Some degree of fighting in a relationship is not only inevitable, but also necessary to create growth. The problem for couples is not that they fight—it’s how they fight. Research including this shows that couples who have longer lasting difficulty are the ones who don’t fight fair.
So what is unfair fighting? It’s usually the result of one or both partners using inappropriate negativity during a disagreement. Put a different way, unfair fighting is any move that is made during a conflict that doesn’t serve to help you understand and be understood.
Here are some of the top signs that you’re not fighting fair:
1. Emotional Bullying or Blackmail: This is when one or both partners “punish” the other partner for bringing up a complaint or difficulty. Whether or not it’s intentional, the punishment usually serves to shut the conversation down. Bullying usually takes the form of reacting with extreme anger or offense to a partner’s aired grievance. Emotional blackmail usually entails reacting to difficulties by becoming overwhelmingly distraught and injured in the face of complaints. Both can include some form of the statement, “Well, if I’m so bad then why are you with me?"
2. Hitting Below the Belt: During an argument, any kind of name-calling or derogatory over-generalizations about character should be off limits. This includes doing or saying something with the sole intent of hurting your partner. Of course, we don’t need an advanced degree to know this one is true, yet in the midst of a fight, it is the easiest to fall prey to. Hitting below the belt usually happens in a fight when one or both partners are so frustrated that they feel hopeless about ever being understood. When this starts to happen, it is usually best to stop the exchange until both parties can cool down and think.
3. Not Admitting You’re Wrong: For some reason, so many people have trouble admitting to mishandling things. If you find yourself justifying your lack of apology with statements like, “I didn’t mean to” or “If I admit that I’m wrong, then he/she will blame the whole thing on me” or “What I did is nothing compared to what he/she did” then there is a very good chance there are some bigger vulnerability and trust issues in your relationship that are going to make fighting fair a difficult work in progress.
4. Shutting Down or Withdrawing: This is very different than taking a needed “cool down” or “time out”. Shutting down usually entails zero communication about why the person has withdrawn and when they think they can revisit the issue. Another sign of unfair withdrawal is when the person does decide to re-engage, it is without acknowledging or addressing the earlier conflict or the shut-down.
5. Not Trying to Understand Your Partner’s Perspective: This can often be a difficult one to detect, because it is something to which only you can truly know the answer. Are you really trying to understand your partner’s perspective? Or are you focused on having your partner understanding your perspective first? This can be a slippery slope that often leaves couples stuck at an impasse. Some tell tale signs of this are getting defensive and frequent interrupting. If you catch yourself stuck in your own point of view, be the first one to reach beyond your hurt and anger to try to understand your partner’s perspective. You don’t have to agree with it, you just have to “get” it.
When our emotions are high and our buttons are pushed, it is extremely easy to fight unfairly. If you find your fights have the nasty habit of taking unproductive turns, it is important to try to be keenly aware of what you do and say during a fight. Remember, even during conflicts, you should be trusted friends.