Unless you were raised in a hermit’s hut for the first 20 years of life, you know the rules of fighting fair. Here is why they don’t work and suggestions for what will.
It’s not hard to locate the 5 or the 10 or the 52 ‘Rules for Fighting Fair with a loved one’. I did a search on Google and it only took .16 seconds to come up with 1,930,000 versions!
Dr. Phil was, of course, at the top of the list, and his eight rules are a good place to start:
- Take it private and keep it private
- Keep it relevant
- Keep it real
- Avoid character assassination
- Remain task oriented
- Allow for your partner to retreat with dignity
- Be proportional in your intensity
- There’s a time limit
I would not dispute a single one of these rules. They all have merit.
But often they don’t work in the heat of battle. The reason why is that rules are logical, but arguments are emotional. It is also why the Calico Cat and the Gingham Dog never got along—they were different critters! Hold these Rules in reserve, but also consider the following myths before starting mouth-to-mouth (albeit verbal) combat with your amor.
1. Myth: We are free will agents when we argue.
We learn how to fight from observing our parents. No matter that you resolved to yourself, I will never fight like my parents did. You will. When backed into a corner, when all rational tactics have been exhausted, your fallback position will be dredged from that reptile pre-verbal brainstem and you will find yourself doing exactly what you hated in your parents’ arguments.
When you do find yourself doing this, say ‘stop!’ to yourself, and take a deep breath before continuing. You can break the spiral.
2. Myth: When we argue, we argue as adults.
Reality: “Liar, liar, pants on fire!”
Sorry, adult is not where it is. When we fight, we revert to age five. Remember when you fought with your little sister? Or worse, with your big brother? When you got so mad that tears of frustration formed in your eyes and then you were taunted with the dread epitaph ‘Baby!’ Sometimes that happens (sans tears) when you are an adult, too.
In a highly emotional state we will often fail to find words for what we want to say. If that happens, shut up. Spend the next few moments catching your breath, and while you are learning how to breathe again, listen to what your Significant Other (SO) is saying. Delay having to make a response by repeating back what they are saying and ask if you have heard it correctly.
You will have gained extra time, and perhaps learn a little more about their position, besides!
3. Myth: It’s not hard to hear another person’s side of things
Reality: You bet it is!
The longer an argument continues, the more entrenched we become in our own position. So entrenched, in fact, that after years of having the same argument we don’t need the SO around. We can mouth both sides of the argument ourselves, like the script of a bad Broadway play.
To break through this deadlock, try a physical shifting of space to see another’s point of view. Change chairs. Reverse sides of the room. “Become” your SO and try to verbally state what their position is. Argue convincingly. Check back with them to see if you’ve missed anything or if they have anything to add. Then let the other person become you and do the same thing.
4. Myth: We always argue over little things
Reality: Oh, no! Not the “who takes out the garbage” spat again?
Arguing over who takes out the garbage may seem like a trivial disagreement, but what may be really happening is often under the surface and is much more important. Step back for a moment and label what you are truly fighting about: Is it power? A matter of control? Who wanted sex last night and who didn’t?
Sometimes arguing about the little things seems safer, but in reality, if you keep it at this level, you will always find just another little thing to argue about. You never will be able to nail that jello to the wall. A more productive way may be to label the true underlying cause of why you are fighting. Shift the fight to that issue, and stick with it.
5. Myth: A good marriage doesn’t have conflict
Reality: What? You live under a rock?
There are few human encounters that that don’t have the potential for conflict. Married love, unlike the idealized agape of the Code of Chivalry, is often conditional. Like it or not, we often keep score. Secretly inside we are thinking, “Well I did this and this and this for you. The least you can do for me is…”
Accept the fact that healthy marriages do and will have conflict built in. Fritz Perls talks about the differences between us that define who we are. If you continually give in to your partner, they will not know your true identity. Likewise, if you pretend to agree and then come back with a passive-aggressive gotcha! later down the road, your SO will be furious with you, but still will not know you.
Bite the bullet and own up to your own stuff. Take responsibility when you screw up and be open about what you like and don’t like. Be especially clear about your values and beliefs. Sooner. Rather than later.
6. Myth: Laughter lightens the atmosphere
Reality: That joke is so not funny!
In the heat of battle, humor can become bitter and caustic. There is nothing more poisonous than a pet name spit out with contempt. Don’t plan to use that affectionate phrase ever again without echoes of your angry tones echoing in your partner’s mind.
Be very, very cautious of using humor when both parties are fully engaged emotionally. Your punchlines will fall flat. Your meanings will be misinterpreted. Dive! Dive! Dive!
Rather, cultivate a serious tone. Treat what your partner has to say with the upmost gravity and cross your fingers that they are willing to do the same. Call them on it if they don’t. You will both be happier for it. And not a pratfall in sight!
7. Myth: We never change and the things we fight about don’t change, either
Reality: Sorry! Sweet 16 has come and gone!
Relationships evolve and change over time. When you are newly living together you are negotiating rules of engagement, usually a compromise of the rules from both families of origin. It is a period of wearing down the rough edges and coming to agreement about which end you squeeze the toothpaste from. Changes, although sometimes volatile, are expected and will occur. You are learning how to argue with each other.
Later in the relationship, especially if you have survived the 7-year-itch, you may recognize the need for change, but will find it much more difficult to negotiate. Bickering has become a way of engaging, of interacting with the other party.
Sometimes that type of back and forth works, but if it doesn’t and you want to change, try this: First, be gentle on yourselves and realize that if it took you a decade (or more!) to build this habit of interaction. It may take way more than 21 days to change this habitual way of speaking to each other. Be satisfied with shaping, that is, working closer and closer to your goal of success.
Empty nesters or soon-to-be retireds may be starting an playing different ball game. That sweet young thing you married is suddenly developing an unpleasant independent streak? That guy of your dreams is becoming a control nut?
Not! All that is happening is a battle over a smaller turf.
Remember that old saying, “The smaller the stakes, the bigger the war.” If a person has been successful at work, now having a much smaller kingdom to rule may engender fierce arguments over how to load the forks in the dishwasher. With kids out of the house, there is more time to get on each other’s nerves.
Be patient with each other and expect some turmoil until things get ironed out. Be alert for what is really going on under the surface.
8. Myth: We can handle this by ourselves
Reality: It depends. Sometimes yes, sometimes no.
The reason why Robert’s Rules of Order work is that there is a parliamentarian in charge—that guy with the gavel. The reason why the Marquess of Queensbury Rules can govern the fiercest of boxers is that referee in the ring.
When you fight alone you don’t have that safeguard. And you definitely don’t want to pull the kids into it. I agree with Dr. P on that one.
What to do? I can tell you what not to do. Leave the mother, father, siblings, friends, or ex-lovers out of it. It is not their business and the only reason you tell them is that you know they love you best.
When you use this tactic you create a conflict triangle of victim-persecutor-rescuer. And guess who’s the victim! Once such a triangle is in play it becomes quite stable. You may never resolve differences with your partner, but will expend a lot of emotional energy rehashing problems with outsiders. Eventually they will duck in the nearest vacant doorway in self-defense whenever you appear!
Rather, if it is too frightening to fight about, especially if it has reached the point of one party threatening to move out, consider using a neutral referee. Not a family friend, but rather a counselor. Not your living room, but a neutral office. Mental health professionals are trained to do this stuff, and can sometimes spot those elusive trees in your forest.
Fighting is not a bad thing. It can bring a couple closer together if both the head and heart are engaged. If you work at it, conflict can keep your relationship intact and help it grow stronger. And then you both win.