Fighting For Couples Doesn’t Have To Be Mean
Most people are meaner than they realize when they’re upset. Couples therapy helps couples recognize this, but as a couples therapist, I like to go one step further, proposing that people have the capacity not to be mean. One can become aware of it and not give in.
For many couples, the idea that fighting doesn’t have to be mean can feel like a breath of fresh air. If fighting has been ugly, your therapist is likely to suggest a simple yet challenging to execute rule: “You can’t be mean” and then, follow it up with lots of help pulling this off.
What Does “Mean” Mean Anyway?
Most people know what mean is. It isn’t just something that is hurtful. Sometimes the most caring things are nonetheless hurtful.
Being mean is saying something below the belt and with the intention of hurting. This can look like bringing up old hurts or things that are embarrassing for your partner just to make him or her feel bad. Being mean can also be name-calling or trading in on racial or gender stereotypes. Another way to be mean is by saying “you always” or expressing hyperbole. Ignoring when your partner is triggered or upset while continuing to pile on, as well as bringing up a topic that is a source of pain for your partner in a way that is insufficiently sensitive, can also be forms of meanness.
Meanness Can Be A Fixture In The Culture Of A Relationship: Stopping Can Lead To Better Understanding
Meanness isn’t simply a fixture of all relationships or an inevitable feature of disagreement. The culture of a relationship doesn’t exist in a vacuum. We bring our histories to relationships, including our family lives growing up, the culture of our workplace and friend groups, our past relationships and, of course, the culture more broadly. Whatever its origins, though, meanness can become a fixture in the culture of a relationship. The parties in a relationship are mean to one another because that’s what they do–it’s the norm and it’s tolerated. Meanness is a sort of laziness.
There are certain habits that we can only understand in the absence of doing them. If the rule “don’t be mean” is imposed and everyone endeavors to follow that rule, it’s very likely that the result is a better understanding of the meanness by virtue of its absence and the creative challenge of having to figure out how else to move forward. I think of it in some ways like a cooking show in which suddenly the host takes away the contestants’ salt or declares they’re no longer allowed to use their right hand. It’s a sort of developmental hindrance, forcing the issue of “now what.”
Meanness Doesn’t Have To Justify Meanness
In couples therapy, I sometimes say to couples, only half-joking, that they need to create a practice in which whomever stops the meanness back-and-forth gets a high five or a shout-out. What we’re trying to do is celebrate the very hard move of stepping out of the moment. It reminds me of being on a diet and having someone offer you candy–it’s just so tempting. The reason for this, as I’ve come to understand it, is that once the mean “seal” is broken, so to speak, there’s a sort of implicit free pass to go there (“My partner’s just been mean so now I can too, with impunity”). There’s a vulnerability in not tossing it back. How do we help bolster the person who’s taking the risk to make that move? I challenge whoever is willing to step up and say, “Time out. We’re being mean and we have to stop.”
It’s important to change the way meanness tends to be talked about–as one or the other partner being mean. Instead, meanness can be something that couples can own and change together. There’s nothing more boring in a relationship than the conversation (which we’ve all had!) about who was mean first or what thing that which person said was the meanest. What’s on offer, instead, is to say, as a reminder, “We agreed we won’t be mean and that we’re not going to do that together.” In this case, everyone has to work his or her tail off to suspend the impulse to be mean.
Creating The Right Conditions For Disagreements
Disagreements tend to be the occasions when meanness is most likely to come into play. Given that, if we remove meanness as an option, the challenge is for couples to be more self-conscious about the conditions they create for disagreements to take place.
Disagreements need the right environment–the right time, place and emotional conditions. How do couples set that up? In my couples therapy practice, I often talk with couples about thinking like a film director or art director–where and when should the scene take place? What sort of setup is needed and what time does everyone need to prepare? Some surprising things may follow like recognizing that hot topics are best not discussed in the house or before the kids go to bed.