Rules for Fighting Fair

Let’s face it – every relationship has conflict. Many people think that the fighting is the problem in the relationship and ask me “how do we stop fighting?” It is true that the amount of fighting going on in a relationship can have a negative effect on it, but it is unrealistic to assume that you’re going to stop arguing completely. Couples need to know how they can discuss disagreements, and by having a game plan you’ll find greater success in working as a team to come to a good solution.

I do work with couples and families to reduce their fighting – if the only time you are connecting is when you argue about money or the laundry not getting folded for the third day straight – then yes, that is a problem. The best way to combat arguing is to examine how people fight. More often than not, you are frustrated by the response of your partner and you are trying desperately to get through to them. Fighting is more than the topic you are disagreeing about, it is a mode of communication. You are trying to get someone’s attention. If you understand what it is you want out of the argument and why you respond the way you do, then you can look and see if you want to change those dynamics.

What I suggest to people who are fighting is to come up with some “Rules for Fighting Fair.” I have listed some that I have come up with, but I encourage you and your partner to sit down and discuss what your list might look like.

First – take time to think about what you want to say. Reflect on what is bothering you and how you want to discuss it with your partner. Are you really upset about the laundry, or are you upset that you’ve asked over and over again and the other person hasn’t responded?

Agree to never use names – no blaming, belittling, or attacking (emotionally, verbally or physically). In order to for partners to communicate and feel heard, there needs to be a sense of trust and safety.

Agree on a time out strategy. If someone is getting too overwhelmed, take a break. Say to your partner “I need a break.” Let them know where you are going and agree to meet in 15 minutes. If someone asks for a time out, respect it. After the time is up, find that person. See if you’ve calmed down enough to continue the conversation.

Think about timing. If you bring up something that’s been stewing for three days at 1:00am, it’s going to be a bad time. Make sure that you have enough time to discuss what is bothering you. Also think if what kind of a state your partner is in. Did they have a stressful day? If so, give them some time to unwind. Don’t avoid talking altogether, but be wise about when you want to have a discussion.

If you cannot resolve the issue at that moment, set a time when you will talk about it. Most people get through an argument and don’t bring it up again. It needs to be resolved or else it will continue to hang there.

Don’t bring up all of your past hurts or start on a new problem. If it starts to get off topic, gently bring it back saying, “I know that is something you want to discuss. Let’s talk about that later. Right now let’s stay focused on _____________.”

Be proactive. Try to find a solution to the problem, and if you have time, come to the conversation with some ideas. Be willing to try new things, but also let go of patterns that aren’t working.

Listen! Listen! Listen! Often times we get frustrated with our partners because we don’t feel heard or validated by them. When someone approaches you with a problem – listen first, speak second. Repeat what your partner has said and make sure you understand one another. Slowing down the process will help ease frustrations and you are less likely to say things you don’t mean.

Celebrate your successes. When you’ve had a disagreement and you both worked really hard at it to fight fair, you should honor that. Be proud of the work you did with your partner and tell them how you feel! The best part of an argument is the resolution (and you can get as creative as you want to make-up…).

Finally, if you are stuck at an impasse consider getting a moderator or counselor to help guide you. At times, we need a third, neutral party to come in and hear both sides and help facilitate the communication. Choose someone who is trustworthy and that doesn’t side with one party.

*On a special note: If at any time your partner is abusing you it is not appropriate to engage in “Rules for Fighting Fair.” Emotionally, verbally, physically, or sexually abusive behaviors and tactics used to manipulate and control the other partner are not acceptable under any circumstances. If you are in a domestic violence situation, or are not sure but would like some information, please call DAWN – the Domestic Abuse Women’s Network at 1-425-656-7867.