Fight Right!

Here’s How to Fight the Right Way and Avoid Conflict with a New Partner


Guess what? International Pillow Fight Day takes place this month (yes, there really is a day for everything, folks!).

And, while it might sound daft, there’s nothing like a light hearted playfight with your other half to let off steam, behave like big kids and descend into giggles together, whether that’s fighting with pillows, chasing each other with dishcloths or racing each other down the street.

In fact, in the early stages of a relationship, when the physical stuff is just getting going and you’re giddy and nervous around each other’s bodies, something as silly and harmless as a pillow fight often helps channel sexual tension and build intimacy.

But while teasing each other and laughing about it will bring you closer together, not all fighting is good for your budding relationship. In fact, if you don’t figure out how to fight right early on, things can turn toxic.

That’s partly because, as research by psychoanalyst Otto Kernberg suggests, the neurobiological and psychological processes we go through when we experience love are worryingly close to those that spur on aggression.

To have a healthy relationship, you must learn to navigate between the two – to work out when your combative impulses are valid, and when they’re caused by fear or the strain of becoming emotionally vulnerable around someone new.

Because it’s okay to feel flushes of attraction, neediness, jealousy, possessiveness or the fear that someone could wound us – all of which very often come with falling in love.

But if you don’t handle these feelings properly, interrogating them fully and recognising when you’re repeating self-destructive behaviour from past relationship battles, you could wind up hurting your new love and yourself.


How not to fight

Ever found yourself in this situation? You’re on a date, things are going well, when you start talking about something a little more serious, or personal, maybe even political. Your date says something you don’t agree with and you question it, or express a different opinion. Immediately the atmosphere sours. They get angry or sink into a sulk. You struggle to pull the conversation back. Everything seems ruined.

Or maybe you’ve been chatting away quite comfortably – perhaps about something you’re a little raw about – and they say something insensitive or challenge you, out of the blue. You feel hurt, under attack, or insulted. Perhaps YOU get angry or upset. Perhaps YOU sulk.

The other person is bewildered. They don’t know what they’ve done. But you’re seething. Clearly, this wasn’t meant to be, right?


Take a deep breath

In either these situations, can you be sure either of you really did or said anything wrong?

Or did one of you just express yourself the wrong way?

Equally likely, is one of you still hurting, still stuck in the rut of your old relationship – ready to fly off the handle at a perceived slight because you can’t help but hear their words in your ex’s voice?

No one ever leaves a relationship unscathed. It takes work to heal and, until you have, you carry the scars. Perhaps you’ve ignored them so long you can’t even see or feel them anymore, but as soon as someone else says something that reminds you of the wound – even by accident – you can’t help picking at the scabs.

And suddenly, there you are, bleeding all over again. And you blame them for making the pain rush to the surface, even if they have no idea what they’ve done


Listen to your feelings –

But listen to where they’re coming from, too

Okay, you feel stung. Perhaps the other person really did step out of line, but perhaps they touched a nerve without meaning to.

Step away for a breather. Say you need to pop to the bathroom. Take a moment to pinpoint exactly what they said that hurt you. Ask yourself, reasonably, whether they could have known that it would have this effect.

Then, if you still feel unsettled, go back and calmly explain, rationally and without blame, what upset you and why.


Be gentle with each other

Its fine to explain things from your point of view, or to use personal anecdotes, to explain why you think the way you do. But don’t launch a personal attack on the other person’s character, personality, anxieties or perceived weaknesses to score a few points.

When you’re having a conversation about something like, say, politics, it’s essential to clarify that you aren’t criticizing the other person, you’re discussing something separate to both of you and that you care about understanding their point of view, even if you don’t agree with it.

Even if you ARE challenging someone’s behaviour, stay on track. Emphasize that you are uncomfortable with a certain thing they did or said, and explain why. Don’t exaggerate or emotionally blackmail them, just calmly state your point of view. If they respect you, they should hear you and be willing to talk it through.

And if you can see someone getting upset and emotional, ask yourself whether you need to win this battle, right now, and whether you really want to injure them and potentially destroy your relationship in the process. What do you gain by tearing them to shreds?

Yes, this could be an issue that’s so important to you that you need to come back to the conversation another time. If so, wait until you’re both calm.

But perhaps you don’t need to push them so hard. Perhaps there’s a reason this subject has such a profound effect on them – one that you need to tease out in time, as trust develops.


Avoid escalation – and stay-on-track

As relationship counsellor Zach Brittle says:

“Conflict discussion can go one of two directions. Generally when the discussion escalates, it ends badly and neither partner has gained any ground. When the conversation de-escalates, it creates room for dialogue. In order to prevent escalation, don’t find fault, don’t bring up the past and don’t keep going once the conversation is off the rails. Master couples have an ability to repair a conflict discussion early and often in order to keep it from escalating and becoming unproductive.”

In other words, when an argument starts to get nasty, don’t fuel the fire. Recognise that, when thing get heated, it no longer matters who is wrong or right, because once you’re both angry, all you’ll care about is standing your ground.

Instead, take steps to diffuse it. Try to find the parts of what they’re saying that you DO agree with, and build from there, explaining where you feel slightly differently, and why.

And whatever you do, don’t let the argument shift into being about something else. If they try to move to goalposts, say something like: “Ok, I’m happy to talk about that too, but right now can we just stay on this one topic,” or even: “I’m not sure what we’re arguing about anymore. Shall we come back to this another time when we’re less het up?”


Be prepared to say sorry

Never underestimate the power of an apology.

If you know you said things that were harsh and cruel, you became aggressive, the other person was visibly upset, or there was anything about the way you behaved that now, in the cold light of day, seems unnecessary: SAY SORRY.

You don’t have to tell them they were right. You don’t have to back down from your stance or opinion. But DO apologise for the way you made them feel.


Be kind when you’re not fighting

Usually when disagreements explode into full-blown war, it’s because one or both of you already resentments or relationship anxieties bubbling away.

Going out of your way to show your partner that you see them, hear them, and support them during “peacetime” helps make them feel safer emotionally.

That means listening – really listening – to each other, celebrating each other’s successes, remembering to drop them a note or give them a call to check in when you know they’re worried, in need of a pep talk or outlet (for instance, before and after an interview, exam, presentation or dreaded doctor’s appointment). It also means simple, thoughtful things, like bringing them a cup of tea in the morning or running them a bath when they’re exhausted.

The point is, the more “cared for” someone feels, the less likely they are to let the claws ping out the second they feel threatened by a disagreement.

Oh, and when you start to annoy each other… maybe just have a pillow fight to ease the tension instead.


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Cling On – or let go? Pt2

In the first part of this series, I talked about how all humans have a basic need to feel safe and secure, and how to make sure that you offer that to your partner in ways that are healthy and not controlling or counterproductive.

But this is only the tip of the iceberg. Or, in Maslovian terms, the base of the pyramid.

To recap, this is Maslov’s Hierarchy of Needs:



Okay, now let’s move on…


Psychological needs.

The moment we’re confident that we’re not going to starve and we’re safe from immediate harm, we start fixating on belonging and love. We need to feel part of something, that we’re understood and cared about, that we have mutual trust, affection and intimacy in our lives. And for that, we seek out companionship, friendship and romance.

But often, this is where the cracks start to form.

Especially when:

  1. One of you believes this need should must be met solely by your partner
  2. One of you underestimates how much the other is looking to you to fulfil this need

Let’s start with the first one: fighting too hard to make yourself the only person who meets this need.

At its core, this is jealousy and self-doubt. It’s the fear that if someone else can give your partner any part of the love or belonging that they need, you will become redundant. 

Maybe your other half is excited about a big night out with their friends. Maybe they’re up all night chatting to a sibling after you’ve gone to bed. Maybe they never miss training, no matter what, even though you’d much rather spend Saturday morning together. Whatever it is, it’s something that makes them happy – but that doesn’t include you. And it feels like a threat.

Okay: getting this bit right is a delicate balancing act. It’s the hardest part of any relationship.

Everyone has that friend who disappears the minute they strike up a new romance, never to be seen again until it all goes tits up and they need a shoulder to cry on. Everyone’s had that awful sinking feeling when the first flush of love starts to die down and they realise they’ve let their friendships slide for months, even years.


That feeling of loss

Everyone’s had that feeling of loss when they realise an important bond has slipped through their fingers.

The thing is, being with our partner meets our need to belong in different ways to those of our friends/family/teammates/others we care about.

These bonds aren’t mutually exclusive. They complement one another.

And while couples generally look to each other for love and affection, trying to isolate your partner from the friendships they had before they knew you is hugely destructive. Eventually, they will resent you for it.

Trying to isolate your partner from the friendships they had before they knew you is hugely destructive. Eventually, they will resent you for it.

Hopefully you’ll get on well enough with your partner’s friends and family that you’re a big part of each other’s lives and extended groups. Belonging to each other also means belonging to each other’s worlds. But at the same time, you need to appreciate that their closest friendships and family relationships exist without you – and respect that, when they want to spend time with these people alone, this is a legitimate need and does not threaten your bond.


Don’t try and replace

The important thing is not to try and replace or limit your partner’s access to other sources of intimacy. It’s making sure that you both strive to assure the person that you love them, so that you are comfortable enough in your relationship to loosen your grip.

That’s where the second part of the equation comes in: underestimating how much the other person needs you to feel loved, and that they belong.

If your partner tells you they feel lonely and neglected when you’re out all the time without them, hear them out. You might not agree, but don’t get defensive or impatient. or try to invalidate their emotions.

Are you taking them for granted? Are they kind of low on your list of priorities? Do you treat them as a fall-back option when other plans fall through? Do you readily cancel on them, or switch work shifts to accommodate other people when you never seem to be able to do the same for them?

Because if, deep down, the answer is “yes”, you need to get real with yourself about why.

Perhaps you had become a bit wrapped up in yourself, in which case, strike compromises that mean you spend more quality time together. But if you no longer enjoy their company and are not willing to work through your problems, it may be time to re-evaluate your relationship. Either way, don’t act as if they are being unreasonable, because they have a right to expect love and companionship from their partner.

Even if the answer to these questions is “no”, berating your partner won’t make them feel more loved and less needy. You’ll wind up having the same fights, straining your relationship and exacerbating the problem.

Reassure them that you love them and love spending time with them. Make plans together and be enthusiastic about it. Look for ways to show them they’re on your mind when you’re apart, even if it’s just a text to see how they are. If they rely on you too much because they’ve let other relationships take a backseat, nudge them to spend time with the friends and family they’ve been neglecting.

And lastly, introduce them to your friends.

This isn’t just about making them feel included. It’s also about addressing psychological needs at the next level of the pyramid: Esteem.

Our esteem needs – the need to feel important, capable and valuable, to have a sense of accomplishment – are obviously met by many sources other than our partners; this comes from our careers, academic achievements, hobbies, passions and meeting important goals. But the dynamic we have with our partner can strengthen or undermine all that.

No matter how confident you are, no matter how talented or capable or good at your job, if your partner keeps you at arm’s length from their friends, family or colleagues, this hurts. You begin to think they’re ashamed of you in some way.


We all want to feel that our partner is proud of us

We all want to feel that our partner is proud of us, proud to be with us, proud to be seen with us.

It feels good to hear that they speak highly of us when we’re not there. It feels good when they want to show us off to other people in their lives.

The smallest gestures can communicate this. Making sure you let them know you’re impressed or proud of them for hitting that milestone they’ve been agonising about. Telling them they look hot when they’ve made an effort. Thanking them – sincerely – for something they’ve done for you. Complimenting them or bringing up something they’re proud of in front of other people.


You need to give each other space to breathe

You can’t do any of this when you’re consumed by jealousy and possessiveness. You need to give each other space to breathe and do your own thing so that you both have things you’re proud of, so that you can take pleasure in each other’s successes. It’s all about letting go, without pushing away.


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That takes us up to Part 3, where I’ll talk about making the tough climb to the top of the pyramid together – and how to give each other the chance to feel happy in your own skin. Click here to read it once released.

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3 ways you’re dooming your relationship before it’s began

Have you been single since what seems like forever – and miserable about it? If so, you may be falling into one of these common self-defeating traps.

1) You Raise the Wrong Bars Way Too High

I’m not suggesting you settle for something or someone that just isn’t right for you. I’ve talked before at length about why it’s so important to know what you need in another person.

… But read that carefully: not, what you want.

What you need.

Because this is where things get muddled.

Remember the Attraction Pyramid I mentioned a few posts back? How in most situations we automatically approach attraction the wrong way around, by starting with health and status markers (how they look and signs they are dominant in a particular context), then whether we have an emotional connection, and then exploring the more logical basis for a relationship, i.e. whether we are really compatible for the reasons that genuinely matter?

Well, this is part of the same problem.

Sometimes, this is straightforwardly shallow. Obviously, if your priority near physical perfection or a certain size of bank balance, rather than someone with whom you connect and share values, you’re unlikely to have a meaningful relationship any time soon.

But usually, it’s more insidious than this. The way we draw up lists of things we’re looking for in a partner tend to be woefully superficial because our needs are incredibly complex – too difficult for us to put into simple terms. Instead, we end up using stand-in symbols that are far from perfect because we assume they mean the same thing.

For example, you might decide that you want to be with someone who works in a similar profession as you, so that they ‘get’ what you do.

But the underlying need could be that you have someone to whom you can unpack your day – who makes you feel safe and supported and able to express your worries.

Equally, it could be that you need someone who motivates you – someone to bounce ideas off, who is really interested in what you do, fuels your excitement and is more likely to suggest a solution to a problem than complain that it’s keeping you at work until 10pm.

Or it could be that you simply assume your shared experience will equal shared outlook, interests or passions.

Simply going out with someone who is also a teacher or a doctor or an actor or who runs their own business or whatever it you have on your list might mean that they understand where you’re coming from and can give you what you need. But that’s no guarantee.

Much better to look out for signs that they are that kind of person, rather than just presume it goes with the territory of a certain career.

The same goes for those little imperfections that crop up in the early stages.

People say things that are a bit awkward or embarrassing sometimes, especially when they’re nervous. A mildly annoying habit or trait, an anecdote that doesn’t quite come off, a slight personality flaw that means they’re not, in fact, perfect – for the most part, these are just signs that you’re not out for a drink with a robot. They’re not reasons to throw in the towel.

And obviously, anyone you have a relationship with will inevitably have different opinions on everything from books, film and music, to politics and philosophy, to the latest iPhone model. You don’t have to agree on everything, all the time.

… Instead, you need to have clear in your head what it is that you do absolutely need to agree on.

If a sense of adventure and exploring new places is what makes you tick, a relationship with a total homebody who prefers routine and certainty is unlikely to work. Alternatively, if you know that the most important thing for you is stability and closeness to your family, there’s little point kindling things with someone who clearly finds that stifling, no matter whether they tick all the boxes when it comes to having a safe, well-paid job and a mortgage.

It’s not about lowering or raising your standards. It’s about figuring about which “standards” are absolute essentials for long term happiness and which are simply the icing on the cake.

2) You Go On Dates with People You Don’t Like and Are Upset When They Reject You

This is probably the most common type of self-destructive behaviour that long-term singletons slip into, and it usually makes them feel like they’re at their very lowest point.

It sounds like the other end of the spectrum to demanding perfection, but the two often go hand-in-hand. Why? Because once you’ve decided that your perfect person doesn’t exist, the next stage is often to say, f*** it, clearly beggars can’t be choosers – I’ll give anyone a chance.

Then, when it doesn’t work out, you’re so horrified by the you’ve been rejected by someone you didn’t care about anyway that this pushes you into another whole layer of depression. Even your “last resorts” don’t want you! Are you really that undesirable?

This is incredibly unhealthy for so many reasons.

Firstly, this is no way to view other people, male or female.

It’s sad that language we hear day in, day out (“You can do better” “S/he’s punching above his weight” and so on) reinforces this idea that there’s some magical scale out there somewhere that everybody’s positioned on. As if the goal is to land someone further up on the scale and dating someone further down it means they should be somehow grateful.

What an ugly way to see the world. And, just as importantly, what a load of nonsense.

Yes, you need to know what it is that you need in a person. What you are attracted to. What the deal breakers are for you, personally.

But this isn’t a universal scale. It’s a list of things that matter to you.

And that other person you’re meeting with? They don’t simply exist to bolster your ego. They can probably tell that you’re underwhelmed and are understandably put off by that.

Meanwhile, they have their own list. A list that might look startlingly different to yours.

This means that, where you might naturally assume that you are the more desirable person in the equation because you’re more conventionally attractive, have a better job, are smarter or wittier – whatever – these might not be the criteria they are really concerned about right now. They might be looking for things that are totally different.

All you’re doing when you go out with someone you’re already unenthused about is put two people through the misery of being judged on rules they can’t meet, don’t care about or don’t understand.

And you wonder why this leaves you feeling crap about yourself?

3) You’re Trying to Turn a Perfectly Fine Fling into a Disastrous Long Term Thing

This is not about slut-shaming or telling you at what point in your relationship you should sleep with someone. You’re a grown up and can make these decisions for yourself!

I’m also not talking about one-night stands that are fun in the moment, but that you never expect (or try) to take anywhere.

I’m talking specifically about a dalliance that’s so obviously founded on physical attraction, will only ever be about that, and should really have run its course.

… But now that it’s started, you feel like you need to keep it going.

The trouble is, even if you think you’re cool with just keeping things casual for now and seeing where things end up, that’s rarely what happens.

Let me explain.

I have so many friends who are jaded about dating, because they say their new flings fizzle so fast.

Mostly these are women who say that, even if they aren’t sure yet if they’re looking for something serious, the guys they’ve been hooking up with go quiet all of a sudden for reasons they don’t understand.

One friend told me recently that she was left feeling pretty crappy about herself and annoyed with one man she’d seen a few times.

She’d made it clear that she wanted to keep things casual for now and, at first, he seemed okay with this – but then he bailed.

My friend couldn’t understand why a straight, warm-blooded man would behave like this. After all, isn’t that what all men want? Was she that unattractive that even a “fun fling” was turning her down?

Here’s how I see it: we live in a culture that constantly tells women that men are always after sex. That, if this on the cards, they’ll never say no. And if they can get it without emotional investment or commitment, so much the better.

(This works in both directions, by the way. Men grow up hearing that women ultimately want a relationship out of them, and that sex is, on some level, a tool used to “land” one. Many men are thrown when a woman they’ve been sleeping with says no, they don’t want to take it any further after all!)

But is that actually the case?

Okay, the desire to get laid drives a lot of people’s impulsive decisions, whether they’re male or female.

And while many relationships are passionate from the outset – which can be amazing – passion isn’t the same as just wanting to get someone naked. It’s being excited their company, about having a spark, about finding unexpected things you have in common (or don’t) and how that heightens your attraction to them.

If you’re going to spend any amount of time in each other’s company, you need to know that you have more to talk about than what’s below the waist.

If you don’t have the other elements in place, no matter how much fun the sex is, you’ll both get bored pretty damn fast, or, worse, you start projecting more meaning onto the situation than it deserves.

The longer this drags on, the more you retro-rationalise your conquest by telling yourself (and your friends) that maybe you do like this person. That they make you laugh. That they’re quite sweet really. That hey, maybe it could turn into something longer term.

Even when you know in your heart that you’re clutching at straws.

Even when you know that, if you were being rational right now, you would never have gone for someone like this.

Even when you know that they only reason you’re getting attached is that they’re here now and hey, it’s a hassle to get to know someone knew or you feel bad about upping your “number”.


No one likes to be rejected, whether it’s on an emotional or just a sexual level. Whether they wanted a relationship with this person or not. It’s a blow to our confidence. And if you know you’re going to get hurt, it’s just not worth putting yourself through this for something that’s meaningless in the long run.

Because the problem with trying to shoehorn something all about sex into something more substantial is that makes you emotionally vulnerable without any of the upsides.

To go back to the attraction pyramid for a moment: you’re taking a fling based on the flimsiest part of the pyramid – health and status – and allowing its failure to hurt you, when the only relationships you should be investing that kind of energy in are those that have firm foundations.

Relationships that have a logical basis in the things that matter to you – and that you need to feel happy, supported and safe.

This isn’t about moralising. This isn’t about making you feel bad.

It’s about taking a good look at the kinds of relationships you have in your life and asking yourself why you’re trying to keep them alive. Whether it would make you happy for them to succeed. And if not, whether it’s worth the potential pain of having them fall flat.

Then, using these questions to figure out what kind of relationship or person would be worth the potential heartache – and making sure you don’t get sucked in by ones that aren’t.

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