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Fighting is never fun. It’s something I particularly do not enjoy. I tend to shy away from conflict and avoid it whenever possible.
Yet in any marriage or long-term relationship, conflict is inevitable. Learning how to deal with it appropriately with your spouse is a necessary part of building a healthy relationship. That’s where these fair fighting rules for couples come into play.
When conflict inevitably arises, instead of avoiding it (and potentially creating deeper problems), fighting fair is the best possible approach. When you fight fairly, you address the current conflict directly, and work together to find reasonable solutions. Even if fighting fair doesn’t result in a resolution, it ensures that fights are productive and loving; not detrimental to the relationship as a whole.
Whether you find yourself arguing constantly with your husband or shying away from fights with your girlfriend, this post might be of help to you. And even if you’ve been married for decades, it never hurts to review the rules of fighting fair.
Fair Fighting Rule #1: Keep it civil
While this might seem like an obvious rule for how to fight fair, it’s worth emphasizing.
Your fights will never be productive or fair if they continually break down into disrespect and incivility. Screaming matches don’t get you anywhere. They may be good for releasing negative emotion, but they’re not going to pave the way towards conflict resolution.
So what does it mean to keep things civil?
Essentially, it means laying aside any unnecessary mean comments, cutting remarks, or disparaging statements. It means not raking your partner’s character through the mud. Not allowing insults to become the main form of communication between you. In other words, keep things “above the belt.” It could also mean not resorting to tactics such as the silent treatment or withdrawing from your partner.
These rules, understandably, may prove difficult for some of us. In heated moments, it can be easy if not instinctual to say what’s on our minds. But to fight fairly, you may need to retrain yourself to take a step back and consider your words when speaking. Part of fighting fairly and maturely is knowing how to manage your intense emotions so that you don’t say hurtful things.
After all, this is your partner. Ultimately, you don’t want to hurt them or tear them down, (even if it feels really satisfying in the moment). Respect is vital in nurturing a healthy relationship, even in the face of conflict, and arguing civilly is how you foster respect.
Which brings me easily to point #2:
Fair Fighting Rule #2: Remember you’re on the same team
If you struggle with keeping your words civil and kind, one of the best ways to bring things back to solid ground is with this one fact: you and your partner are on the same team.
No matter what your conflict is about, you and your partner should be working together to fix the problem in a way that results in deeper unity, and preserves or strengthens the relationship. (PS: If this isn’t your goal, there may be some deeper issues going on that need to be reflected on).
As someone who really dislikes conflict, I actually find this to be a helpful statement for me to remember, as well. The knowledge that my husband and I are on the same team reminds me that we are fighting for the same outcome and that our goals are ultimately aligned. It also helps me to remember that I am loved and that I can depend on his commitment to our marriage. This is very soothing for my anxiety.
What if you don’t feel like you’re on the same team? What if being a team feels like the farthest thing for you and your spouse?
Maybe you feel extremely distant from your partner. Or maybe your conflict doesn’t feel solvable. If this is the case, you likely need more than just some rules for fighting fair. It’s always worthwhile to consider professional help, whether you seek out couples counseling or individual therapy. We have done both, and find that working with an expert is enormously helpful and even rewarding. I highly recommend therapy to literally everyone.
Fair Fighting Rule #3: Take breaks when necessary
Fighting, even when it’s fair and civil, takes a lot out of you. It can be exhausting and stressful and painful and sad. With that in mind, know that it is completely okay to take breaks when you’re hashing out a conflict. You might not solve a problem in one session or conversation together, so be willing to step away and come back to the issue later.
In fact, this is essential when you feel like things are getting too heated, or you’re becoming angry or overly upset. Taking a break allows you to collect your thoughts and face your conflict with much more equanimity. Cooling off or taking some time and space on your own can often lead to major change, too. Stepping back is never a bad idea.
This is also another way to be respectful to your partner. If he or she asks for a break during a conflict, respect their request. In doing this, you demonstrate respect for their emotions and their needs.
Fair Fighting Rule #4: Focus only on the issue at hand
Have you ever been arguing with someone, and they keep bringing up all of your past mistakes? This is the most frustrating thing, and it can definitely derail a fight or cause it to escalate. When you’re in conflict with someone, it is important to keep the focus on the specific issue you are fighting about.
Obviously, this is easier said than done. And when you’re making your point in a fight, the past actions of your opponent are often relevant.
This doesn’t mean you can’t bring up the past, but be careful not to let the immediate issue get away from you.
Bringing up the past can be painful for both partners, but it also adds new information into the conflict, so it dilutes or complicates the original disagreement. Essentially, it makes the fight about something different or about something larger.
If you find that other issues keep coming up during your fights, it can be a wise move to table these issues to talk about at another time. In fact, you might even write them down so you don’t forget, as odd as that might sound. This practice doesn’t mean you are ignoring the issues or avoiding them, but it ensures you can tackle them in a more productive and focused manner at a later date.
A similar rule to keep in mind when fighting in your relationship is to avoid making broad, sweeping statements. This includes phrases like “you always” or “you never.” Such words lead people to state gross generalizations aloud, and seldom do such blanket statements represent the truth.
A better approach? Try to cite a specific example to make your point and keep away from descriptors like always or never.
Many therapists and relationship experts also emphasize the importance of speaking using “I” statements. In this way, you are approaching your partner from your own perspective and sharing your feelings. On the other hand, using excessive “you” statements can feel accusatory to your partner.
Fair Fighting Rule #5: Don’t invalidate your partner’s feelings
Finally, this is a very important rule of fighting fair in marriage: do not invalidate your partner’s feelings.
Human emotions are tricky, complex, and messy. As a person who feels are feelings (and feels them deeply) I know that having someone ignore my feelings or minimize them is extremely painful.
Be careful that you are not doing this in fights with your partner. Even when you don’t understand his or her feelings, your partner has a right to them.
Work on listening and affirming the feelings of your partner. Particularly in a conflict situation, listening is one of the most important factors of good communication. Validating your partner’s feelings means letting them know you hear them/see them and not disregarding their feelings.
Invalidating feelings looks like this:
- telling someone they are “overreacting”
- apologies that redirect blame (IE: “I’m sorry you misinterpreted what I said.” “I’m sorry you thought I was being mean.”)
- not respecting the other’s wish to take a break from the argument
Want some practice with communicating your feelings and needs more clearly? Check out this list of therapist-approved couples communication exercises.
Other posts you might like:
- Relationship Advice for Couples: 12 Principles for Lasting Relationships
- 7 Couples Communication Books That Will Transform Your Marriage
- How to Be a Better Husband: 9 Ways to Rock at Marriage
- 6 Marriage Mistakes You Might Be Making
- The Ultimate List of Real Relationship Goals for Couples
Amy Hartle is the author of Do You Love Me? How To Stop Seeking Reassurance in Relationships, a book on reassurance seeking and relationship anxiety. Both her book and this blog are born of personal experience; Amy shares expert relationship advice from the lessons learned during her own 10+ years with her husband, as well as couples travel tips and romantic getaway recommendations, all gleaned while traveling the world together.