In the heat of an argument it’s easy to succumb to fighting dirty to “win,” especially when you might feel you’re not being heard, but you could be damaging your relationship. By learning how to fight fairly, conflict can become a tool for deepening the bonds you share.
Isn’t conflict a bad thing?
It is a popular myth that the goal of a perfect relationship is to be conflict free. In fact, those relationships in which two people never fight are nearly always filled with repressed resentments that eventually explode into damaging arguments. And because partners in these types of relationships are not used to managing conflict on a regular basis, neither one has the skills necessary to solve the problems that have come up. The relationship will begin to stall on key points and the tension around unresolved issues will continue to build. While this type of relationship might not completely dissolve over the course of one or two major explosive arguments, having the same unresolved issues crop up again and again over time can lead to breakups and a lot of unhappiness.
When conflict is seen as tool to move you toward a resolution and bring you together, however, it becomes something not to run away from but something to embrace for the betterment of your relationship. When both partners realize the connection between problem-solving and love and acceptance, fighting becomes an opportunity to strengthen a union between two people. Arriving at resolutions deepens your love and appreciation for each other and what you share, and renews the desire to be with one another. Quite simply, how two people decide to manage their conflict can make all of the difference between a relationship that works and one that ultimately doesn’t.
Fortunately, by following the rules of fighting fairly you will be able to lessen the damaging impact of conflict and will be able to arrive at mutually satisfying resolutions.
Fighting fairly is a three-step process. Each step will be easier or more difficult depending on the communication skill level that a person already possesses. But don’t worry—even if you or your partner (or both!) are just beginning to learn the importance of effective communication, you can still put these three steps into practice and observe a noticeable result in lessening the damage of conflict with your partner. Over time and with practice, resolving arguments both big and small will become easier, and conflict won’t have the same explosive power to create situations in which both partners experience considerable hurt.
Before you begin to talk about the actual conflict, agree to set following ground rules first:
- No raising of the voice—it’s hard to talk constructively when someone is yelling.
- No sarcasm or put-downs—you are both mature adults who do not need a referee to assign blame and declare a “winner.”
- Be specific to shed some light on what you are thinking and how you are feeling: Instead of saying “You are like this, and it drives me nuts!” you could say, “When you do this one activity, it makes me feel like this because…”
- Schedule a rain check if there is alcohol involved. It’s not usually a good idea to have serious discussions after one or both partners have been drinking. Even though you may feel more relaxed in some ways, there comes a tipping point with alcohol in which people become emotionally unavailable, whether they are aware of it or not. So take a rain check to talk about it tomorrow when both you and your partner are well rested and back to everyday senses, no matter how aggravated you may be in the moment.
- Stop and listen. This step is sometimes the hardest when a heated situation comes up, but it is essential. Simply stop talking or yelling and calmly ask your partner why they are upset, what they think a successful resolution is for them (or in other words, what they want in the situation). Then when he or she is finished, restate what you think they are communicating to you in a factual manner. Again, save the sarcasm and out of love confirm with them that you fully understand their point of view. Even in the most compatible of relationships, each person brings his or her own unique point of view in many areas of life, so there will be slight differences in values and in ways of seeing the world. The further apart that these opinions are from another the more conflict that will arise. You don’t have to necessarily agree with their point of view, but you do have to understand it in order to come to resolution, so let your partner correct you if he or she feels your take on the situation is slightly off. To be able to listen with complete attentiveness to your partner is one of the highest expressions of love; you accept them as they are, despite differing points of view. The goal is to foster the freedom of mutual honesty with your partner. You shouldn’t bury it, and equally as important, neither should your partner; everyone needs to be heard and understood. If you sense he or she is burying feelings simply to end an argument quickly, encourage them to open up. Remember, just as you have a right to your own thoughts and feelings, so does your partner.
- It’s your turn. When your partner has clarified and agreed with your restatement of his or her point of view with you, then it is your turn to calmly lay out your point of view to your partner. Again, they should afford you with as much respect and attentiveness as you provided to them in Step 1. Should they slip in that regard, gently remind them. One responsibility in love is to teach one another how to be better people, so exercise compassion for your partner as he or she learns how to sharpen communication skills to be able to communicate more effectively with you. The same goes for being with partners who are unwilling to try new problem-solving techniques or may seem unwilling to try anything new that might help your relationship—you’ll have to set a good example by employing effective conflict management skills when arguments arise. Instead of talking about the steps themselves, try illustrating good listening skills while encouraging good listening skills in your partner over the natural course of conversation through your behavior. Finally, if your partner does not restate your position once you are finished calmly expressing your point of view, ask your partner to tell you in his or her own words what he or she thinks you are trying to communicate. Engage them in your point of view calmly.
- Compare and resolve. By this point, both you and your partner should be much calmer and feel better about the original source of conflict. You both have a detailed understanding of what happened and why the other person is upset, and now you can move toward a satisfactory resolution you can both live with. Next, simply ask one question of each other: What would be a satisfactory resolution for you in this situation? In other words, what would make you happiest if we were to resolve this issue once and for all? Once you both discuss the possible outcomes that you can both live with happily, you can decide on the best course of action—together.
The next time you find yourself in conflict with your partner try these 3-steps to fighting fairly. Not only will you both “win,” but you’ll feel closer having communicated and understood each other’s unique point of view, and you’ll feel confident that you are strengthening your relationship with your partner one argument at a time.