It’s inevitable. No matter how much you love your partner, and no matter how much you think it won’t happen to you, at some point, you will have an argument. The truth is, it is normal and healthy to have occasional arguments. To never have an argument often means that you are not expressing or honoring your needs and desires, but rather simply being submissive in order to keep the peace, which is clearly unhealthy. On the other hand, fighting excessively about everything all of the time is clearly a sign of an unhealthy relationship. But sometimes, in a healthy relationship, arguments happen, and if not handled properly, can cause irreparable damage. When handled properly, arguments can actually promote growth and increase intimacy.
There are common traps that we tend to fall into when fighting. We become defensive and become steadfast in our positions, needing to prove how right we are. Often, mean and hurtful things are said, that cannot be unsaid. Some people even make efforts to avoid conflict, and walk away or ignore their partner, thereby not solving anything and only creating even more conflict. Based on what I’ve seen and heard most often, I’ve come up with 10 rules for how to fight fair.
- Do not walk away or roll over in bed and go to sleep. If your partner is expressing an issue of concern, you have an obligation to honor that. You will not be able to avoid this conflict, but you can certainly make it worse by being dismissive. If now is not a good time for you to deal with this, then you must state that and say when you can address the issue. It must be within a day or so; anything longer than that is cruel and unreasonable.
- Stay calm. This is not easy to do, but it is impossible to work together towards a resolution if you’re yelling at each other. Take breaks if necessary, calm yourself down, and then you must return to the conversation. Over time, you will learn that you can tolerate the conflict, and the yelling will become easier and easier to avoid.
- Voice your concerns, and do it clearly and concisely. Your partner is not psychic. Do not expect your needs and desires to be met if they have not been articulated. I cannot tell you how many times I hear this from my patients. Literally every week, there is a miscommunication of this sort, where one partner assumed the other knew they wanted or needed something, and got upset when that want or need wasn’t met. All the while, the partner had no idea.
- Listen actively. Repeat back what you heard, but in your own words. It’s easy to repeat back exactly what someone said. It requires active listening to hear what they said and then make meaning out of it and put it in your own words. Practice this skill. It gets easier the more you do it. Every wants and deserves to feel heard.
- Empathize with your partner and validate their experience. No, this is not the same as agreeing with them. It is stepping into their shoes and imaging how, from their very different perspective than yours, they are experiencing this issue. Truly try to understand this, and express that to your partner.
- Keep things in perspective. Most arguments are not life and death situations. Keep a sense of humor and lightness about it. Arguing about which nursery school to go to will seem quite ridiculous 10 years later. I once remember getting into a huge argument about which wine glasses to purchase. It seemed very important at the time, but ridiculously hilarious now.
- Do not make global statements. Period. Global statements, such as “always” and “never” are not productive, and rarely even true. Sure, your partner might tend to do this or that, or frequently fail to do this or that, but I doubt that it is always or never. Saying so just makes your partner defensive.
- Do not bring up every issue from the past. Focus on the issue at hand. If something from the past is unresolved or still bothering you, bring that up as a separate issue another time. Every fight is not about everything. Don’t allow this to happen. It builds to much resentment. You don’t have to keep it in, but you can find a more appropriate time to resolve past issues.
- Do not lie. Keep it real. You don’t have to lie and hide your mistakes. Be human, show your vulnerability. I don’t know anyone who prefers being lied to over hearing the truth, even when the truth is hard.
- Keep an open mind. Be flexible. The “my way or the highway” attitude is not useful at all when trying to solve problems. How on earth can you find a creative or mutually acceptable resolution when you’re being steadfast in your position and rigid?
It’s not always easy, and it takes a lot of practice. But, if you can follow these rules and incorporate them into your disagreements, your relationship will be better for it. Eventually, you will come to not fear the conflict, but rather to see it as an opportunity for growing the relationship by learning to respectfully solve problems.