Disagreements are to be expected in any relationship. No two people see situations the same, or have completely the same goals. Resolving conflicts in a positive manner will make your relationship stronger, whilst unresolved battled and long-term contempt can erode your relationships’ chance of survival.
Are you fighting fair when you disagree? We outline the best recommendations given in therapy and highlight the work that we do with couples to help them move from belligerent brawling to fighting fair.
Agree on rules of engagement.
A set of rules will help keep an argument on track and less confrontational. Common recommendations might include:
- Set a time to argue – don’t just ambush an argument onto your partner
- Argue by mutual consent, and delay your discussion if you are tired or sick – a fair fight requires two able bodied members
- Set a time limit to discuss a topic. If you don’t reach consensus in your time frame either agree to disagree, or take a break to allow each party to consider all of the points.
- Physical violence is a no-no.
- Remember words are weapons – stop hurting the people you love
Know and own your feelings.
When you are upset try to avoid to blame others for your feelings and experiences. You would be better to say “When you do …”, “I feel …” rather than label the behaviour. For example, “You are always late; you are so selfish” Rather say. “When you are late, I start to feel nervous”
Your feelings are yours. It is common to hear “You made me mad”. This phrasing attempts to deflect responsibility for your reaction off yourself, but your feelings are yours. That isn’t to say this supports legitimacy of your partners behaviour. People don’t make you mad, you get angry. It is your anger. I would challenge you to consider if you get angry in other situations, outside of your personal relationship. Use feeling words – I feel angry, sad rather than “you are so selfish”, “no wonder I’m angry”. Use I statements – “I feel angry …” rather than “You make me…”
Keep any argument to the topic you have outlined to discuss. Kitchen sinking occurs when you pull old hurts and disagreements into the current topic under debate. If a number of issues have been accumulating, tackle them one at a time.
Point scoring is for bullies.
Your objective isn’t to WIN a fight. If one person wins, the other, even more importantly, the relationship loses. Allow your partner to save face. The purpose of fighting fair is to improve your experience within the relationship. Fighting fair, and resolving disagreements amicably and respectfully strengthens your relationship in the long term.
It takes two
Keep your fights between the two of you. Leave family and friends out of your argument. Poor relationship boundaries around your personal issues will have a negative impact on the quality of your long relationship. There is nothing more annoying than having others opinions included in a discussion. Imagine the scene where a partner says to another “Your mother agrees, we should have never gotten married” In particular DO NOT involve children in your arguments, that is deeply unfair to them. Obviously if physical aggression is involved privacy and boundaries are no longer sacred
Kindness is king.
Being kind and respectful is extremely helpful in a disagreement. Name calling, bringing up critical confidences in order to hurt another, swearing, making threats are distructive to your relationship. If you owe your partner an apology, then provide it. Some goodwill can go a long way. Issues which involve personal perception and opinion may be impossible to resolve. Agree to disagree if you can and respect this. I’ve seen many couples continue to fight after they’ve agreed to disagree, and that situation, rarely ends well.
Even if you have a bad fight you can start again without completely resolving the conflict. Sometimes if you start your day taking shots at each other, one of you can ask, “can we start this again”. You don’t need to continue a fight just because you started it. Respect the possibility to start again, but also commit to have the discussion again at another time. Control-Alt-Delete can’t simply be used to stonewall discussions.
If you are in the wrong, apologise. Even if you weren’t in the wrong, but behaved in a hurtful manner apologise. Also, if you are given an apology, accept it. Sometimes in counselling we see couples who do accept their partners apology because it covers only 8/10 things that they believed their partner did wrong. Accept an apology, even if it is incomplete. Once peace has been restored, discussion on areas of dispute will be more likely to be successful.
“Fighting fair” cannot involve abuse.
There is a difference between having disagreements and being in an abusive relationship. Abuse can be physical, financial or psychological. Physical abuse includes not only scratching, kicking, hitting and biting but also coerce your partner to have sex, putting your partner into a headlock or holding them against their will. Financial abuse and emotional abuse are less difficult to identify and confirm.
Its worth talking about what emotional abuse is not. It is not emotionally abusive to break up with a partner, or argue with your partner. It is not emotionally abusive when someone reacts to what you have done by stating that they are hurt. It is also not emotional abuse to speak one’s mind with honesty, perhaps more tact could be used, but it isn’t necessarily abuse. Partner’s fight, and often even yell. This doesn’t constitute abuse, unless it is done for the purpose of controlling another person.
Researchers Jacobson and Gottman have a questionnaire that can help you determine if you are being emotionally abused:www.fjcsafe.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/Emotional-Abuse-Questionnaire.pdf
While less commonly understood than other forms of abuse, financial abuse is one of the most powerful methods of keeping a person tied to an uneven or even abusive relationship. Financial abuse involves controlling a victim’s ability to produce or manage financial resources. Rarely do they have complete access to money and other resources. When they do have money, they often have to account for every penny they spend. If one partner is shopping for groceries and suddenly finds all cards have been cut off in response to a recent argument, this may be an indication of financial abuse.
If you get stuck, get help
If you find yourselves going around in circles on a topic you could consider couples counselling. Couples counselling will help you understand if the issue is the one you are arguing about or is actually a proxy for other unresolved issues, then help the couple work on those challenges.
Disagreements are to be expected in any relationship. Resolving conflicts in a positive manner is an indication of maturity and commitment. The next time you fight with your partner, reach for this list and keep your fight fair.
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