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The 4 Keys to Fighting Fair

Play fighting is a serious tool to get through conflicts constructively.

It is in playing and only in playing that the individual child or adult is able to be creative and to use the whole personality, and it is only in being creative that the individual discovers the self.
―Donald Woods Winnicott, Playing and Reality

1. Fair is fair

First the fair part. Fairness means justice, and acting morally with loved ones when conflict arises. So, ground rules are in order, and we have to agree to the rules before engaging in disputes. This ought to be standard operating procedure, and it's not. Basic rules include agreeing not to take cheap shots, not to "throw things back" in their partners faces, not to aim to hurt or belittle, not to retaliate when feeling vulnerable, not shutting the other person out in contempt, and so on.

 Grant Hilary Brenner
Rekyjavik 2018
Source: Grant Hilary Brenner

We have to agree to give each other the time and the space, though, to grow into these kinds of rules, because they aren't necessarily something we come into adulthood understanding from our families of origin. Many families, more or less functional, not only do not model fairness, they actively model unfairness. Allowing destructive patterns to shape relationships, succumbing to masochistic wishes, sometimes makes it challenging to keep fairness in mind. It's a common misconception that life isn't fair, after all, something we say to people which is usually half "tough love" and half bitter assault.

2. Repair and recovery

Part of fairness is to give one another room to err, and to recover. Trust and safety are built through rupture and repair, proving that the relationship can not only survive but grow from adversity. Valuing fairness doesn't mean being a victim, either, because that wouldn't be fair. The pediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott discussed this in relation to mothering. All mothers make mistakes, but good-enough mothers are able to deal with those missteps in such a way as to further their child’s development.

In addition to not committing various transgressions, fairness involves acting on the other's behalf, in general and especially when a loved one is suffering or in need of help. Being able to see the other person's point of view is intrinsic to fairness, expressions of empathy—cognitive empathy and emotional empathy. Compassion is the desire to act to alleviate the suffering of the others.

Coauthors and I discuss "compassionate empathy"—where compassion serves as a regulator for empathy, because empathy can backfire. When it backfires, we can over-empathize with partners, and try too hard to help them. This leads to problems, for example, as one's own needs are neglected, and the other person feels smothered. Compassion allows us to maintain a fair balance between ourselves and others, as we determine how to calibrate shared needs when resources—emotional and otherwise—may be limited.

3. A fight to the life

The fighting part depends on the fairness being in place. In sport, a "fair fight" means that the odds are not artificially biased before the contest begins. For couples seeking to use conflict constructively, this means that the fight has to be only about the topic at hand. It isn't fair to bring old conflicts into the present issue.

There have to be ground rules for the fight as well, shared goals. It's not whether you win or lose, because the goal of a fight for a couple is not about prevailing. To misuse the math, couples are in a prisoner's dilemma of sorts. But rather than being separated and tempted to rat one another out to get a lighter sentence—as in the usual prisoner's dilemma—they are stuck together, on an island of sorts. Their fates are inextricably intertwined as a singular couple.

4. Cooperation is the only way to go

Fights have to be a win-win in the “‘til-death-do-us-part” scenario. If you are stuck together, it stands to reason that you have to work together as well as possible. This doesn't only apply to marriage, but to other binding relationships, including business partnerships.

The main rule of the "fight" part is to agree to the shared goal of winning the fight together, a seemingly contradictory idea. With groups where survival means mutual survival, it's only a “win” when it is a “win-win.” The goal of the fight is to learn, to grow, to solve the problem, not to take cheap shots or settle old debts. Constructive competition is the goal.

For a "fair fight," it is only fair if all participants come out ahead, so the fight has to be a play fight. As young animals like wolf pups play fight, and play fight with the adults, couples and others have to use play in order to render fighting into process which moves things along. In a cooperative scenario, that's the only time it is fair. If a fight is destructive, it is unfair to all because it brings everyone down. Play is a theater or simulation, where measured risks can be taken which spare us from having to put it all on the line, each and every fight. But remember, play is only play when all involved are on the same page. One-sided play is not play at all, and veers off into uncertainty, misunderstanding, fear, and worse. Play is always consensual.