I’ve always believed one of the greatest abilities of the women in my family is being able to rip flesh from the body with their words. We can eviscerate any verbal opponent with nothing but our tongue and our knowledge, deeply wounding our adversary on a psychological level.
And while this skill may sound impressive, it translates to this: We’re very bad at fighting. Not physically, but verbally. We play dirty, go for the soft spot, lose our heads and we never look back. We do what it takes to win, no matter the cost, and inevitably damage relationships in the process.
It was only after I got married that I came to realize that I, too, had this terrible gift. I couldn’t have an argument that ended with an “I’m sorry” and a compromise. I didn’t understand how to prevent myself from seeing red and immediately jumping on the defense the moment my spouse began to point out my mistakes. I didn’t know how to suppress the urge to slap my husband across the face when he said something hurtful to me.
Why didn’t I know any of this, you ask?
I grew up in a very dysfunctional family. Raised by two people who never should’ve gotten married, my parents regularly got into fights that would keep me awake at night because they were yelling at the top of their lungs at one another. I grew up not realizing that calm and rational conversations were the healthy way to resolve issues.
Plus, talking about our “feelings and stuff” wasn’t part of the childhood development plan in my household. Children were to be seen, not heard. There were gigantic pink elephants sitting in every room of our house, but I never brought them up. If I had an issue with one of my parents I just stuffed down deep and kept it to myself, or else I would’ve suffered the consequences.
So when my family did have disagreements, they weren’t your average heated discussion. They were nuclear meltdowns. There was screaming, crying, hitting, destroying items of value and insult slinging of course. By the end of the fight we weren’t even yelling about the issue at hand, rather we were screaming at one another about events that happened years ago. Past wrongs and old wounds that were never properly addressed.
This argument style went on for years and years. Don’t bring up a problem when it first occurs; rather, stuff it down deep, let your resentment fester and then explode over a minor issue months down the road. Then, when you’re in the heat of the argument, with tears and boogers streaming down the front of your red face, bring up all the past grievances you’ve locked away inside. Healthy, right? But that was my modus operandi.
Want to know the worst part? I grew up never saying, “I’m sorry” unless I was forced into it. Yep, that’s right. I never told my parents I was sorry for how I behaved. I never uttered those two words to my friends if we got in a disagreement. I refused to use it with my husband and risk looking weak. I just let it ride. And you know what? I didn’t feel sorry. Not one little bit. I felt like they deserved whatever I yelled at them and I certainly wasn’t going make myself look weak by apologizing for my behavior.
Only years later, when my sweet and patient husband pointed out that I’m a terrible fighter did I come to terms with reality.
It was a couple days after one of our few and far between big fights and my husband cautiously approached me about the issue. “Honey when you fight you don’t just talk about the issue,” he said to me, “You launch into attack mode and bring up all sorts of stuff that’s personal and hurtful. It’s like you no longer care about the issue, but about hurting me.”
Talk about stopping me dead in my tracks.
His observation was simple and yet I never heard it before. Certainly no one in my family had ever pointed out this behavior! In that moment I had a big decision to make: Was I going to cling to my old ways of defending myself to the death with my words? Or was I going to take this constructive criticism from my soulmate and become a better person for it?
I decided to take his criticism and grow from it.
I began to talk with my husband about my fighting style and about how I communicated with him. He slowly, and very gently, pointed out areas where I could use some serious improvement. And as I listened, I was shocked to hear that I was hurting him so much during our arguments.
Each discussion was a challenge as I had to suppress the urge to defend myself and my behavior. I was in the wrong and I had to accept it. I know occasional disagreements and fights indicate healthy relationships. It means you’re willing to voice your true feelings and have a rational (even heated) discussion about them. But learning how to keep my head on and not go for the jugular the moment I feel like I’m “losing” is something I’m still working on.
In the end, I’ve taken everything I learned about fighting and thrown it out the window. There is no “winner”, there’s no need to burn bridges and there’s absolutely no reason to hold grudges and allow resentment to fester. I learned to shut my mouth and listen intently to what my husband has to say. I’ve added the phrases. “You’re right”, “I can see your point”, “I was wrong” and “I’m sorry” to my vocabulary and I’ve started to use them regularly.
While words can be deadly, they’re also a great way to let someone know how you’re truly feeling and to ask for help. So I’m starting fresh and taking every opportunity to learn how to argue less and talk more.