Want a Better Marriage? Learn to Fight Fair

It’s going to happen. Conflict finds its way into every relationship. Even in the healthiest relationships there are arguments, times of alienation, moments filled with heavy silence and disagreements that seem to linger. It is inevitable! However, arguing in and of itself, will not ruin your relationship. In fact, it’s communicating something; it’s saying, sometimes in loud shouting matches, that “this” needs to be addressed.

“A fight is a deadlock, in which each partner needs the other to listen, but can’t stop saying things that make it impossible for the other to listen,” says Clinical Psychologist Dan Wile. “Each feels too unheard to be able to listen.”

Arguing can have a life of its own, gaining momentum with every word spoken. It becomes a fiery contest to prove who’s right. However, with intention, awareness and structure, conflict can be managed in a way that provides understanding.

When a couple is overwhelmed with emotion during conflict it decreases their ability to take in information. They become stuck in trying to defend their position. They lose the capacity to listen with the intent of understanding, or hear legitimate complaints. Each partner takes part in restating his or her position over and over increasing the odds of long-term emotional disengagement.

You can liken it to the idea of being emotionally flooded. There’s a physiological response to being overwhelmed with emotion that impedes a rational response; it also releases anger, impatience and frustration. In order for the emotional flooding to recede, it’s necessary that couples take a break!

Arguing can have a life of its own, gaining momentum with every word spoken. It becomes a fiery contest to prove who’s right.

It may be helpful to negotiate a safety word. Whether it’s bananas, potato or Wakanda, the safety word activates the timeout. And whether it is one hour, 45 minutes or four hours, taking a break is necessary. Dr. John Gottman, a clinical researcher in Seattle, WA, encourages couples to avoid spending the break “stewing or otherwise thinking about the conflict.”

During the timeout, workout, play a video game, do some cleaning, zone out with music or a movie do activities that calm you. Also, avoid talking negatively about your partner to others, and to yourself. Of course, frustration will present itself. Allow yourself to feel it. Then reflect on what in your partner’s argument has some truth to it. Remember, there is validity in their perspective.

Wile suggests that after the fight is over, it’s vitally important for partners to sit down and make sense of what just happened. Generally, arguing invites the opportunity for partners to say things they have been wanting to say.

The problem is, with the truth serum of emotion, it comes out ineffectively. So, the goal is not to avoid arguing, but to increase your ability to recover from it. Without recovery, each argument, each disagreement, each cold stare, each criticism, each instance of name-calling, each sharp complaint, each eye roll chisels away at the foundation of the relationship.

Arguing can have a life of its own, gaining momentum with every word spoken. It becomes a fiery contest to prove who’s right.

Criticisms and accusations tend to be “rough drafts” of important underlying relationship issues that have not been fully developed by the speaker, and consequently, have not been fully heard by the listener. The recovery offers partners the opportunity to incorporate anger into the relationship, instead of frantically trying to get rid of it. “Individuals who view anger as indicating that they have a bad marriage will be demoralized by its presence and will be unable to deal with it,” says Wile.

The recovery is the opportunity to express anger, frustrations, complaints and needs in a more effective way. The recovery is not designed for you to necessarily resolve the issue, but to over time, become better collaborators about difficult issues. Fighting fair requires fine-tuning your recovery skills so both partners can grow into better speakers and listeners.

Fine-tuning the recovery involves what can be called “rules of engagement.” These guidelines are helpful when revisiting the conflict, after you have taken a break. Engaging in a structured process helps toward having a conversation that promotes connection, understanding and what’s at the heart of the disagreement.

For the speaker, speaking from a place of awareness offers a gentler approach, increasing the odds that your partner will remain fully engaged. Not to mention, all of the responsibility is not placed on the listener; it becomes a team effort.

Use “I” statements. It’s almost cliché at this point, but there’s usefulness in this approach. This approach focuses on your experience and perspective. Saying, “I wish you had told me about the light bill needing to be paid. I felt embarrassed when they called to collect the past due payment” is vastly different than, “You are so lazy. What kind of grown-up doesn’t pay their bills?” The latter risks not being heard.

Be sensitive to your partner’s triggers. No one is without scars or past wounds that trigger negative emotions. Keeping this in mind will keep your partner engaged. Common ones are, “Don’t lecture me,” or “Don’t tell me what I SHOULD do.”

State a positive need. Gottman suggests the speaker’s goal is, “to give your partner a blueprint for succeeding with you.” Reflecting on the need a negative emotion is communicating helps with expression of it. For example, instead of, “You are always on your phone,” something like, “I need your attention right now” may be helpful.

For the listener, active listening helps to resist the urge to defend your position. Also, it allows the speaker the opportunity to fully express himself or herself without being interrupted. To do this, try to avoid making judgments about your partner’s emotions. For example, “You’re overreacting,” or “Why are you so sensitive?”

Summarize your partner’s position. As listeners, we tend to respond with an already prepared response. The goal is to ensure you understand your partner, the way he/she wants to be understood. To do this, summarizing his/her position back to them until he/she can say, “That’s it. That’s what I’m trying to say,” lets your partner know that you hear him/her.

Validate your partner’s position. A statement like, “I can see how that would be frustrating, because…” validates what your partners is saying. If you “can’t see it,” ask reflective questions. “Help me understand why this is a big deal for you” opens space for your partner to share more. It also allows them to see that that their feelings and complaints are being taken seriously.

There will be things to argue about for the life of the relationship. Fighting fair is less about what happens during the fight, and more about what happens after the fight. After the fight, partners have the clarity of thought and atmosphere of safety to discuss their main concerns. Over time, you become better with turning fighting into dialogue.

Redonno Carmon is a marriage and family therapist associate. He counsels couples at Mathews Counseling in Cary, NC. Carmon also offers pre-marital counseling as a SYMBIS certified facilitator. He sees clients both in his office and online. You can schedule an appointment with him online or connect with him at redonno@mathewscounseling.net.