Fair Fighting Rules from a Marriage Therapist



Resolving conflict requires a unique set of skills; the ability to listen, communicate without blame and manage difficult emotions. While everyone gets into conflict, it is the ability to stay calm that dictates the health of your argument.

In this article, you will learn how to fight fair and save your relationships from destructive arguments that really hurt.

Choose Your Timing Carefully

The first rule of conflict: choose your timing carefully before starting a serious discussion. This may seem deceptively simple, but putting this into practice can prevent a conversation from becoming toxic.

Think about how many times you’ve found yourself reacting because you weren’t in the right frame of mind… we’ve all been there! Timing plays a big role in managing conflict. So before initiating a potentially difficult chat, check in with yourself. When you’re not feeling great emotionally or physically it’s easier to react impulsively and regret it later. 

It’s best to avoid initiating a conversation when…

  • Either person feels stressed, hungry, exhausted or sick.
  • One person doesn’t want to talk (for whatever reason).
  • You’re more interested in talking than listening.
  • There isn’t enough time to hear each other out.
  • Before major events that are emotionally-charged.

Good timing proves to be a critical element in healthy conflict. The Gottman Institute for Couples Therapy discovered that the success of a conversation can be predicted within the first three minutes. In other words, most arguments escalate quickly because people find themselves reacting defensively in the moment instead of being able to control their emotions.

Here are some common pitfalls that tend to escalate into arguments:

  • Starting with a critical or negative comment 
  • Jumping to conclusions
  • Blaming your partner for how you feel
  • Reacting defensively and not listening
  • Not managing stress or neglecting self-care
  • Assuming the worst case scenario
  • Trying to be right instead of respecting another’s viewpoint

Tip: Only start a conversation when both people are ready to avoid getting off to a bad start.

Address What Isn’t Working

By identifying what isn’t working, you can minimize potential problems. Increasing awareness helps to prevent unhealthy behavior, so figuring out what gets in the way is super important. For instance, the need to be right or have the last word creates hollow victories. When people care more about being right than how the other person feels, the chance of resolving things are slim to none. 

Also, forcing a conversation when the other person isn’t ready almost always triggers defensiveness. Keep in mind that by choosing to stay in an unproductive conversation, the likelihood of abusive behavior (both verbally and physically) tends to increase. 

Common reasons people get off track:

  • Needing to have the last word or to be right.
  • Forcing the other person to hear what you have to say.
  • Feeling compelled to point out (and change) the other person’s behavior.
  • Being unable to leave because you don’t want to “lose face.”

To communicate respectfully, there can be no winner or loser. Both people need to feel safe in order to share their truth and ask for what they need

When both people are ready to talk, you can minimize those impulsive reactions that lead to destructive arguments. As a result, the conversation will likely become more amicable. 

Don’t start a potentially difficult conversation if: 

  • You or your partner don’t have enough time.
  • The kids can hear you (often this needs to be private).
  • You’re in public place.
  • You or your partner are in HALT (Don’t get too Hungry, Angry, Lonely or Tired).

Always Get Agreement First

Next, give your partner a heads up on the topic to create a neutral start. How a conversation starts will greatly influence the outcome, so the more respectful the start is, the more likely you will sustain respectful communication.

How to Start a Constructive Conversation:

  • Let them know that you want to talk.
  • Give them the subject so they know what to expect. 
  • Negotiate a time to talk that works for both of you.  
  • Share your experience by focusing on what happened, not being right.
  • Let your partner know when you need a break.
  • Be willing to finish the conversation within 24 hours.

Tip: A simple heads up like “Is this a good time to talk about what happened last night?” gives your partner the courtesy to say yes or to negotiate a more appropriate time.

Check Your Expectations

Most people have unrealistic expectations around conflict. A common assumption is that an issue should be resolved in one conversation, but that’s not always possible. Expecting instant resolution only creates frustration. For instance, instead of expecting to resolve an issue immediately, seek to understand each other first. Sharing each other’s perspectives will take more time and patience, but it’ll be worth it in the long run. As a result, you can create a mutual understanding that deepens the relationship.

With more inflexible relationship problems, understanding becomes a more obtainable short term goal. This applies to innate personality differences or any issue that doesn’t tend to lend itself to compromise.

Achieving a quick resolution isn’t always possible especially when trying to manage difficult emotions. It takes a focused effort to listen and not make assumptions. 

Tip: Ask yourself what is realistic given the situation. Can you resolve the issue in one conversation or will it likely take a few?

Managing Difficult Emotions

In order to manage emotions in a healthy way, they need to be caught early. Getting control of yourself, before saying or doing something you’ll regret later, is the key. Take the time to identify those behaviors that “cross the line” like name-calling, screaming, throwing things, or getting in someone’s face. 

Early signs of anger and stress include:

  • Increased heart-rate
  • Headaches, muscle tension, back pain
  • Negative thinking or assuming the worst
  • Feeling hot or sweaty
  • Dry mouth
  • Clenched jaw
  • Irritability 

Be aware of any abusive behaviors since they often make the other person shut down emotionally. Use these signs as guideposts to take a time-out before you cross that line. This builds trust and shows that you care more about the impact of your behavior than being right. 

Tip: Keeping your reactions in check requires paying attention to what’s happening to your emotions. When you know when need to leave, you can keep the conversation safe.

What to Avoid:

  1. Don’t fall into the trap of being right. When only one person wins, the relationship loses. Each person’s viewpoint is subjective but needs to be honored.
  2. Avoid name-calling or hitting below the belt with character attacks on them or their loved ones. 
  3. Any physical expression of anger causes fear even when there is no physical contact.
  4. Don’t make the other person responsible for how you feel. Each person’s reaction is their own responsibility.  

Final Thoughts

Arguments can go downhill fast but there’s always a choice. You have the power to stay or to take a break in order to calm down. Making a conscious effort to start a conversation the right way makes a huge difference in the outcome. No one sets out to be abusive, but when you can’t stop yourself, it’s easy for things to escalate fast. When the goal is mutual understanding, everyone wins.



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