Take One Dose of the Fair Fighting Rules. Apply Liberally.
Sarah Kenville, MA, LMFT
How is it possible for two people raised in different families with different values, communication patterns, and problem-solving skills to agree on everything? Well, it’s not. Unless, I suppose, they are unicorns :-)
Conflict is a natural part of relationships, especially intimate relationships. What separates successful couples is how they manage and deal with conflict in their relationship. Are they respectful, do they empathize with each other, do they validate each other’s feelings, or do they name-call, become defensive, fail to listen to each other, and employ a win-at-all-costs approach? Those with the former approach enjoy more success when dealing with conflict than the latter. Here’s the neat thing: we can all learn to “fight” better…if we want to. If you do not identify problem solving, communication, and conflict resolution as a strength, there are ways to learn new skills and patterns to improve how you manage conflict in your relationship. The important thing is learning how to “fight fair.”
I share the Fair Fighting Rules with all of my clients, even if they identify conflict resolution as a strength, because I believe we can always be better at managing conflict. Below are the Rules – use them liberally and keep a copy nearby to refer back to in the heat of the moment, as a reminder of tips and tricks you can use to manage conflict in a healthy way.
The Fair Fighting Rules
1. Before You Begin, Ask Yourself Why You Feel Upset
Are you truly angry because your partner left the mustard on the counter? Or are you upset because you feel like you’re doing an uneven share of the housework, and this is just one more piece of evidence? Take time to think about your own feelings before starting an argument.
2. Discuss One Issue at a Time
“You shouldn’t be spending so much money without talking to me” can quickly turn into “You don’t care about our family”. Now you need to resolve two problems instead of one. Plus, when an argument starts to get off topic, it can easily become about everything a person has ever done wrong. We’ve all done a lot wrong, so this can be especially cumbersome.
3. No Degrading Language
Discuss the issue, not the person. No put-downs, swearing, or name-calling. Degrading language is an attempt to express negative feelings while making sure your partner feels just as bad. This will just lead to more character attacks while the original issue is forgotten.
4. Express Your Feelings With Words and Take Responsibility for Them
“I feel angry.” “I feel hurt when you ignore my phone calls.” “I feel scared when you yell.” These are good ways to express how you feel. Starting with “I” is a good technique to help you take responsibility for your feelings (no, you can’t say whatever you want as long as it starts with “I”).
5. Take Turns Talking
This can be tough, but be careful not to interrupt. If this rule is difficult to follow, try setting a timer allowing 1 minute for each person to speak without interruption. Don’t spend your partner’s minute thinking about what you want to say. Listen!
6. No Stonewalling
Sometimes, the easiest way to respond to an argument is to retreat into your shell and refuse to speak. This refusal to communicate is called stonewalling. You might feel better temporarily, but the original issue will remain unresolved and your partner will feel more upset. If you absolutely cannot go on, tell your partner you need to take a time-out. Agree to resume the discussion later.
7. No Yelling
Sometimes arguments are “won” by being the loudest, but the problem only gets worse.
8. Take a Time-Out if Things Get Too Heated
In a perfect world we would all follow these rules 100% of the time, but it just doesn’t work like that. If an argument starts to become personal or heated, take a time-out. Agree on a time to come back and discuss the problem after everyone has cooled down.
9. Attempt to Come to a Compromise or an Understanding
There isn’t always a perfect answer to an argument. Life is just too messy for that. Do your best to come to a compromise (this will mean some give and take from both sides). If you can’t come to a compromise, merely understanding can help soothe negative feelings.
Fair Fighting Rules, courtesy of TherapistAid.