Every couple fights. Every single one. But often times couples come in to therapy when the fighting has gotten out of control. Maybe it is happening too often. Maybe the fighting has gotten too mean and too loud. Or maybe it isn’t proving to be productive, leaving both partners feeling like they are having the same fight over and over again.
Fair fighting is the idea that, although fighting with your partner is an unavoidable element of any relationship, you can do it in a way that is both respectful and productive by utilizing a few effective “rules.” The Fair Fighting rules create some boundaries for the fight and a safe and contained space to work through conflict and disagreement.
The Fair Fighting Rules:
1. Schedule your fight and name the topic.
Note when something has come up that bothers you and notify your partner that you would like to discuss it in more depth at a later time. Schedule a specific day and time to reconvene. This may be only a half hour after the initial hurt, or it may be next week. Pick a time frame that will give you and your partner enough space to cool down, process your feelings, sort out what you want to say and approach the discussion with the goal of working through the conflict. Set the agenda, being careful to limit the fight to one defined topic. If there are a multitude of issues, schedule a separate fight for each.
Often times when you dive into a fight at the moment you are upset, your argument is disorganized and your feelings are operating on high volume. You can catch your partner off guard or end up involving “innocent bystanders” in the fallout. Additionally, you may not actually say what you mean.
2. Listen. Then repeat back to you partner in your own words what you heard them say.
We all want to talk first. We all want to be heard. Set aside those goals and first focus on listening. The goal is to confirm you understand your partner’s perspective and to clear up any miscommunications. To “win” a fight is not necessarily to get your way, it is to leave the discussion with a better understanding of your partner and their perspective.
3. Entertain your partner’s feedback and assessment of your behavior.
This is to say, let go of your defensiveness. Before immediately denying that you did what your partner is accusing you of doing, pause and consider if they may have a good point. Your partner probably knows you best, assume their feedback is meaningful and worthy of being considered. Maybe they are wrong or have misunderstood you in some way, but before concluding that that is the case, consider if the suggestion they just dropped in your suggestion box may merit some attention.
4. Notice first where your two perspectives coincide.
There is a tendency to focus on the point where perspectives diverge. First, find a point of similarity, even if it is just, “We agree that didn’t go well. We would like to handle it differently next time.” This builds a sense of teamwork. It creates a shift in the argument. It is no longer one partner against the other. It is you two against “The Disturbance,” working together to problem solve and find a solution.
5. Assess each partner’s stake in the fight.
Does one of you care more about this specific topic than the other? Then maybe the point of compromise is skewed in the more invested partner’s direction. If you find the area of interest is of much more concern to your partner than to you, consider if this would being an area in which you are willing to concede, knowing that in a future fight in which you are more invested in the topic, your partner will reciprocate. Keep in mind that in the big picture of the relationship, this should balance out. There are some things in life that you will care about more than your partner and you will put your foot down in a bigger way. And vice versa, there are some areas, that although you may have preferences about how they go, your partner will care more and you can willingly to step back a bit to let his or her preferences take precedence.
6. Offer POSITIVE and ADDITIVE suggestions to modify your partner’s conduct.
Try to avoid telling your partner what to stop doing or what you don’t like and instead inform them of what you would prefer in place of the problematic behavior.
For example, “I hate when you empty the garbage and don’t put a new bag in the can. Stop doing that!” and be easily restated as “I’d prefer if you would put a new bag in the can as soon as you empty the garbage. That makes life run much more smoothly!” The language we use can create a powerful change in the tone of a conflict. Choose your words wisely.
7. Declare a (temporary) truce.
In the midst of great conflict and stress it can begin to feel like you and your partner are ALWAYS fighting. Build in some fight-free time. Table the discussion, let go of what is bothering you and enjoy one another’s company. This will take some practice. Try taking a few deep breaths. Imagine you are breathing out the tension with every exhale. Trust that you will have a chance to work through this conflict at a later time. This may only last for a meal or it may be a week long vacation that you can put into the protective bubble of a fight holiday. Remember that these moments serve as the buoys to get you through a rough patch in a partnership. Allow yourself to enjoy it!
Putting Fair Fighting Skills into Practice
In therapy, I ask couple to hang this list of Fair Fighting rules in a visible place in their home and suggest each partner chooses a new skill for themselves to practice each week until they have found the rules that work best in their relationship. This is the key to creating lasting change in conflicts. Of course, you can probably quickly identify the skills you think your partner needs to focus on, but choosing one for yourself fosters self-awareness and growth.
When you fight fairly, you practice better conflict resolution and communication in your meaningful relationships. You will feel more connected and better understood by your partner. You will also better understand your partner and his or her perspective. The relationship feels healthier and the individuals benefit from that growth and connectedness.
So, is there a fair fighting rule you can put in to practice in your own relationship?
Bri Dunbar offers individual, couples and family therapy to encourage the health and healing of the mind and body. Therapy utilizes traditional psychological theories and techniques while also incorporating yogic concepts and mindfulness skills.
Learn more about Bri here.