Every relationship has disagreements. It’s how we handle those disagreements that counts. A bad argument can turn even a little problem into a big one, making it emotionally charged and painful.
This is where fair fighting rules come in. Fair fighting rules don’t tell us we can’t argue. Instead, they tell us how to do it safely. They tell us what’s okay—and what’s crossing the line—in an argument.
Before you begin, ask yourself why you feel upset.
Are you angry because your partner left the mustard on the counter? Or are you angry because you feel like you’re doing an uneven share of the housework, and this is just one more piece of evidence? Take time to think about your own feelings before starting an argument.
Discuss one topic at a time.
Don’t let “You left dishes in the sink” turn into “You watch too much TV.” Discussions that get off-topic are more likely to get heated, and less likely to solve the original problem. Choose one topic and stick to it.
No degrading language.
Discuss the issue, not the person. No put-downs, swearing, or name-calling. Degrading language is an attempt to express negative feelings while making sure your partner feels just as bad. Doing so leads to more character attacks while the original issue is forgotten.
Express your feelings with words.
“I feel hurt when you ignore my phone calls.” “I feel scared when you yell.” Structure your sentences as “I” statements (“I feel emotion when event”) to express how you feel while taking responsibility for your emotions. However, starting with “I” does not give a license to ignore the other fair fighting rules.
Take turns speaking.
Give your full attention while your partner speaks. Avoid making corrections or thinking about what you want to say. Your only job is to understand their point of view, even if you disagree. If you find it difficult to not interrupt, try setting a timer allowing 1-2 minutes for each person to speak without interruption.
Sometimes, the easiest way to respond to an argument is to retreat into your shell and refuse to speak. This is called stonewalling. You might feel better temporarily, but the original issue will remain unresolved and your partner will feel more upset. If you absolutely cannot go on, tell your partner you need to take a time-out. Agree to resume the discussion later.
Yelling does not help anyone see your point of view. Instead, it sends the message that only your words matter. Even if yelling intimidates your partner into giving up, the underlying problem only grows worse.
Take a time-out if things get too heated.
In a perfect world, we would all follow these rules 100% of the time... but it just doesn’t work like that. If an argument starts to become personal or heated, take a time-out. Agree on a time to come back and discuss the problem after everyone has cooled down.
Attempt to come to a compromise or an understanding.
There isn’t always a perfect answer to an argument. Life is too messy for that. Do your best to come to a compromise (this means some give and take from both sides). If you can’t come to a compromise, simply taking the time to understand your partner’s perspective can help soothe negative feelings.
More Fair Fighting Rules
1. P. Greeff, Tanya De Bruyne, A. (2000). Conflict management style and marital satisfaction. Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, 26(4), 321-334.