Thirty years of marriage counseling and twenty-five years of a second marriage have convinced me that fights are not necessary in a marriage. Married couples need to have discussions, they need to solve problems, and sometimes they need to disagree, but they don’t need to squabble, argue, bicker or fight. Fights are dramatic, which is not helpful to a discussion. If you have enough energy to create drama, you have more than enough to tone it down into a discussion. However, because social expectations and mythology are so strong, many of my clients want guidelines for “fighting fair.” I’ve developed a set of Fair Fight Guidelines you may find helpful.
Fair Fight Guidelines
If you feel a fight is unavoidable, you can still find a win-win resolution if you follow these guidelines.
• Remember the point of the fight is to reach a solution, not to win, be right, or make your partner wrong.
• Don't try to mind read. Ask instead what he or she is thinking.
• Don’t bring up all the prior problems that relate to this one. Leave the past in the past; keep this about one recent problem. Solve one thing at a time.
• Keep the process simple. State the problem, suggest some alternatives, and choose a solution together.
• Don't talk too much at once. Keep your statements to two or three sentences. Your partner will not be able to grasp more than that.
• Give your partner a chance to respond and to suggest options.
• Practice equality. If something is important enough to one of you, it will inevitably be important to both of you, so honor your partner’s need to solve a problem.
• Ask and Answer questions directly. Again, keep it as simple as possible. Let your partner know you hear him or her.
• State your problem as a request, not a demand. To make it a positive request, use “I messages” and “please”.
• Don’t use power struggle tactics: guilt and obligation, threats and emotional blackmail, courtroom logic: peacekeeping, sacrificing, or hammering away are off limits.
• Know your facts: If you’re going to fight for something, know the facts about the problem: Do research, find out what options are available, and know how you feel and what would solve the problem for you.
• Ask for changes in behavior, don’t criticize character, ethics or morals.
• Don’t fight over who’s right or wrong. Opinions are opinions, and that won’t solve the problem. Instead, focus on what will work.
• Ask your partner if he or she has anything to add to the discussion. “Is there anything else we need to discuss now?”
• Don’t guess what your partner is thinking or feeling. Instead, ask. “What do you think? Or How do you feel about it?”
• Hold hands, look at each other, remember you’re partners.
• If you’re angry, express it calmly. “I’m angry about ……” There’s no need for drama, and it won’t get you what you want. Anger is satisfied by being acknowledged, and by creating change. Anger is a normal emotionrage is phony, it’s drama created by not taking care of yourself.
• Acknowledge and honor your partner’s feelingsdon’t deflect them, laugh at them or freak out. They’re only feelings, and they subside when respected, heard and honored.
• Listen with your whole self. Paraphrase what your partner says; check to see if you understand by repeating what is said. “So you are angry because you think I ignored you. Is that right?”
• No personal attacks or criticism. Focus on solving the problem.
• If you want to let off steam (vent), ask permission or take a time out. Handle your excess emotion or energy by being active (run, walk, hit a pillow,) writing, or talking to someone who is not part of the problem. Don’t direct it personally at anyone. You can’t vent and solve problems at the same time.
• Don’t try to solve a problem if you’re impaired: tired, hungry, drunk or unstable.
• Surrender to your responsibility. When you become aware that you have made a mistake, admit it and apologize. Use it as an opportunity to learn and grow.
Tina B. Tessina, Ph.D., "Dr. Romance," is a licensed psychotherapist in private practice in Long Beach, Calif. since 1978 and author of 13 books in 17 languages, including The Unofficial Guide to Dating Again and Lovestyles: How to Celebrate Your Differences. She publishes the Happiness Tips from Tina email newsletter, and the Dr. Romance Blog. She has written for and been interviewed in many national publications, and she has appeared on Oprah, Larry King Live and many other TV and radio shows.