By Stacey Rose, PhD, LCSW
Remember that course you took in school on Fair Fighting? You probably don’t, because there wasn’t one. Too bad. We all could have used it. So how do you know how to fight with your mate? Why is it even important to know how to fight? Isn’t fighting bad for relationships? Well, NO. Fighting is normal and healthy for all relationships, but it has to be Fair Fighting.
What is Fair Fighting anyway? It is being able to express different opinions and feelings without hurting your partner in the process. In other words, no “Below the Belt” comments. For example, Harold and Sandra have been married for nine years and have three children. They consulted me before seeing a lawyer for divorce. They didn’t need a divorce, they just needed to learn how to fight. Harold informed me that one of the things he liked most about his wife was her openness to listening to him and accepting him. But when they were angry with each other, all that openness and acceptance went out the window. Throughout their nine years together, they had moments of sharing. Harold remembered a time when he told her about his alcoholic mother. She used to drink so much that sometimes she would fall asleep and forget to pick him up from his baseball games. He would watch the other parents who would sit and cheer their kids on and then after the game, hear them talk about going for ice cream. He played without his parents there (his father worked a lot) and was the last one waiting for a ride home. When Sandra and Harold fought, Sandra would bring this up at times saying things like, “Maybe there was a reason your mother left you there.” These are “Below the Belt” comments.
Follow the Ten Simple Steps to Fair Fighting below and you and your mate will be on your way to better understanding each other, resolving problems more effectively, and more intimacy.
- Use “I” statements. For example, “I am really frustrated when you go to the track.” Chances are your mate would hear that more clearly than, “You really have a gambling problem.”
- Be conscious of how you communicate your feelings/thoughts/expectations to your partner. Do not use the words “ALWAYS” or “NEVER”. These words are often inaccurate and can put your partner on the defense.
- Connect on a regular basis. Talk about what is going on for each or you, if possible, every day. Not just about what happened at work, but talking about how the relationship is going is equally important. If you buy a plant and don’t water it or give it sunlight, it will die. The same holds true for relationships. They all need nurturance. They don’t grow without it.
- Do not threaten divorce, if you want your marriage to work. The constant threat of, “If you don’t like it, you can leave,” leaves your partner hopeless, frustrated and leaves the problem unresolved. Instead, if you are in the heat of anger, take some time alone to cool off.
- Try (and I know this is not easy) not to become defensive. Instead, really listen to your partner. He or she knows you, maybe better than anyone else, and maybe, just possibly he or she has a point about you. Take it in, consider what he or she is saying, and then come to an opinion about it. This is much healthier than reacting.
- Take turns. Just one person talk at a time. This may seem elementary but so many couples have trouble listening to their partner because they are too busy coming up with their defense.
- No Name Calling. This too may sound rather basic, but again, many couples will do whatever it takes to attack back when feeling attacked themselves.
- Try to mirror back what you hear your partner saying to you. For instance, if your mate says you don’t seem interested in sex and that is upsetting to him or her, you could say, “I hear that you are upset with me because I haven’t been that into sex lately.” Chances are your mate will feel understood and appreciate that you “get it”.
- Offer possible solutions to the problem. Consider solutions that might make you both happy. Consider compromise. Think win-win.
- Remember why you were first attracted to your mate. Focus on his or her strengths, not weaknesses.
Fighting is normal and necessary. So often I hear couples report proudly that they never fight; these couples are the ones who also never communicate. Again, fight away, but fight fair; and remember, making up can be the best part.