Fighting Fair

How can you strengthen your relationship while disagreeing?

Posted Oct 01, 2019

Peter and Tammy came to see me because Peter complained that when Tammy got angry she always threatened to end the relationship. The problem, he said, was Tammy's refusal to communicate when she was angry.

But as sessions went on, it was obvious that the problem was not just Tammy's. Each time I asked Tammy a question, Peter jumped in to answer. And each time Tammy started to explain something, Peter interrupted and brought up instances in which that was not the case. It soon became clear to me that Peter and Tammy needed to have some ground rules about arguing before we started to understand what they were arguing about. In other words, the way they argued was more of a problem than the content of their disagreements. Here is a list of six unacceptable ways of behaving during an argument. Agreeing not to behave in any of these ways during a disagreement helps develop a way of working out disagreements. 

Unsplash/Jack Stapleton
Source: Unsplash/Jack Stapleton

#1 Physical action

Hitting your partner is the most obvious No-No in an argument, but there are other physical actions that are almost as intimidating. Throwing things, punching walls, or slamming your fist on a table are physical actions and can terrify your partner because they indicate the potential for violence.

#2 Cursing or yelling

Physical actions are physically abusive and cursing or screaming is verbally abusive. Screaming and cursing indicate being out of control of your anger and that can be frightening to your partner.

#3 Interrupting

Interrupting your partner is another attempt to control him/her just as physical and verbal abuse. It does not allow your partner to express his/her feelings and usually escalates the frustration and anger.

#4 Bringing up things the other person did wrong--e.g. "But you..."

The fact that your partner has done things that are upsetting to you does not excuse you doing things that are upsetting to him/her. Each partner's hurt has to be addressed. After your partner expresses hurt and/or anger and you have explained and/or apologized for it, only then can you bring up something that he/she did that is bothering you. They are separate-- one does not excuse the other.

#5 Threatening to end the relationship

The decision to end a relationship should not be part of an argument or disagreement. It is a threat that is often used when someone feels helpless and unable to work through a disagreement. Sometimes it is used as a way to silence the other person and maintain control in a relationship. If you find that you are unable to work through disagreements in your relationship and it is making you unhappy, you may decide to end the relationship. But that should be done after thoughtful consideration, not in the middle of a fight.

#6 Silent treatment

Some people deal with hurt and/or anger by refusing to talk to their partners. It may be a way of trying to control your anger or a way of punishing your partner--or both. If you feel that your anger is getting out of control, you may want to say to your partner, "I need to calm down to be able to discuss this. Let's take a break and we can come back to it when I have calmed down." That is very different than walking out of the room and refusing to speak for hours or days. The silent treatment never leads to reparation, but rather to escalation because the partner feels more frustrated and angry as a result.

All this is great, you may say, but how do we stick to the rules? Or, more likely, how do I get my partner to stick to the rules? Of course, that's the hard part. The discussion about fair fighting has to take place when you are not fighting and both partners have to agree to the rules. But then, you may say, what do we do when one of us breaks the rules? You need to set up a safe phrase or time-out sign to indicate to your partner that he/she is breaking one of the rules. Of course, this is a difficult process and it takes time. However, you may decide after trying it for a while that you need professional help. But it is a major step for both partners to realize that "fighting fair" is an important part of building a strong, resilient relationship. Finding a way to resolve disagreements and mend hurt feelings builds intimacy and trust.