It’s a sunny Saturday morning and you and your partner are lying in bed discussing your weekend plans when a disagreement arises. The conversation quickly gets heated and escalates into a fight. Another bad start to the day and you wonder whether this relationship can actually work… or whether any relationship could actually work? You feel hurt, annoyed and disconnected from the person lying next to you, the one who is supposed to be the closest to you!
This is a typical scenario in many conflicted relationships. In couples therapy, I meet with people who jump from one relationship to the next, always thinking that this one will be different only to land in the same fighting game with their next partner.
From a yogic perspective, fighting is not caused by conflict – instead, it is the result of one or two people’s inability to manage their own emotional reactivity.
The path of yoga teaches us that we are responsible for our own energy no matter the circumstances (in this case, a triggering sparring partner). While most of us were never taught how to work with difficult feelings (let alone how to tolerate them without spewing them all over another) a few yogic stages of behavioral change can support us in mastering this worthwhile endeavor and permanently end unnecessary fighting.
Stage 1 – Antidoting
When disagreements begin to escalate, pause the discussion and allow your awareness to turn inwards. Take as much time as needed for the energy in both partners to settle before resuming the conversation. For this resolution to happen it is important to let the mind relax and not continue to think about the issue that is causing the upset. This can be done in many ways, but the easiest is to close your eyes and let your mind travel gently and slowly from the top of the head through the entire body, towards the soles of your feet. Imagine that a cool, blue light is calming and purifying the negative emotions.
This is called antidoting as it counteracts the negative effects of the poison/ hurtful words and fighting and is to be used until you can tolerate the discomfort of difficult emotional sensation. With regular practice, this skill will be sharpened, but will need to be repeated each time disagreement agitates your triggers.
Stage 2 – Transformation
Once you have some practice with antidoting, you will come to find that emotions are not your enemy and can actually be hosted within your body without impulsively reacting in argument. At this stage there is no need to quiet the emotions and you can begin to work on transformation, which involves moving towards the energy and using a yogic tool like the breath to morph the emotion from limiting and painful, to expansive and possibly even pleasurable. This time when you close your eyes you are going to search for the most difficult sensation inside of the body and breathe deeply into it until it changes.
Over time you will be able to do this with your eyes open and eventually while the conversation with your partner is in full swing. Typically, what happens now is that as the internal energy starts to shift for one or both parties, the conversation becomes lighter, more productive and common ground is easier to find. Also, when you witness your partner’s work on their reactivity and they witness the same, empathy and compassion are cultivated, deepening intimacy and understanding. This is the phase where most healthy relationships work, moving towards the realization that nearly all issues are not worth fighting about and compromising precious love. There is however, one more level.
Stage 3 – Direct
The final stage is direct – meaning that once you become extremely skilled at wielding your emotions that you can choose to dissolve them immediately into pure, loving energy. This stage takes years and years of yogic practice, but when absolute love is truly present between two people, petty fighting becomes unthinkable.
I love this work because it focuses on what we’re feeling rather than the content of what we’re saying. When partners fight, quite often both perspectives are “right” according to each person’s subjective history and experience. Therefore words become deadlocked and partners feel separated and misunderstood. When working instead with our own emotional energy and reactivity, we learn that ideas that seemed so abrasive and hurtful are simply a difference of opinion, where compromise can be easily found when coming from a place of mutual compassion and understanding.
None of this is to say that it is never appropriate to argue, there is a time and place for everything. But when fighting is chronic and a consequence of trivial issues, it is time to look deeper within and take control.