Kritika Singh, a 28-year-old Human Resources professional recently moved back in with her husband, Kunal, a 33-year-old investment banker, a year after she left home with their infant son.
The reasons for the rift were many, but when pressed, Singh remembers only the most painful — Kunal’s behaviour when they fought.
Kunal, who wasn’t keen to turn parent soon after marriage, was angry when Singh announced she was pregnant. Although her doctor advised against abortion due to gynaecological concerns, Kunal failed to see reason.
As tempers flared, he would berate Singh for quitting her job after their son was born, and often thump his fist against a wall or table for emphasis. Sometimes, he’d push her around, too. Kritika would fight back, but never tell Kunal to stop hurting her.
Two years after they got married, Singh decided to leave Kunal, unwilling to live with him or work things out. He approached a counsellor, who made him understand that the real way to tackle anger is two-pronged — understand where it’s coming from, and learn how to express it the right way.
A recent study published in international journal Behaviour Therapy found that intervention which addresses how couples fight has a positive outcome.
Communication exercises like editing out the negative and accepting your partner’s influence, leads to a decrease in aggressive behaviour. The study was conducted among couples whose fights ended in violence.
Editing out the negative, which involves checking one’s defensive response to say something negative (increasing back-and-forth in arguments), and accepting influence, in which one does not invalidate the partner’s concerns, have also been found to be effective among non-violent partners.
Dr Minnu Bhonsle, consulting psychotherapist and relationship counsellor offers behavioural therapy for fighting couples. This involves a four-step method on expressing what’s bothering a person; active listening by their partner; and the right way to apologise.
Cognitive therapy sessions (telling oneself not to give into one’s impulse to say something negative, for instance) accompany these sessions. Often, anger masks unresolved issues that go back to a person’s childhood, says Bhonsle, who meets partners individually to tackle their anger issues.
“Fights, even if they don’t lead to violence, are a result of toxic communication styles. Both partners need to take responsibility for their aggression, which can be both, overt and covert,” says Bhonsle.
Overt aggression is exhibited by those who give in to their impulse, like Kunal, who’d initiate fights over matters that troubled him. Covert aggression is when a partner chooses to not communicate in each fight, but exhibits a violent outburst once in a while.
This is what Singh did when she left Kunal after bearing with his aggression for two years and not seeking to communicate effectively. “Her anger was seething under the surface,” explains Bhonsle, who treated the duo. “She needed to tell him what was acceptable, and not expect him to have foreknowledge of it,” adds Bhonsle.
Another important area of therapy involved making Kunal understand the consequences of his actions, and separating his personality from his actions.
“The idea is not to demonise the individual, but to draw attention to how their behaviour and actions are distinct, and can be changed,” explains Bhonsle.
If you put it well, your fight becomes a healthy discussion — something that Singh and Kunal learnt before it was too late.
(Names of the partners have been changed to protect identity)
How to ‘argue’effectively
Step 1: Describe what bothered you in a few lines. Don’t accuse.
Step 2: Describe how the event made you feel emotionally, but don’t indulge in a ‘you tirade’ (“You are insensitive”; “You are always putting me down” etc).
Step 3: Give a specific suggestion of what your partner could have done instead. “I would have preferred it if you had …”
Step 4: Prove the suggestion is a win-win situation (“This would have made me feel respected and helped you have a good time, if I hadn’t walked away”).
How to listen actively
Step 1: After hearing your partner express what’s bothering them, relay it back. “You are saying you felt bad about X, if I had behaved this way, you would have felt Y, and I would have felt Z.”
This helps your partner feel unburdened and achieve closure.
Step 2: Apologise. This is more than saying ‘I am sorry’. You are required to say: “I see it was wrong”; “I know it hurt you, I regret it”; “I am sorry; I am going to change, and I trust you will bear with me”; “Please forgive me, if you can.”
There is an action plan within this apology, and your partner is made to feel respected, and not pressured to offer instant forgiveness.
Use the right words
Drop demanding words like ‘must’ and ‘should’.
Try ‘it would be nice if …’
Quit catastrophising. ‘This is a disaster’ can be replaced with ‘it’s inconvenient’; ‘I can’t handle it’ indicates a low frustration threshold. Tell yourself, you can handle it.
Rate a person’s behaviour, not the person. ‘His action was moronic’ instead of ‘He’s a moron’.