How To Stop a Fight
(get off the gerbil wheel)
Have you ever watched a gerbil on a wheel? They are not going anywhere – just madly spinning – but they do it with fierceness, focus and drive. Two gerbils running next to each other have the same expression and together they go nowhere really fast – spinning and spinning on their little legs.
It’s impressive. It’s mesmerizing. It’s what most of us do when we fight. We cycle through the same arguments, in the same way, over and over again.
We’re just gerbils on a wheel – side by side.
So how does it end? We have a few choices. We can keep spinning until we’re both exhausted, stumbling, dizzy. This is what happens most of the time. We repeat the same accusations, bring up old fights. (You always do that. You never do anything for me.) We point at that damn gerbil next to us and accuse them of keeping the wheel going. Meanwhile, we’re panting and determined and fierce.
We can try to outrun our partner, beat them at a game that has no prize for the winner. We try to defend ourselves or convince our partner to change. (I never said that – and besides, you do the same thing! or — Why won’t you talk to me? Don’t you love me?). We convince ourselves that we are in the Right and our lover/partner/husband/wife/friend is Wrong on all counts.
Or, we can just stop running.
If one gerbil stops running, the wheel stops spinning. The weight of the gerbil who is standing still stops the frantic cycle. It’s sudden. It’s miraculous. It’s remarkably hard and yet so simple.
If, in the middle of an argument, you say — “You know what, I don’t want to fight with you. I don’t know what to do but mostly I’m scared of losing you so I’m saying all this crap to push you away so I don’t have to feel that fear.” If you are able to say that you have stopped the wheel.
Stopping means being the person willing to only look at themselves in that moment. It means pointing at your own belly and stating a fear instead of an accusation. It helps to think of yourself as a gerbil next time you’re in the middle of an argument. Imagine you are a little furry beast who can’t remember why you’re running so hard.
I tell the couples with whom I work that it only takes one partner to stop an argument. It takes two to keep it going. If one person is able to – just for a moment – talk about their fear of being alone, of being unloved, of being incapable of of loving then the spinning has (at least temporarily) stopped and the couple is learning how to be together in a new way.
It can be pretty life-changing to approach your next fight this way. You are just a gerbil, on a wheel, who has decided not to run themselves into the ground.