been reluctant to marry until I’m confident it will last. My fiancée, Mia, and I have been together two years, have wonderful sexual chemistry, and already share a beautiful life. She’s good-natured and fun, but once a month she gets really angry and acts terrible despite my attempts to be nice and understanding. She apologizes after every fight, admits that it wasn’t me, and says she automatically fights like her mother did with her father. We’ve learned good communication skills and listened to church sermons about respecting one’s mate, but when Mia’s angry everything’s forgotten. She’ll blame me for all our problems, threaten to leave, become sarcastic and blow everything out of proportion.
She wants a list of the common unhealthy ways of fighting so she can identify her behaviors and work on extinguishing them. I love her but just can’t commit to a faulty relationship. I don’t want to get married until we handle our disagreements more successfully for a good solid six months to a year.
Mia should be evaluated by a trained professional to rule out any underlying disorders causing mood swings. If her behavior is due to long-term modeling of unhealthy, quarrelsome altercations between her parents, you should attend counseling together to learn “fair fighting” strategies when in conflict.
Since she wants to identify her dysfunctional fighting patterns and replace them with positive alternatives, here are common examples of “unfair” or “dirty” fighting tactics:
Poor Timing: Bringing up issues at inopportune times (i.e., your partner is leaving for work or falling asleep); refusing to take or allow time-outs when needed; walking out in the middle of arguments with no indication of returning.
Escalating Over-generalizing: Refusing to stick to one issue; giving general rather than specific examples; speaking in absolutes; overstating terms (i.e., “You never…” or “You always …”).
Verbal Abuse: Belittling, degrading or humiliating the other; cursing, swearing and name-calling.
Nonverbal Body Language: Shaking head, looking away, folding arms and leaning backwards; facial expressions such as glaring, frowning, eye-rolling; using a vocal tone that is cold or sarcastic; sighing or groaning; giving the silent treatment; not listening and being aloof, indifferent or unresponsive; refusing to discuss the issue further.
Intimidation/Aggression/Physical Abuse: Threatening or invading a partner’s personal space; breaking objects; yelling, pushing, shoving or hitting.
Minimizing: Denying or preventing a partner from expressing even a reasonable amount of emotion (i.e., “Oh come on, it’s not that bad,” “Don’t make such a big deal,” “Chill out.”).
Bullying: Pulling rank; getting even; rejecting compromise; mind-reading; interrogating; ordering; preaching; giving unwanted advice; implying superiority.
Ultimatums: Issuing demands and threats (i.e., “Quit your job or I’m leaving.”).
Labeling: Telling a partner, “You’re lazy” rather than saying, “I need more help.”
Analyzing/Philosophizing: Constantly evaluating a partner’s personality and motives and imparting direction (i.e., “You only say those things because you’re insecure,” “You need to make more of an effort with your brother,” “Your friend is evil — stop seeing him.”).
Humor at Partner’s Expense: Condoning your comments with “just joking” or accusing partner of being “too sensitive.”
Cross-Complaining: When a partner points out something negative and countering with something negative that he or she does.
Blaming: Refusing to take responsibility; repeatedly shifting fault to the partner.
Bringing in the Jury: Using friends, children or relatives to take your side in arguments.
Defending Others: “My mother is wonderful and I don’t understand why you always pick on her.”
Criticizing/Making Assumptions: Engaging in accusations and conjectures without any evidence of wrongdoing; assuming the worst about a partner and exaggerating its impact on your life together; correcting or criticizing in front of others and not privately.
Guilt-Inducing: Playing the victim by reproaching a partner (i.e., “I put you through medical school and you don’t even buy me a birthday present.”); reiterating every hurt you’ve suffered in the relationship.
You’re correct in that marriage means entrusting your life and emotional well-being to another. A successful union, however, isn’t just picking the right partner; it’s also becoming the right partner. Since Mia is willing to try to change, listen carefully to what’s hurting her underneath her angry behavior. Many people communicate fine until negative feelings surface, primarily because they weren’t raised to handle such feelings constructively. Further, it’s difficult to undo injurious behaviors witnessed repeatedly in childhood. Let Mia know you appreciate her willingness to change even when it’s not easy to do.
Patti Carmalt-Vener, a faculty member with the Southern California Society for Intensive Short Term Psychotherapy, has been a psychotherapist in private practice for 23 years and has offices in Pasadena, Santa Monica and Canoga Park. Contact her at (626) 584-8582 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit her Web site, patticarmalt-vener.com.com.