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Pull the plug on your same old fight

By Martha Beck,
  • Some couples have hurtful, unproductive fights over the same issues
  • Some are sparked by emotional wounds, but also by simple pattern formation
  • Marriage therapist suggests breaking the pattern by doing one thing different
  • Criticize only when wearing oven mitts, insult only while lying on the floor
  • Marriage
  • Relationships

( -- You're mulling the night's TV options when your significant other grabs the remote and starts clicking away like a sugar-fueled 5-year-old. When you mention this, he asks how your OCD is going.

You counterstrike that his mother raised her sons to be boorish louts -- eliciting his usual rant about your mom still serving him meatloaf when he's been a vegetarian for years. What's your love trap?

It's the same fight you had last week. And the 962 weeks previous. It would almost be funny if the whole routine weren't so hurtful, unproductive, and bafflingly inescapable.

But here's the aha: While repetitive arguments stem from misunderstandings and emotional wounds, they also owe a lot to simple pattern formation. As my karate teacher used to say, practice doesn't make perfect -- it makes permanent. What we've done before, we tend to do again. Step-by-step guide to getting relationship right

Which means we can disrupt our patterns with a brilliant trick that marriage therapist Bill O'Hanlon calls the do-one-thing-different approach.

For instance, you can criticize each other's TV habits, but only if you're wearing oven mitts. You can insult relatives as long as you're lying on the floor. You can question each other's sanity, but only in whispers. Seduction instructions even a klutz can follow

The effect can be extraordinary. Your brain, startled by new associations, loses the familiar flow as you see the useless toxicity of whatever you're about to say. You may even end up laughing.

At the least, you'll find you have the power to change fights you "can't help" having, by starting small and being creative. And that's a pattern you want to repeat.