Fighting is normal and healthy in any relationship—and in fact it can help long-term relationships strengthen. However, there is a different between healthy and unhealthy fighting. And sometimes the way we communicated and fought with our families of origin can contribute to our fighting styles. Family of origin can be defined as the immediate family or others who lived in the household and had a significant influence on your life. The following steps will help you identify the influence of your family of origin on the way you fight with your partner.
Step 1: Identify Your Family of Origin
Family of origin can mean not only who your immediate family is/was, but can also include extended relatives who lived with you or had significant influence on your life. Foster parents or anyone else that provided significant care for you can also be considered part of your family of origin. List their names and relationships to you.
Step 2: Explore How Conflict Was Dealt With in Your Family of Origin
Take at least an hour for yourself to answer the questions below. It is okay to take a break and come back to the questions if you feel stuck. Sometimes there may be gaps or questions that are difficult to answer. If you feel comfortable you may ask a sibling, parent or other family member these questions to get another perspective or to help you fill in these gaps.
1. What did a “fight” or “conflict” mean in your family
2. How did each family member contribute to or engage in the conflict?
3. Sometimes family members cope by withdrawing…Who in your family disengaged in the conflict? And what did this look like?
4. How did you cope with conflicts or fights in your family?
5. What was each family members role in conflict in your family (including yourself)? Who was the peacemaker? Scapegoat? Provoker? Etc.
6. What emotions or feelings were not okay to express during a conflict? In general? Who determined this and how?
7. Were there certain emotions or feelings that were used frequently during conflict? How were they used and who used them?
Step 3: Examine How You Handle Conflict in Your Relationship
Give yourself about an hour to complete these questions. To answer these questions think of a recent fight with your partner—especially one that was difficult to resolve.
1. When your partner and you argue, what is typically your role?
2. During a conflict with your partner, what emotions feel safe to express? Which emotions do you find yourself struggling to express?
3. Think about the times when fights seem to escalate. What specific behaviors contribute to this escalation?
4. Consider times during a conflict with your partner when you feel very triggered, or bothered by their actions. Why are these actions triggering for you? How do you then respond to these triggers?
5. How do you cope with, or soothe yourself during a conflict with your partner?
Step 4: Check for Parallels
Again you should allow yourself an hour to complete the following questions. Review your answers to the previous sections before you answer the questions below. Again if you feel overwhelmed or stuck it is okay to take a break from the questions and return to them later.
1. Consider your role in conflict when with your family and when with your partner. What are the similarities? The differences? Why might these similarities and differences exist? How might your past be influencing your expectations today?
2. Think about how the role you play in conflict with your partner benefits you, and then hurts you. How do the costs and benefits compare to those from the role with your family?
3. Look at which emotions were difficult to express during a conflict in your family and with your partner. What are the similarities and the differences and why might these exist?
4. In what ways is your coping or self-soothing when you argue with your partner similar to the ways you coped and self-soothed when in conflict with your family? What are the differences?
5. When are you most likely to make yourself vulnerable? What happens when you do let your guard down?
5. Revisit the times when fights seem to escalate with your partner and when you feel very triggered by your partner. Who in your family of origin perhaps acted the same towards you during a conflict?
Remember…Once you understand your behavior it can often be easier to change this behavior. Keep in mind that this work can be challenging so you may need to pace yourself and explore slowly.