The 4 Rules of Fair Fighting: How to Work Things Out
By Matt W. Sandford, LMHC
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Do all couples fight? Over the years I’ve certainly seen plenty that do, and I’ve also have seen a fair share who claim they don’t or that they never saw their parents fight. It’s my proposition that pretty much all couples fight. I would wager that those who claim they don’t fight either are using a style called withdraw or alimentation as their form of fighting, or they don’t have enough of a relationship to even bother to fight. You see, fighting in marriage may be really bad stuff and may represent a road to the end – divorce is on its way. But, fighting in marriage may also represent two people who are really different, living in a fallen world, trying to get their needs met, express themselves and make their marriage work, all while under stress.
What if a lot of fighting in marriage isn’t really bad, it’s just badly managed?
What if often we aren’t really trying to be a jerk or bitch and we don’t hate the other person, but instead we are reacting to something our spouse did that hurt us and we are protecting ourselves? Or what if, sometimes, when things get intense, we don’t even understand why we react the way we do? There’s plenty there I could work with as a counselor, but for now I want to provide some help in terms of how to fight more fairly. Fighting fair can really help us to hold back on some of the bad stuff we’ll regret and that really matters. And fair fighting can help us to address some of our bad patterns, so that we can stop sabotaging the process and get to places where we can feel more heard and more understood by our spouse.
Fair fighting is about coming up with some rules for fighting; rules that you will both agree upon trying to uphold and will be willing to acknowledge when you break them. Each couple is different and you’ll need to come up with rules that fit your values. But I’m going to give you some that I believe need to be in there.
1. Learn to utilize time outs.
For kids a time out is often viewed or used as a punishment, but for adults, time outs are valuable opportunities to cool down, to reflect, and get some distance from a situation that can bring clarity. Discuss together respectful ways to request a time out for yourself (time outs are not something you impose on your spouse – that would be using it like it is often used on a child). Discuss ahead of time an agreed upon usual time apart. You could even come up with a simple signal that you could use to indicate a request for a timeout, to prevent long discussions about the time out itself. And then – don’t forego coming back together to try again. This is not to be misused as a technique for avoidance of issues! So, when you feel the intensity going up and you might lose it or get mean, take that time out.
2. Stay on the Issue
Couples tend to store up resentments, don’t they? Oh, maybe we didn’t intend to store it up at the time. Maybe we intended to just let it pass, or maybe we really were trying to be kind. But then a fight comes along and out comes that old issue I go back to or the one I had not brought up before. Bringing up past issues or adding to the issue just clouds up the current process.
3. Replacing “You”s with “I”s
You never attack with “you” statements, do you? Because of course you know that stating things in accusatory and blaming ways will draw someone into a defensive stance – which isn’t very constructive for working through differences. “You” statements are the ones in which you say things “You can never let me finish, can you?” or “Why do you always have to…” What is going on is that we are trying to say something about ourselves, how we are feeling, what we are bothered about, and ask the other person about the way they have bothered us, but we skip over the part about how we feel about it. And yet, that is the important part. Let me help you out here. You are not going to get your spouse to change what they do without you expressing how it effects you, or what it means to you. There is not motivation to change without that. This kind of approach just doesn’t get you what you want. It increases the chance of hurt feelings and a cycle of attacking and defending.
4. Agreeing to Disagree
If you’ve been married awhile, you know how there are some things that you just go round and round on and nothing ever changes. You probably feel like your spouse just doesn’t seem to care enough to change on this one, no matter how often and no matter how well you express your position on it. Good healthy couples have some of these. It is just because we are fundamentally different people with different genders, different backgrounds and different world views. It doesn’t mean they don’t love if they don’t see it your way on this, just as much as you’re not changing on the one they are stumped on. You can die fighting on these kinds of hills and it’s not worth it. Instead, acknowledge that it’s a personality difference and learn to laugh about it. Focus on the many things you think similarly on and rejoice that you are different and can learn and grow from having each other, even if you don’t change on this area.
Fighting fair matters. But it takes time and practice to learn it. So, don’t forget to be patient with yourself and one another and remember to own your stuff and make apologies when you blow it.
Now go for it!
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