Fair Fighting Rules For Couples

Fair Fighting Rules For Couples: understanding how conflict itself can be an opportunity to learn about your partner's feelings and needs.

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Fair Fighting Rules Quiz Completion

Fair Fighting Rules For Couples

Picture of Nathan Cobb <small>PH.D. IN MFT, RMFT, R.PSYCH</small>


Registered psychologist and registered marriage & family therapist

We believe it is important for couples to avoid combat rather than conflict.

That’s where fair fighting rules come in.

Disagreements in marriage are normal given the high likelihood that both partners will eventually rub the other person the wrong way or not meet the other person’s expectations. Thus, some degree of conflict in a marriage is inevitable. Research shows it is not the presence of conflict that affects the health of the marriage; rather it is how couples handle their conflict.

Conflict itself can be an opportunity to learn how better to be responsive to your partner’s feelings and needs. It can also be a springboard to help you be more authentic about your feelings and to working together cooperatively and respectfully.

For your conflict to be productive, however, you’ll need a set of guidelines or fair fighting rules that you are both committed to using. Rules provide safety and structure. This article describes nine fair-fighting rules intended to help you mange conflict in a healthy way.

Fair Fighting Rule #1 - Avoid Contempt

When you use name-calling, put-downs, or swearing, it criticizes your partner’s character and shows disrespect for his or her dignity. Just as in sports there are rules about thisto prevent intentional injury, so there should be in relationships. When you injure your partner by using language that demeans and hurts feelings, it’s like you are saying “You are not safe with me. I will do whatever it takes to protect myself and win.” Expressing contempt in a fight has been shown in high quality research to be predictive of divorce.

How to keep rule #1

Contempt is a door we open when we allow ourselves to lose respect for our partner. We lose respect when we stop focusing on the good in them. Therefore, keeping Rule #1 is about cultivating respect for the dignity and humanity of your partner. Make a commitment that you will not resort to below-the-belt disdain, even if you are hurt. Remind yourself of what you value in your mate, what is positive about their character, and what you appreciate about them. View contempt as you would view abusing a narcotic. It may feel good in the moment to say something disdainful, but the continued use of it will cause havoc on the health of your relationship.

Fair Fighting Rule #2 - Do Not Play The Blame Game

When you blame your partner, or get blamed by your partner, it distracts from solving the problem. It usually invokes a defensive response, which can escalate the argument further. Blame will stop you from becoming aware of your own feelings and desires that are at root of the argument. Criticism of the other person’s character—a form of blame—has been shown in extensive research to be highly predictive of divorce.

How to keep rule #2

Use a lot of “I-Statements”. An “I-Statement” is a phrase that discloses an undeniable truth about yourself. It takes the focus away from your partner and puts it on yourself. Avoid using sentences that start with “You” since such statements often end up being critical, as in “you are so lazy,” or “you think that you can just come in here and ….” Instead, say something like, “I feel lonely when we haven’t been spending much time together.”

This is not to say you should avoid using the word “you” altogether. How else would you describe what was bothering you when it involves your partner? But describe what is bothering you rather than judging your partner.

Fair Fighting Rule #3 - Keep Your Tone Friendly

Yelling or raising your voice only escalates things. Chances are that nothing will be resolved when your emotions are running so high. If you are angry and feel like yelling, it may be time to step away and cool down (see rule #9).

Try to remember that yelling is subjective. What feels like yelling to your spouse may not seem like yelling to you. Perhaps you are not tuned in to how you sound, or how loud your voice is. Perhaps you are used to loud voices such that speaking passionately when making a point seems normal to you. Your partner’s experience is the one that counts here. If your spouse feels like you are yelling at them, then make a conscious effort to make your tone friendlier. The meaning of your communication is measured by how your message is landing with others.

How to keep rule #3

Slow down and make a conscious effort to keep your tone friendly, if possible, or at least neural. Your tone of voice is a clear signal to your partner that they are either safe or threatened. If you are feeling too upset to tone it down, then it may be time for a break and a time-out.

Fair Fighting Rule #4 - No Use Of Force

Using physical aggression or threatening your partner with force has no place in a respectful, healthy relationship. Develop the self-discipline to set limits on your anger and your behaviour before you reach this point. If either of you uses physical force and violence in your fights, we recommend seeking professional help. What is ‘using physical force and violence’? Here are some examples: shoving, hitting, slapping, punching, restraining, pushing. Punching a hole in the door or throwing things or breaking dishes are more examples. Acting out your anger in these ways, even if you are not physically touching the other person, violates that person’s boundaries and sense of safety. Remember that each of us has a right to feel safe and free of danger in our relationships.

How to keep rule #4

If you feel close to the point of being physically aggressive, walk away. Take a deep breath, let your partner know in a few words that you are at a breaking point and need space. Go for a walk, and during the break take deep breaths, relax and calm yourself.

Fair Fighting Rule #5 - Avoid Talk Of Divorce

Threatening to leave your partner in the throes of a heated disagreement is manipulative even if you are not intending to manipulate. You might really mean it at the time you say it. Once you have calmed down, however, you may realize you do not mean it. In the meantime, the threat of separation creates instability, fosters anxiety about being abandoned, distracts from the issue at hand and undermines your ability to resolve the issue. It destabilizes your partner’s goodwill, faith, confidence, and feelings of security in your relationship. It erodes trust, which is the foundation of all relationships and is not easily restored once damaged by threats. Lacking trust leads to insecurity in other areas of your relationship as well, amplifying problems so that they seem bigger than they need to be.

How to keep rule #5

One way is to make a definite commitment to the marriage. A sure commitment closes the escape hatch of divorce. Divorce often comes up in the heat of the moment because it is something we have allowed ourselves to contemplate when we are not fighting. If you are not married, you may not be ready to make such a commitment yet. You can, however, decide that during a fight is not the time to talk about breaking up.

Fair Fighting Rule #6 - Define Yourself, Not Your Partner

One of the most important skills you can develop for keeping fights from escalating is to use words that describe how you feel, and what you want and need, rather than making assumptions about your partner’s feelings and accusing your partner of having certain intentions or agendas.

While it may seem easier to define and analyze your partner, when you interpret your partner’s beliefs, thoughts, feelings and motives, it is a distraction. It can also invite a defensive response from your partner rather than creative problem solving.

Saying to your partner, “I know you think that …” or “You just want to …” is controlling and presumptuous. It implies that you know your partner’s inner world better than they do.

How to keep rule #6

This rule says define yourself, not your partner. Identify your own unmet needs, feelings and ways of thinking and then describe these to your spouse or partner in clear, direct, respectful words. Defining yourself helps point you both toward finding solutions instead of attacking and defending. Work on expressing the undeniable truth about the way you feel emotionally. Acknowledge openly how you react to your feelings. Describe what you want, not what you think your partner wants or feels.

Fair Fighting Rule #7 - Don't Time Travel. Stay In The Present

Avoid the temptation to use the situation to refer to specific past events that you feel are unresolved. A current upsetting event is not the time to talk about past upsetting events. Sometimes it seems easier to use a past event to express your feelings about a current event. For example, “This is just like that time when you ….” However, your spouse is likely to feel shamed and resentful that you are holding something over them. If you do stray and start talking about a different issue that happened in the past, stop yourself and get back on track with resolving the issue at hand.

If you find you want to bring up past incidents, it may be a sign that they are still unsettled. Things may have happened that were not really discussed and worked through, or maybe you tried to talk about them before, but you or your partner were not fighting fair at that time or were afraid to bring them up because you did not want to start a fight.

How to keep rule #7

There are three recommendations that go with this rule. The first is to concur with each other that it is rarely, if ever, helpful to refer to your partner’s specific past mistakes to make a case for your feelings about a current issue. Stick to the current issue. The second is to make a commitment to sort out and repair a rocky incident as soon after it happens as possible, so that you both feel heard and can put the incident to rest. The third is to settle an unresolved past incident, if necessary, separately from the current upsetting event.

Fair Fighting Rule #8 - Take Turns Talking

An unfair fight can often feel like a tennis match or a game of hot potato where neither party wants to let the “tennis ball” or “potato” fall on their side. One person says something like, “I felt attacked when you criticized me.” The other then says, “Well I felt frustrated that you weren’t listening to me.” Then the first says, “I don’t like it when you judge me.” Then the other retorts, “I didn’t like it when you raised your voice at me.” In such an argument, no one is really listening with their heart, trying to understand the other person. Both parties often want to give a rebuttal right away, often before the other person has finished speaking.

It is important that you both have a chance to fully express yourself, while the other person listens. When you let one person speak at a time, without interruption, you will both have a chance to fully say what you need to say.

How to keep rule #8

Practicing listening to understand your partner, not just planning your rebuttal. This will help you hear the emotion and the real issue behind the words spoken. Another strategy is to slow down and establish that your partner is ready to listen before taking your turn to speak. When it is your turn to listen, really listen. Find the understandable part of what your spouse is feeling. Sometimes it is helpful to think about an open-ended question to ask your spouse, rather than thinking about a defensive response.

Remember how it feels to be interrupted when you feel the urge to interrupt and speak your mind. This may go a long way to helping you hold your tongue and wait your turn.

Fair Fighting Rule #9 - When Necessary, Take A Break

Having disagreements with one’s significant other happens in all intimate relationships. It is not disagreements themselves that are harmful to relationships; rather, it is how partners behave in a disagreement with judgment, defensiveness and disrespect that is destructive. Many people are not tuned in to how their body’s physical response to moments of conflict influences how they communicate. Violating the first eight rules is typically an indicator of becoming flooded physiologically with stress hormones and fight-or-flight urges. Such flooding turns a disagreement into an argument.

This is what happens physiologically during a fight. When experiencing heightened emotions, signals from the more primitive, emotional centres of your brain hijack the more rational parts of your brain. Stress hormones flood your body. You enter a ‘fight-or-flight’ response state. Your focus becomes self-preservation, inhibiting your ability to creatively problem solve or cooperate. In fight-or-flight mode, you either try to protect yourself from the pain of getting hurt through withdrawal or withholding or by hurting back, or you try to “get” what you need, but in aggressive ways. Both strategies will escalate the communication from a mere disagreement into a hostile, defensive and increasingly disrespectful exchange.

A time-out is an effective way to take a break, cool off, calm down, self-soothe and shift your perspective. A time out of 30 minutes can do wonders to let your body calm down, the rush of stress hormones recede, and your rational self return.

A time out should be at least a half-hour long but not longer than 24 hours. It takes at least a half-hour for your body to physiologically return to a normal resting state, and for your thoughts to become less hostile or defensive.

It is surprising how much a time out can calm a person, and so, change their outlook. When you are feeling calm, creative problem solving is both more likely and more successful.

How to keep rule #9

Follow the Four R’s: 1) Retreat when you become flooded. Ask for a break. Take 30 to 60 minutes. 2) Relax. Do your best to let go of your hot thoughts. Do something soothing to help your body unwind such as relaxation, listening to music, working on a project, meditating, lying quietly on the bed, going for a walk. 3) Reflect. After you have relaxed (but not before), then start to think about the upsetting incident. Reflect on what you were feeling underneath your anger. Ask yourself what you needed. Think about how your partner’s perspective was valid. 4) Return. Now go back to your partner and ask to talk about what happened, this time with a different attitude and mindset than the one that created the fight. Remember how it feels to be interrupted when you feel the urge to interrupt and speak your mind. This may go a long way to helping you hold your tongue and wait your turn.

Next Steps

We hope this overview of nine different strategies that many couples have found to be highly effective in de-escalating arguments will help you.

However, we realize that it is easier to say than do.

Learning new ways to resolve your differences takes practice and time.

Remember that we are here for you if you need support getting started with using the techniques and strategies mentioned in this report.

We are experts at facilitating difficult discussions using a wide range of techniques, and we provide a non-judgemental and safe environment to help you identify the core issues causing conflicts. We can help you learn ways to communicate productively with each other instead of having repetitive fights that go nowhere and with no resolution.

But is it really worth it? Can I afford it?

To answer this question, look at the long-term perspective. Ask yourself this: If we do not change how we are talking to each other, what will happen? Will we ever improve the quality of our relationship on our own?

You could view time and money spent in counselling as investing in yourself, and your future, and planning for success. Gaining a stronger marriage pays back far more than the original financial investment.

Here is what we have heard people say after a few sessions of counselling:

Most couples find it helps tremendously, especially in the beginning, to have a professional assist them in finding ways to change their patterns. Our therapists will be happy to help you do this. We are passionate about helping couples improve the quality of their relationships. It is our major specialty.

We look forward to keeping in touch with you and want you to know that we are always here if you need us.