All couples have arguments. Fighting with your spouse can be a good sign. It could mean that you feel comfortable enough to be open with them about your true feelings. The problems start when you don’t know how to express those feelings and you turn a disagreement into an argument and it escalates, turns hurtful, and then turns into a fight.
And most of us have not been trained how to have a fair fight.
How many of us have been taught conflict management and conflict resolution skills to deal with our relationships? Even psychotherapists aren’t great at applying what they know to their own relationships (just ask my husband.)
How to Improve Your Relationship By Learning to Fight Fair
I recently contributed to an article on the Martha Stewart Weddings site about the mistakes couples make when they have a disagreement. Here are my suggestions for how to handle conflict with your partner.
Stick to the Point
First, when you have an argument, stick to the point you’re mad about. An argument should be confined to the current disagreement.
For example, if you’re fighting about whose turn it is to take out the garbage, bringing up the fact that they left the dishes in the sink two years ago and you’re still not over it is not going to resolve the problem with the garbage.
And the smaller disagreement about garbage night could lead to an unending, all-night fight about long-standing resentment and feelings of not being cared about.
Bringing up old hurts, past resentments, and other conflicts can cloud the current issue. The fog of all the past, unresolved stuff you’ve been holding on to can make it hard to see how to resolve the current problem.
There’s a time and a place to dig through your mountain of old resentments. The time is not now. Not during a fight about taking out the garbage.
Don’t Attach Deeper Meaning to the Current Problem
Second, don’t attach deeper meaning to the problem you’re arguing about — are you imagining that your partner is lying or is hiding some nefarious plot, or something worse is lurking behind what they are saying out loud?
Try to focus on what you’re currently trying to work through without making up a story about what it might really mean. (This one’s hard when you’re married to a therapist. Again, ask my husband.)
If your partner says he is upset about the phone bill, bringing up the time he forgot to call you from his business trip six months ago will only escalate the argument and actually avoids the issue of paying the phone bill (which might be what you are really trying to do.)
Also, see above: If there are older resentments hanging around, talk about them at another time.
Use Feeling Words
Third, use feeling words and “I” statements.
When something is bothering you, it’s important to share your feelings about your partner’s behavior. You want to avoid pointing a finger at them or, worse, shouting accusations. Start with an “I” statement, and focus on what you are feeling instead of telling them what they are doing wrong.
Using “I” statements helps you avoid creating a defensive partner, which will only heighten an argument.
For example, instead of “You were flirting with that girl. You don’t care about me at all!” Use an “I” statement using your feeling words: “I feel really alone when you pay so much attention to other women and I am sitting alone all night at the bar.”
The difference is that the first is a criticism of your partner, and criticizing can make them instantly defensive. The second is an expression of your feelings and gives you both something to talk about.
Stop Using “Never” and “Always”
Fourth, avoid using the words never or always. No one ever always does something, and rarely do they never do anything. Those words are inflammatory and accusatory.
When you point out someone else’s behavior, prepare to be specific. “When you forgot to call me last night, I felt really hurt,” is a much different statement than “You never call me on your way home!”
When you say never it attacks your partner’s character, instead of addressing your hurt or frustration about their particular behavior.
To Fight Fair, Keep Conflicts in Perspective
Finally, avoid escalating arguments and keep conflicts in perspective. All couples feel frustration and experience conflict in their relationship.
But it is not fair to hurt each other’s feelings when you fight. Try to keep things from escalating by making sure that your partner hears you and they “get it” before you move on to something else. And make sure you take responsibility for really hearing their point of view as well.
You are responsible for how you argue.
If you find it impossible to adhere to these tips on how to fight fair, try couples counseling. Getting help to learn these skills is the best way to practice conflict management and conflict resolution in your marriage or partnership.
If you and your partner have trouble sticking to these “rules,” it’s time to reach out for some assistance.
Contact me for a session. I can help you learn these and more conflict management skills so you can resolve your disagreements with love and have time to enjoy each other!