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Open Mouth, Insert Foot: The Dos and Don’ts of Fighting Fair

Unfortunately, there’s no time machine that lets us travel backward and unsay something we wish we hadn’t said.  And harsh words can be especially painful in the context of a relationship when spoken by someone we count on for constant love and support.

But all couples argue.  And well-handled conflict can actually be an asset in a relationship, since it lets you both express what you’re feeling and clear the air of harsh feelings that can come between you.  So the key is to create in your relationship a “healthy conflict” in which you both do your best to avoid some common mistakes while adhering to a few basic principles.

The Don’ts of Fighting Fair

DON’T BRING UP PAST GRIEVANCES.  If you two are arguing about money, don’t bring up that issue about how much your partner drank at the party last week.  Injecting something else into the argument won’t help you sort out the current problem.  It’ll just prolong the conflict.

DON’T GO FOR THE JUGULAR.  This is a basic when it comes to fighting fair.  All of us can get caught up in the moment and aim for a weak spot where we know can cause maximum pain.  But in a relationship built on support and trust, it’s crucial that you resist this urge, even when you’re at your angriest.  There’s nothing at all wrong with being upset and showing it.  It’s even OK to sometimes yell about your feelings.  But stick to the facts of the argument.  When you move to personal attacks, you’ve crossed a line.

DON’T TELL YOUR PARTNER HOW THEY SHOULD THINK OR FEEL.  This is a sure way to get someone upset with you, telling the person that his or her feelings are ridiculous or that they aren’t valid, or that the person should think differently.  Remember — your partner is trusting you with his or her feelings, so it’s important that you listen to and respect what you’re hearing.

DON’T INTIMIDATE.  It’s never OK to try to win an argument by using threats — either stated or implied, emotional or physical — instead of working out the problem between you.  A healthy relationship thrives on real intimacy and mutual respect, neither of which can exist in a threatening atmosphere.

DON’T OVERGENERALIZE.  Watch out for the words “always” and “never.”  Instead of “You’re never on time,” say, “That’s the third time this week I’ve had to wait for you.”  By being specific regarding what you’re upset about, you’ll give yourself a much better chance of actually addressing the issue at hand.

DON’T FORCE THE MATTER WHEN YOU’RE TIRED.  There are times when having an argument should simply wait for another time.  Late at night when you’re sleepy and already a little grumpy is one of those times when it makes more sense to put the discussion off until you feel fresher and can be more reasonable.

The Dos of Fighting Fair

TALK ABOUT LITTLE PROBLEMS BEFORE THEY TURN INTO BIG ONES.  Again, there are times that it’s OK to put off having an argument, such as when you’re at a party or you’re too tired to have a healthy discussion.  But as a general rule, address the issue as quickly as possible.  One minor disagreement can be handled fairly easily and quickly.  But if lots of minor issues go unaddressed, resentment can begin to build and the little problems can turn into big ones.

STICK TO THE SUBJECT. Specify your points of disagreement carefully, and then agree that that’s what you’re talking about.  Don’t suddenly go off on a strange tangent that has nothing to do with the argument you’re currently having.

LISTEN ACTIVELY.  This means showing your partner, both verbally and nonverbally, that you’re really listening.  Make eye contact and nod to show that you’re hearing what’s being said.  Then, when you respond, use phrases like “So you’re saying that you’re mad because I …” or “Your point is that I shouldn’t have …”  Reflecting back like this can be one of the best ways to defuse an argument, if you can just show your partner that he or she  is being heard and understood.

USE “I” STATEMENTS.  Instead of saying “You should have called me if you were going to be out so late,” say “I feel nervous when it gets late and I haven’t heard from you.”  “I” statements — in which you begin with phrases like “I feel” or “I’m afraid when” — are less judgmental and much more effective than the more accusatory “you” statements.

ADMIT FAULT.  This is one of the hardest of all the dos.  It’s also one of the most powerful.  You and your partner need to practice give-and-take.  So if you’re wrong, say so and then move on.  You may not be ready to admit fault immediately, but as soon as you can, do it.  As difficult as it can be, a sincere apology presents a quicker and more enjoyable way to end an argument.  We’re not saying that you should always give in, but when you’re wrong, admit it.

CELEBRATE YOUR VICTORIES.  This doesn’t mean celebrating a victory for you or a victory for your partner.  But after an argument or a fight, if you’ve genuinely resolved something or if you’ve learned something about each other, then that’s a victory for the relationship.  So congratulate yourselves.  This will be good for the relationship and encourage both of you to handle your conflict well in the future.

Remember, you’re not going to be able to avoid conflict in your relationship.  You are unique individuals with your own feelings, opinions, and desires.  So the key is to manage that conflict in a way that actually brings you closer together and allows you to understand each other more deeply, rather than allowing it to tear you apart.