Where the Science of Psychology Meets the Art of Being Human

Fighting Fair in A Relationship: How to Get What You Need and Stay Close While You Do It

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Fighting Fair: How to Get What You Want and Stay Close While You're Doing it.

I used to have this idea that real love was when two people remembered birthdays, anniversaries, and never fought. Fighting, even if it was fighting fair, was for the more incompatible.

Fast forward a couple of decades and what can I say? Not a lot really because I’m almost choking on the naïvety of it all. But let me explain …

My parents never fought, so I had good reason to believe that a fight-free relationship was possible. They never said a bad word about each or to each other. They didn’t say many words to each other at all. They didn’t hold hands. Or each other. They didn’t laugh together or ‘hang out’ together. I never heard them say, ‘I love you’ and I didn’t see them smother each other’s bad days with kisses. Eventually, they divorced. I know they were in love with each other once, it’s just that somewhere along the way they stumbled and fell out of it.

Clearly, it was pretty easy not to fight. They did it. I could do it. Because I would be in ‘real love’.

And then I met the man who would become my husband. And then we had our first fight. And quite a few more since. 

The love is real and so are the fights. What wasn’t real was that idea of real love that used to throw itself into my ‘one days’ like pixie dust. 

Fighting is a part of any relationship. It’s going to happen, but it doesn’t have to lessen it. Having know-how around fighting fair can not only save a relationship, but also make sure you both get what you need and bring you closer. Few things will fuel intimacy, connection and closeness like being seen, being heard and coming through a storm side by side.

Researchers have found that one of the best predictors of divorce is not whether a couple fights, but how they fight.

All couples have probably fought dirty at least once, but the relationship will struggle when this way of relating becomes characteristic.

Everyone has needs and getting them met in the context of a relationship is important. Unmet needs will fester and push for resolution in some way. This might take the form of barbed comments here and there, criticism, or a distancing. You won’t always agree – and that’s fine – but being able to fight fairly for the important things, or through to the end of the unimportant things, is critical for the longevity of your relationship.  Here are the do’s and don’ts of fighting fair.

  1. Don’t fear conflict.

    Conflict is an opportunity for growth. When you intimately share your life with someone there are going to be disagreements. Sometimes a lot of them. Conflict is normal. healthy and sometimes necessary when there is something important at stake for one or both of you. It isn’t always easy to do, but receiving conflict well or raising a difficult issue sensitively will provide the opportunity to see each other, notice each other and learn from each other. 

  2. Attack the issue, not each other.

    Don’t name call or bring the other person down to get on top of the argument. The potential to cause scars is enormous. It’s too easy to say things that can’t be taken about.

  3. Stay with the issue at hand.

    Don’t bring in irrelevant details just to prove your point. It’s so tempting to confirm your ‘rightness’ by highlighting the other person’s ‘wrongness’, but don’t. It’s the quickest way to send an argument off track and land you in a place where you forget what you were fighting for. 

  4. Don’t confuse the topics with the issue.

    If you keep fighting over different things but you always seem to end up on the same issue (e.g. money or the night he/you came home late), that issue is actually where your work needs to be. Something about that issue is unresolved and the topics – the little things that start the arguments (e.g. the towels on the floor) – are just the way the issue calls you both back to the plate to deal with it. The topics aren’t the problem. The issue is. Find out exactly what it is (though you will probably already have a fair idea!) and deal with it. Give what’s needed for the issue to let go of the grip it has on your relationship, whether that’s air time, validation, acknowledgement, an apology or reassurance.

  5. Don’t downplay the issue.

    For an issue to be an issue it only takes one of you to believe it is. You don’t need to agree but you do need to listen. Let your partner know you’ve heard them and that you understand. People don’t stop feeling a certain way just because they’re told to stop. (Would be nice if it was that simple though!) If an issue is ignored it won’t go away. Needs always push for completion – it’s just the way it is. If feelings or needs aren’t resolved, they will come out through other topics (that fiery argument about being ten minutes late to dinner isn’t really about dinner), or they’ll brew. Sometimes all it takes is validation or acknowledgement. ‘I know how important this is to you, I’m just really stuck with what to do about it.’

  6. Don’t withdraw. Or chase.

    This is different to taking time out to cool down and get your thoughts together. People withdraw when they feel attacked, bored or disinterested and will pull back in an attempt to maintain autonomy, control and distance. Research has found a direct association between withdrawal and lower relationship satisfaction. If the silent treatment is your typical response, it will do damage. If you’re feeling attacked, try to find a way to discuss this without going on the attack yourself. If you’re bored or disinterested, is it with the issue or the relationship? What is it about either that is making you want to pull back?

    If your partner is withdrawing, is it possible that he or she feels attacked? One way to change that is to name your contribution to the issue, however small. ‘I know I probably haven’t helped things by …’ or, ‘I know I upset you when I …’ This makes it easier for your partner to trust that you aren’t only out for blood.

  7. Be open about what you need. Nobody can read your mind.

    Conflicts in which one person expects another to know what is wrong without being told are more likely to end with anger or negative communication. Research has shown that people who expect a partner to mind read are more likely to feel anxious or neglected.

  8. Find the real emotion beneath the anger.

    It can be hard not to turn away when someone is angry with you (I may have done it once or twice or too many times myself) but anger is a secondary emotion – it never exists on its own and always has another emotion beneath it. The common culprits are sadness, hurt, insecurity, jealousy or frustration. If you can notice the real emotion you’ll have a better chance of responding to the real issue. Don’t turn your back, look away or pretend you’re doing something important while your partner is spilling himself or herself to you – you might miss something important that clues you in on what’s really going on. Few things deepen a connection more than being seen.

  9. Be attentive.

    Unless your teen is face-timing you from the tattoo parlour with a short list and it’s the first you’ve heard of any of it, don’t look at your phone, or anything else that will take you away from the heat. If your body shows up to the plate but your mind is on what to have for dinner, a couple of things could happen – none of them good. One is that the argument will keep going until your attention is turned to face. Another is that the argument will stop being about the issue at hand and will become about the way you ‘never listen’, or ‘don’t care’ – or anything else that fits your process. Avoid the fallout by being attentive. 

  10. Don’t yell.

    Start yelling and before you know it, you’ll be arguing about arguing. If the argument is at yelling point, nobody is being heard because nobody is listening. At this point, someone needs to be the hero and calm it all down. ‘I’m trying to understand what you want but we have to stop yelling first.’ Otherwise, suggest you both take a break but make sure that you name a time to come back to it. Don’t let it get swept under the rug. Rugs don’t tend to fade issues into nothingness – they hide the detail but not the fact that something is in the way.

  11. Stay away from ‘you always’ or ‘you never’.

    Make a generalisation and you can bet that what will come next is an explanation of the exception. Use specific examples or if your partner is doing the generalising, ask for specific examples. Nobody is ‘always’ or ‘never’ anything and using these words will just inflame.

  12. Be curious.

    Ask for more details. It’s tempting to launch into a defence when there’s a hint of attack but this is rarely helpful and usually escalates the argument. It also means that while the other person is speaking, you are probably formulating your response rather than listening. Slow things down and ask for details. This shows that you’re open to getting things sorted out.

  13. Fully and honestly accept that nobody is perfect. Seriously. Nobody.

    Be open to accepting criticism. Is it the feedback that’s difficult to stomach or the way it’s delivered. Try to hear the message, even if it is being delivered in a way that is hard to hear. If you are the one with the wise words, say it in a way that can be heard by being generous in the delivery. ‘I know you probably didn’t mean it the way it came across but when you …’ or ‘I miss you when we fight. Can we talk about it?’

  14. Watch out for the passive-aggressive.

    Know that if you have to say, ‘I’m just being honest …’, or ‘I’m not criticising you but …’ or ‘You’re probably not going to like hearing this but …’ – you’re in no way softening the blow. You’re also not fooling anyone – all of these statements generally come just before an accusation. In fact, you’ll probably feel your partner bracing for the next round before the final word has left your mouth.

  15. If you’re wrong, apologise.

    Be humble. Be honest. Fullstop.

  16. If you’re going around in circles, stop.

    Cycles become vicious ones before you know it. If you or your partner are repeating the same things, you’re stuck in a loop. People repeat things because they don’t feel heard. Slow things down and communicate to your partner your understanding of their side of things. Then hopefully they will slow down to hear yours. If you’re the one who isn’t feeling heard, try finding a different way to say it and check you aren’t too much on the attack. You have nothing to lose – cycles are breeders and they tend to make uglier ones. Stop them before they spin out of control.

  17. Find the common ground.

    There’s usually something you can find to agree on, even if it’s that you don’t want to fight. ‘So we both agree that …’ Anything that will help to get you both back on the same team is a good thing. It’s also a way to validate your partner and let them know you see them.

  18. Give in or compromise on something – however small.

    Finding something you can give on will help progress the situation along. Generally in a fight, the more one person pulls, the more the other pulls in the other direction. Take a step, however small, back to the middle ground by offering a compromise. Any small concession is the groundwork for bigger ones.

  19. Don’t leave it unfinished.

    Find a resolution, otherwise it will continue to press for closure.

And finally …

Fighting is inevitable and not all healthy couples fight fair all of the time. Doors may get slammed. Things may be said. And plastic containers may get thrown across the room. Having know-how around fighting fair is a powerful thing. It will bring you closer to being able to get what you want and at the same time solidify your relationship. Anything that can bring you through to the other side of an argument still holding hands – or wanting to hold hands – is certainly worth the effort.

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9 Comments

Paula

I tell my partner I can not read your mind. Please explain what you mean . Communication is key. Never assu me anything.
Telling me you love does not solve the issue .
Take ownership and be responsible of the issu. It takes two to fight so meet me half way .
I just ended it with my boyfriend . Me wa a true mom s boy. I could not stand the manipulation. Plus he ignored me and it felt like he was punishing me . Screw that . I feel good. I Sit silent with the feeling until it leaves my body. No one can really hurt you unless you arw insecure about something . It’s all a learning experience. I learned I am strong and deserve to find aan who appreciates me.
Do you have article on mom’s boy. It’s a strange relationship?

Reply
Toni

I loved the article. I tried to get my husband to read it, as well, but he refused. Said that he would yell if I wasn’t listening (which means agreeimg with him), and that if I would just not say or do things that piss him off, he wouldn’t yell at all. I tried to implement all the “rules”, but they are pointless unless both people are folloowing them. What do i do now?

Reply
Karen - Hey Sigmund

If your husband isn’t open to talking about your relationship, or prepared to meet you somewhere in the middle, it’s going to be difficult to find a new way of relating. Keep taking care of you, and let him know that you would really like to talk about how to make the relationship better for him and for you when he is ready. If there is something you’re doing to upset him, he needs to tell you what that is – and not by yelling in the moment. Approach it from an angle that you want things to be better for both of you, and you want to understand more about what he needs to feel happy. If he isn’t willing to have the conversation, it’s for you to decide whether you can live with his behaviour and the relationship the way it is, or whether you can’t.

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Cara

My boyfriend and i are at the end of our rope. He holds everything in then blows up and says some very nasty things. I feel i keep my cool very well, however do sometimes have sarcastic remarks and answers. I have honestly tried to sit down and ask what is bugging him and what i can do different. I then tell him whats bugging me and he rarley apologizes and tries to turn it back around on me ” well im sorry but i did it because you did this” im beyond frustrated, and i do love him but i dont know what i can do better anymorw

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Daisy

My husband will get upset, supposedly over a particular incident, and then will attack my personality/”who I am”. The argument never starts and ends with the issue at hand; it always becomes about who I am. For instance, I said something the other day that I figured he wasn’t going to take well and I chose to do it at a bad time. I agree that I should have waited for a more appropriate time. However, instead of saying, “I wish you would have brought this up at another time because…”, he starts yelling and belittling me and tells me that I’m the most selfish person he knows. It went on and on and a lot more hurtful things were said. This happens all the time. Why can’t we just discuss the issue? Why shred me to pieces? I’m building a wall (again) and it worries me. We’ve been together a very long time and this kind of behavior has caused us to split up in the past, but there is no talking to him. He refuses to talk to anyone (counselor) either. I’m sad to see us heading down the same road, but I have no idea how to get through to him because he just says he gets “mean”, but if I just wouldn’t do (fill in the blank) he wouldn’t have to. This is so hard.

Reply
Sabrina

Daisey, you’re not going to fix him! He needs to want to be fixed! It’s his realization not yours. The above statements are somewhat helpful, take what will help you and leave the rest. “Because someone withdraws because he/she feels attacked” is not your fault or problem. They have zero communication skills and don’t care enough to get them. They just want you to take the fall for it.

Reply
Smiley

Hi Daisy,
I am sorry that you are experiencing this. It seems like your husband feels justified in his actions and therefore sees no reason to change his behavior or communication patterns. From what you’ve explained, it appears that you’ve been together long enough to know that his behavior in conflict isn’t going to change and it is not something that you are able to fix regardless of how much you may wish it. So, try again, if possible, to discuss the benefits to your relationship if you are both able to improve your conflict patterns. If he still refuses, you must decide whether or not you are willing to continue living with that behavior. Also, it is very important that you know that only abusive and manipulative individuals continually choose to tear others down and blame the person for their actions. At the very least, your husband should be willing to take full responsibility for his choices and actions and not blame you. Good luck😊

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