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My Therapist Suggested A Weekly “Fight Night”

Slipping into the passenger seat of my fiancé’s truck, I plotted my escape from my new life in the Midwest. Full of angst, I stared ahead at a building while the sound of Steve’s sniffles pierced my chest like knives.

Months earlier, just shy of 43, I’d quit my long-term job and packed up my life in New York to return to the state I’d left at 18, but this time I was joining my partner, his three sons, and two dogs. We purchased a house for our makeshift family and sought out counseling to help us navigate our new terrain.

For two weeks each month, Steve’s children (ages 16 to 23) lived with us, and obliviated my former tidiness and quiet by their clutter of cups, take-out, and laundry, never ending trash, and the incessant noise from blaring TVs, shouting at video games, and barking dogs. Cleaning up their garbage, I felt like a full-time housekeeper with no benefits or pay. I stopped wearing my hearing aids at home to decrease my access to the sounds. When I complained to Steve about the mess, he said, “Leave it. I’ll clean up after everyone when I get home from work.”

But that wasn’t the answer I wanted. I wanted to work together to maintain an immaculate house. He seemingly wanted to avoid conflict at all costs.

Sadly, our first foray into couples counseling was a bust. I sat there and basically treated Steve like I was back in my old job as a Wall Street lawyer, reminding him of all the times he’d made promises about our living rules and standards and then failed to deliver in the ways I wanted. He lost his temper and yelled “You’re right!” At that point we were dead in the water, with no clear path to move forward.

The therapist flippantly said, “Make a chart. Split up chores. You only have one child in the house. The other two are adults. They can step up, pay rent, or move out.” But I just didn’t believe it would work, and it felt like my fairy tale romance — a chance meeting while in Missouri to care for my elderly father that quickly grew into love — had hit ugly reality rock bottom. I started mentally calculating how much it would cost to move back to Brooklyn.

Outside in the truck, Steve took my hand. “I’m not giving up on us.”

“I’m sorry for what happened in there,” I said, angry with myself for treating him as my opposition. But this win against Steve was no victory.

Desperate, I called my former Manhattan therapist, knowing the new therapist didn’t unpack my brewing anger, Steve’s challenges as an exhausted divorced dad, or the boys’ emotional needs. To save our relationship, my old shrink suggested we invest in a Gottman Method workshop.

Right away, Steve and I registered for a weekend workshop in California.

Over two days, we gathered with dozens of other couples in a sunny conference room and learned the concept of weekly marriage meetings from two Gottman-trained therapists. The rules were simple: (1) we would express five things for which we were grateful about our partner from the prior week, (2) discuss any unresolved issue from the prior week and tackle it from a place of calm with a step-by-step method for avoiding blame and creating understanding, and (3) articulate what we needed to feel love in the upcoming week. We playfully dubbed point three, “fight night.”

During a practice session, Steve and I sat with our handbooks.

I felt like saying “ready, aim, fire,” reared up to discuss what had bugged me. But I looked at my notes on how to start a productive discussion and focused on my emotions.

“I feel frustrated when I see dishes, takeout and trash in the kitchen and laundry piling up.”

“I’m frustrated too. That’s why I tell you that I’ll clean everything after work.” Steve scanned the workbook. “Sorry. I wasn’t supposed to say my fix to the situation. Let me try again. Why is this so important to you?”

“I get overwhelmed by messes. Clutter creates chaos in my head. I can’t work if I know I need to clean.”

He studied the book again. “Is this related to something in childhood?”

I hadn’t considered that. But I could see how growing up in a small, noisy, stuffed house with seven people and a dog made me extra sensitive to clutter.

“I never wanted to live like I did as a child. I think I fear creating the home I tried so hard to escape.”

Steve took my hand. “It makes sense how you’d feel extra stressed, especially with the way our kitchen looks sometimes.”

I agreed to relax my standards, and we’d create a “no-drop zone,” the center kitchen island, to protect my sanity. We’d institute a chore schedule, too, so his boys could pick three things each month to do to help keep the house tidier.

As the weekend progressed, I ditched my lawyerly focus on facts, and we unpacked conflict, talking to each other and actively listening. I learned how grabbing my phone and walking away when I was angry triggered Steve and made his reaction larger. We learned to spot when I became flooded and give me time for a break. We committed to taking 20 minutes to cool off and reconvene within 24 hours from a place of calm.

We kept our fight nights going when we got back home, too. Often, we found ourselves sharing far more than five gratitudes, which noticeably improved our moods. We learned to unpack conflict focused on feelings, take responsibility for our part in any miscommunication, and work together on ways to do better. And we always ended by sharing one thing we needed from each other to feel love.

Years later, we actually look forward to our weekly meetings, which we still call fight night, even though it’s really not. I no longer sling facts, and ignore or blow up feelings when disputes arise, and my partner has learned to speak up, instead of stew in silence. Plus, I no longer panic if something sits in the no drop zone and am aware of the power of a hug and a moment of silence when we disagree and need a time to reset. Throughout all, we keep in mind what we really are doing is staying on the same team. And that keeps both of us safe.

Tess Clarkson, a former professional Irish dancer (“Riverdance” and “Michael Flatley’s Lord of the Dance”) and financial regulation lawyer in New York, now lives in Missouri with her husband. Her essays have appeared in The Washington Post, HuffPost, AARP’s publications, and more. She’s certified as a yoga teacher, astrologer, and end-of-life doula, and is working on a memoir.

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