How to Have a Fair Fight

Fighting can make a relationship stronger

Posted Jul 09, 2018

We tend to believe that fighting is a bad thing. That when a couple has a fight in which there are raised voices and angry tones, this means that the relationship is in trouble. But actually, it is possible to have a real fight in which one or both parties are engaged emotionally and intellectually, in which there are raised voices, angry tones, and angry words, while simultaneously improving the relationship.

Often, because we tend to believe that fights are bad for the relationship, we try to avoid fights.  What often happens then is that one or both parties end up repressing anger, repressing resentment and frustration in the name of saving the relationship. But material that is repressed will only out later, and generally in a way that can, indeed, be harmful to the relationship. Repressed material only gathers energy as it awaits an opportunity to be expressed. Therefore, when it finally does express, it often comes out in ways that are abusive, such as through verbal, emotional, or psychological abuse. It also may leak out in little passive/aggressive jabs and jolts of sarcasm that are meant to sting but not so that the stinger has to confess to really being mad. So, as a therapist, I often see people who fight this way—little daily skirmishes filled with barbs, taunts, and jabs, where nothing ever really gets resolved. 

On the other end of the spectrum, we therapists often also see clients who fight non-stop for days at a time, on an ever-escalating and ever more abusive scale. These fights also never get to resolution—they just ultimately agree to stop fighting, say that they didn’t mean some of the awful stuff they said and try to get on with it, only to end up in another roaring three-day match a few days later. Of course, this puts a heavy burden on the relationship, as it adds more and more pain that each party in the relationship has to try to get over so that they can get back to some degree of peace. 

But it is possible to fight well. To fight to resolve. To fight in a way that makes the relationship stronger, more viable and makes each party feel more invested in the relationship and closer to the significant other. Here are just a few of the tools that can be used to facilitate such an outcome:

1. ACTIVE LISTENING: Active listening is just that—it is active. It is fully involved in what the other person is saying. Rather than just interpreting what they are saying along the lines of preconceived material, probably based in some old unresolved wounding from your past, you listen, really listen to what the other person is trying to say. And when they have finished, you say it back to them:  “So I hear you saying….” Then the other person gets to say, “No, that’s not what I said, THIS is what I said.” They are hoping that you will really hear them and understand them. So, once they are finished, you say again, “So, I hear you saying….” And the two of you keep doing that until what the significant other says is the same as what you heard. THEN and ONLY then do you get to make your statement. It takes work, and it can be fun and even funny, but it’s a practice meant to get you to really hear each other, and hearing each other is essential to a healthy fight. 

2. BE WILLING TO TAKE A PAUSE: It is very common when a couple is fighting for one of them to need space. But because we are not trained to ask for space, we tend to deliver our need for space in some ways that might mean that the other person will feel abandoned and demand that you stay and duke it out. So, Mary needs space but instead of saying that, she says, “I’m done!” And she goes into her room, locks the door and stays there for hours. Rick, her husband, is left to pound on the door and demand that she come out and talk to him. Next morning she says nothing and attempts to act as if nothing has happened, or she continues the “silent treatment.”  This doesn’t work for obvious reasons. But it might work if she were to say, “Listen, I’m getting overwhelmed, let me take a break for a few hours and get back to you at 8 o’clock. Okay?” Now she’s made an appointment to return to the discussion. And while she is gone, she should probably write down some things that she is feeling and thinking, so that when she goes back at 8 o’clock, she has gained some clarity about what is really going on and how she might express it. And, of course, it would be great if Rick would use this time to also write down what he’s thinking and feeling so that he can gain some clarity about what he really wants. Both should ask themselves “What am I hoping to gain here?” for that question gets them to the bottom line and an objective for resolution. 

3. USE I-STATEMENTS, NOT YOU-STATEMENTS: I-statements force us to own our own feelings and thoughts. They prevent us from blaming the other person for how we feel or what we think or how we are reacting. I encourage statements like “I’m feeling really hurt because….”, or “I’m feeling really angry and defensive because I’m also feeling judged.” What this does is give the speaker full responsibility for what he is feeling. But he has to be careful not to turn an I-statement into a You-statement, like this: I’m feeling really hurt because YOU insulted me.” The way to avoid that is to say specifically what was done or said so that the other person knows exactly what you are reacting to. We don’t know someone else’s intention, or motivation, we only know how WE feel. We don’t know what our partners are thinking, but we can relay how WE are thinking. YOU insulted me, implies two things, 1) you meant to insult me, and 2) my reaction to it is absolutely correct. Which leads us to our next point:

4. DO NOT ASSUME A POSITION OF CORRECTNESS: Rather, assume a position of investigation.  Most of our fights are due to misunderstandings. Misunderstandings often come about as a result of connecting dots that don’t really belong together. All too often, this means that because you sounded just like my father—who was absent most of the time, and abusive when he was around—that you have the same motivations and intentions to harm me that my father had. Or, because you suggested that I do it a different way, you are criticizing me, just like my mother always did. Active listening can help us understand if we really listen. But we are not likely to really listen if we start with the assumption that we are right and the other is just plain wrong. Many fights escalate on this point, where both parties just continue and continue to insist that each is right and the other wrong. Instead of trying to make someone wrong, it works better to investigate with an open mind, so that you can both together get to resolve. 

5. TURN A FEELING OR THOUGHT INTO A REQUEST: When we fight, we often simply bounce off of each other’s emotions, so that we are just going round and round in circles, not getting anywhere. But if we can ask ourselves, “What is it that I really want here?” then we can turn an angry feeling or thought into a request. “I’m feeling really angry because I felt really criticized.  When I’m changing the baby’s diapers, could you just let me do it on my own, even if I do it wrong so that I can learn how to do it?” What we are doing when we turn a feeling or thought into a request is we are aiming for a resolution. We are not just bouncing off of our feelings, or off of our partner’s feelings. Now we are directing our attention toward a goal, and as we do that we are getting closer to a resolution. 

Andrea Mathews
Source: Andrea Mathews

These five objectives will go a long way toward building an environment of investigatory openness toward the end of resolution. Clarity, the ability to see clearly what is going on between us, is a worthwhile objective. What we want is a fight that gets us to a new place of understanding each other better, and a willingness to do our parts to maintain an agreed upon resolution. When we can fight this way, we can congratulate ourselves for building the relationship stronger, rather than tearing it down.