Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Happy Couples Know These Two "Fighting Rules"

Couples who talk straight and fight fair follow these two rules.

When a marriage has a firm foundation of solid friendship and mutual respect, it can tolerate a fair amount of conflict. But when fights go unchecked and unrepaired, they can eventually erode the foundation of friendship and respect, which are the bedrocks of a successful marriage.

Here are the two most important “rules” you need to know to make sure your arguments are meaningful and not damaging–and that they have an endpoint so that you can move on.

I. Fight Fair and De-Escalate

In marriage, we often act as if the intensity of our anger gives us a license to say anything because we’re way to furious to control what’s coming out of our mouths. Of course, we can all do better than this. A good first step is to sit down with our partner and come up with a few rules for how to keep your fights fair. Examples might be, “No yelling or name-calling,“ and “No threatening separation or divorce.”

Ideally, we would rule out all "below-the-belt" tactics, including blaming, interpreting, diagnosing, labeling, psychoanalyzing, preaching, moralizing, ordering, threatening, interrogating, ridiculing and lecturing. But unless you and your partner are either saints or highly evolved Buddhists, you will occasionally break your rules and arguments will go south.

When this happens, make a sincere effort to keep the negativity from escalating. Take the initiative to add a note of calm into the downward-spiraling conflict. Use humor, or touch, or a simple refusal to participate in a non-productive exchange by saying something like, “If you want me to listen, get out of your debate posture!” When either one of you has that “Here we go again!” feeling, take a break and talk again at a future time when calmness is more likely to prevail.

Don't stomp off in anger or silence. Instead, express both your refusal to be on the receiving end of rudeness as well as your openness to a future conversation (“I’m here to listen to anything you have to say to me but only when you can approach me calmly and with respect).

2. Listen With Your Whole Heart—And Apologize

The biggest challenge for couples is to resolve conflicts in a way that brings two people closer together and leaves each party feeling seen, heard, and understood. To this end, practice your listening skills when differences arise.

It’s easy to listen when our partner is telling us how funny, beautiful, and smart we are, but when we’re on the receiving end of criticism we automatically shift into defensive mode. Just hearing those four simple words, (“We have to talk!”) from our partner can shrink the listening lobe of the human brain to the size of a pinto bean. There’s a more scientific way to put that, but you get the point.

Because we’re wired for defensiveness, our automatic setpoint during an argument is to listen for the inaccuracies, distortions, and exaggerations that will inevitably be there. We listen so that we can correct errors and make our case. In short, we are listening to what we don’t agree with.

Avoid this hallmark of defensive listening. Try to listen only for what you can agree with, for the essence of what your partner needs you to understand. Be curious. Ask, “Do I have this right?” and “Is there more you haven’t told me?” Catch yourself when you’re interrupting, correcting facts, bringing up your partner’s crime sheet, or doing anything that makes him or her feel cut short or unheard. Save your different perspective until your partner feels fully heard, or for another time when it can be a focus of conversation rather than a defense strategy.

Overcoming our LDD (Listening Deficit Disorder, as I call it) is the essential ingredient of the heartfelt apology–the best tool we have to mend fences and heal broken connections. Remember that the words "I'm sorry" alone may not help an injured spouse feel safe and soothed in the relationship again. Rather, the heartfelt apology says, “Yes, I get it, I screwed up, I was wrong, your feelings make sense, and I want you to know that I’m not going to do this again."

Be the one to change first. The efforts you make to change the tone of an increasingly nasty exchange can, over time, save and strengthen your marriage.

More from Harriet Lerner Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today