All couples fight. It’s inevitable! But do you and your partner know how to fight fair? This week on the blog I’m going to discuss some Rules for Fair Fighting. It’s easy to get caught up in the heat of the moment, and say and do things that are hurtful and damaging. The following Fair Fighting Rules can help your disagreements be productive and conflict resolved quicker:
The best way to talk about Fair Fighting Rules is to discuss the way you start a conversation. I talk a lot with couples about the difference between an I-Message and a You-Message. A You-Message is blaming, attacking, and critical. It sounds a little like this: “You never take the trash out when you say you will. You expect me to always take care of it. I am sick and tired of being your maid”. A You-Message implies that the other person did something bad, and is responsible. Whenever anyone hears a You-Message, their first reaction is to put walls up and become defensive. They may feel attacked, and react accordingly. Nothing productive will be accomplished. .
An I-Message goes something like this: “I feel (insert feeling word), when you (insert what they do). I would like (insert what you would like/need from them in the future)”. I-Messages communicate how you feel, why, and what you need. It makes it about you, not the other person. Saying something like “I feel frustrated when you don’t take the trash out when you say you will. I would like you to help more and follow through” is going to be received a lot better than the previous You-Message example.
Tone and Word Choice
Tone is super important in communicating with your partner. If you are being sarcastic, condescending, or mocking, the conversation is not going to be productive. Make sure that you are calm and that your tone communicates a willingness to work through the conflict.
Word choice is also important in disagreements. Don’t blame, criticize, or name-call just because you are upset. Take a deep breath and think through what you want to say. Remember that being mean is not helping you work through the conflict, and actually escalates it.
Eye-rolling, sneering, arm-crossing, and showing disgust are all ways to communicate contempt. Dr. John Gottman from the Gottman Institute can predict divorce in couples with 90% accuracy after observing the way they fight. According to Dr. Gottman, contempt is the #1 indicator of divorce. Contempt conveys disrespect, and “I’m better than you”. The antidote to contempt is to be respectful and show gratitude towards one another, even when you are in disagreement. To read more about Dr. Gottman’s work on contempt, check out this article.
Stay on Topic
It’s not unusual for couples to bring up past hurts in current arguments. If a past hurt keeps getting brought it, it’s because it hasn’t been resolved. Set aside a separate time to work through that disagreement. Try to stay on the topic a hand and don’t bring up old issues. It only complicates the current disagreement.
Don’t Be Cruel
If you have been in a relationship with someone for an amount of time, you probably know a lot about them. You know the good, the bad, the ugly. You know their past, their dreams, and their regrets. It’s also probable that you know what makes them tick and what pushes their buttons.
Don’t use this information against them in the heat of the moment. Please just don’t. This is so incredibly damaging to the trust between you. Don’t say something you can’t take back. It’s important to understand that these hits below the belt are counterproductive and are not helpful to resolving the original conflict.
Also important to note, do not threaten divorce as a way to jab at the other person or manipulate them. Don’t threaten to leave, call their mom and complain about them, or threaten to take their kids away from them. All of these things do long-term damage to the trust between you.
Take a Break
It’s okay to take a break in the middle of an argument. However, do not just walk away from your partner. This is called stonewalling, and it makes the other person feel like they’re not important. Instead, call a time-out and communicate that you need a small break. Take 15-20 minutes apart to clear your head, calm down, and think through what you want to say.
This next step is the most important part. Go back to your partner and try to work towards resolution. You may have to do this a few times before it works. Keep in mind that the most important thing is that you are taking breaks to avoid escalation. Time-outs can actually be extremely helpful during an argument.
Empathy is the ability to put yourself in another person’s shoes. Are you able to do this with your partner? It’s easy in the midst of a conflict to blame the other person and get frustrated easily. Take a few moments to consider the other person’s perspective on the disagreement. Is this a topic that you will have to find a middle ground or compromise on? Could your partner have some valid points? Do you need to give a little?
Seek Professional Help
Sometimes in a relationship the communication is just not working. This may be because the partners have different communication styles, it’s volatile, or they just don’t know where to go from here. If you and your partner find yourself having the same fights over and over again, or are struggling with coming to a resolution, please reach out for help! It’s important to learn how you both are contributing to the problem. A therapist can help you set some Fair Fighting Rules in your relationship and also hold you both accountable. Your relationship is worth it!
Written by Christy Fogg, MSW, LCSW
*Christy Fogg, MSW, LCSW is a licensed therapist at Journey to Joy Counseling. Christy enjoys doing marriage/couples counseling, individual counseling, premarital counseling. She also provides family counseling, teen and adolescent counseling.
Journey to Joy Counseling serves the Indianapolis area, including Carmel, Fishers, Noblesville, Zionsville, and Westfield.