The Fair Fight

Many arguments are pointless; they start out over something small then escalate beyond proportion. Here’s how to keep conflict from damaging all.

Beware Of Mistaken Marriage Advice That "All Couples Fight"

When couples talk calmly, conflicts cease to lead to crazy-making anger.
Harriet Lerner, Ph.D.
This post is a response to "My Partner and I Can't Stop the Fighting!" by Harriet Lerner, Ph.D.

Mistaken marriage advice: all couples fight
Mistaken marriage advice: All couples fight.
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 Cavemen and cavewomen probably survived by being stronger than others, more aggressive, and quicker at defending themselves in the face of stressful potential conflicts.  The modern world survives, by contrast, primarily on abilities to cooperate.  Stressful situations that are becoming adversarial between loving partners can escalate into ever more stressful arguments.  Alternatively, they can be handled with calm, productive, collaborative talking together that dissipates stress and yields creation of mutually comfortable solutions.

In this regard, one paragraph in psychologist Harriet Lerner ‘s otherwise excellent post “My Partner and I Can’t Stop the Fighting,” troubles me.  The offending paragraph about how to fix marriage problems states a conventional wisdom that is a) wrong and b) sets needlessly low and even harmful aspirations for people who believe it.

“Remember that happy couples are not couples that don’t fight. Rather they’re couples that fight fair and take responsibility for their own words and actions, no matter how furious they may feel inside.”  

"Fighting fair" from my perspective is still fighting.  My own belief is that emotionally mature and skillful couples don't fight at all.  When they are mad, they pause to calm down.  They then deal with the sensitive issue via quiet, cooperative talking.

I once heard marriage research guru John Gottman, like Harriet Lerner, express a similarly misguided  belief.  Several years ago, addressing a large audience of several thousand marriage educators at a SmartMarriages conference, Gottman said with great confidence, “Of course we all know that all couples fight…”

Here's better marriage advice about fighting.

Don't fight.  Talk cooperatively.

Marriage fights, that is, arguing at any level of intensity, reflect a breakdown in partnership.  It means you have switched to a stance of being opponents, arguing for yourself and against your partner. Fighting is adversarial dialogue; the goal is to win, not to build mutual understanding.

A zero-fighting policy makes couples far happier.  That doesn’t imply that differences should be swept under the rug.  To the contrary, no-fighting policies need to be combined with solid collaborative win-win dialogue skills.

The notion of “fair fighting” suggests a model that is an upgrade over going to war with truly abusive fighting. Fair fighting however still is not an ideal worthy of aspiring to. It’s just a lesser evil.  Fighting of any type involves standing against your partner.  Wrong idea. 

Marriage works best when you both aim to stand together, united against the problems, not pitted against each other.

Better marriage advice: All married folks have conflicts, but conflict means there's differences that need to be resolved, not argument.  

All couples from time to time experience conflicts, that is, pulls in opposing directions, between what one wants or does and what the other would prefer. Conflicts often become evident because of an increase in emotional tension or an initial sense of frustration, irritation or even anger.  Conflict, however, needn't lead to fighting. Conflict indicates rather than you need to cool down and then do the win-win waltz, talking cooperatively talk together to find a solution that leaves you both feeling good.

If I want ice-cream after dinner and my husband is dieting and does not want ice-cream tempting him from our dinnertable, we have a conflict, that is, we each are preferring a different plan of action.  He feels irritated when I scoop for myself a yummy bowl full.  His irritation signifies that we have a problem that needs to be discussed.  

However, we by no means need to fight about this difference.  We just need to talk it over, calmly, maybe even chuckle together about it, understand each other's concerns, and then come up with a plan of action that will work for both of us.  Maybe he'll decide to go into another room to watch the TV news while I indulge in my passion.  Or maybe I'll decide to use his good influence to help myself take off few excessive pounds by enjoying fruit at the end of the meal instead of my former big bowl of calories. 

More better marriage advice: Stay clear of “fair” fighting as well as nasty arguments. 

Instead of fighting, that is, becoming opponents of each other, emotionally healthiest couples utilize skills for addressing their differences in a collaborative manner.  The outcome from cooperative dialogue, coupled with win-win solution-building skills is mutual understanding, solutions that please both spouses, and ever-enhanced affection.

I have written multiple prior PT posts detailing collaborative dialogue and conflict resolution skills including the posts here and here and also here.  My point now is not to explain the skill sets but rather to clarify that there is a how-to for resolving differences in a cooperative, mutually respectful way. 

The differences may be on minor issues like the ice cream issue above, what to eat for dinner or how to fold towels before putting them on the bathroom towel-rack.  Or the differences may be major issues like how to handle tight finances or what to do after one spouse has had an affair.  In all cases, fighting represents a breakdown in collaborative partnering, not an acceptable mode of marital communication. 

In other words, there are rules that can make for fairness in a debate.  Debate nonetheless is a form of competition; it is not a means for creating concensus-based decisions.

What is the essence of the difference between marriage fights and collaborative dialogue as a means of resolving conflicts?

Fighting of any sort indicates that partners have taken a stance against each other. Fighting pits me against you, with expectations that one of us will emerge as a winner and the other as the loser.  Participants are antagonists, competitors for who will win. 

Collaborative partnering, by contrast, involves side-by-side problem-solving.  In collaborative discussions of even the most sensitive and difficult issues, both parties pursue mutual understanding.  Both seek to understand the other’s point of view as well as to express their own concerns.  Both presume that a broader and deeper understanding of both their own and their partner’s concerns will open a pathway for moving forward that will be responsive to all of these concerns.

Marriage advice where I do agree with Dr. Lerner. 

Harriet Lerner, Ph.D. is a brilliant master therapist.  From hearing her speak at a recent Couples Conference sponsored by the Milton H. Erickson Foundation, I do believe overall in her wisdom.  I do recommend that readers take seriously the rest of her post on stopping relationship fights. 

For instance, Dr. Lerner mentions that in order to address grievances or differing ideas of what to do about an up-coming dilemma, couples need to take a calming break from talking together if either or both are getting emotionally heated.  As she says, “Anger is an important emotion”  but “when tempers flare our capacity for clear thinking, empathy, and creative problem-solving go down the drain…”  Discussions are far more likely to prove productive when both parties are calm enough to be open to hearing the other person’s perspective, and to be able to express their own concerns without finger-pointing.  

I also totally agree with Dr. Lerner’s observation that “we can’t control our partner’s reactions.”  Instead, the goal of difficult discussions needs to be for both partners each to look at what they themselves might do differently toward the better good for both of them.

At the same time, contrary to popular and much professional marriage advice, all conflicts CAN be resolved.

All conflicts can be resolved collaboratively provided that partners are dedicated to learning and using collaborative win-win dialogue skills to settle their differences. 

Even just one partner who puts his or her mind to the task becoming a strong utilizer of collaborative dialogue and problem-solving skills often can keep both of you in the cooperative zone. Of course, if both of you learn collaborative skills, that’s ideal. 

When a problem is not moving toward a collaborative outcome, the difficult lies in the skills you are bringing to its resolution, not to the impossibility of finding a win-win solution.

My recommended marriage advice with regard to how to resolve marriage issues that have raised tensions between you:

First calm down when you need to talk about tough issues.  Many couples say "First we fight; then we work it out."  How about skipping the fight, taking a few cool-down minutes to be sure you both will be able to talk calmly, and going straight to working it out?

Second, take out your collaborative talking and listening skills.  Best to polish these up in advance so you will have them when you need them.

Finally, put the problem on the table and together do the win-win waltz.  Sit side-by-side with the two of you against the problem, not against each other. 

With this marriage advice may your differences, issues and dilemmas, instead of dividing you, become opportunities to enhance your love.

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Denver clinical psychologist Susan Heitler, Ph.D, a graduate of Harvard and NYU, is author of Power of Two, a book, a workbook, and a website that teach the communication skills that save and sustain positive relationships.  

Click here for a free Power of Two relationship test. 

Click the Power of Two logo to learn the skills for a strong, emotionally healthy and loving marriage.

The Fair Fight