Fair Fighting Rules

I am often asked, “What is fair in the fights my husband and I have?”

Let’s face it, every invention of man must carry some rules to help define it. Think of the operating manuals you get with the coffee maker or the new 60-inch Samsung flat screen, your new lawn edger, or even the iPhone X. Every organization, every sport, every endeavor we care to be a part of seems to have its own set of rules. They define the boundaries, of what is fair and unfair, expected and not expected, and render operations as somewhat more predictable.

In short, rules provide safety and structure. They ensure, or at least make it somewhat possible, for all participants to know what the hell is going on, to strategize, and to (ahem) resolve disagreements.

This applies to marriages as much as it applies to football or basketball or to how you would probably not use your iPhone to edge your lawn (although that cannot be too far off in the future!). Resolving conflict in marriages is hard work, complex, and sorely in need of an owner’s manual (they do exist, by the way – just check Amazon). Without rules, such resolution is fleeting and sure to be short-lived if achieved at all.

As the great therapist Nathan Cobb has said …

… conflict does not have to be unsafe, unpredictable and without purpose. When spouses are committed to following a set of rules, conflict can be an opportunity for couples to grow their “cooperation muscles.” Handling conflict constructively can even help couples develop greater closeness through achieving mutual understanding, learning to cooperate, taking each other’s perspective, and resolving problems together.

This post will outline ten rules for fair fighting. I would encourage you to print them out and put them up on the refrigerator. And, then, refer to them every time conflict looms like a thundercloud.

  1. No degrading language. Degradation occurs when we engage in name-calling, in insults, put-downs, and even swearing. When you are name-calling, you are eliciting in your partner the “fight or flight response.” It is a call to arms, a call to do whatever they need to do to protect themselves. Moreover, it is a function of attacking the sinner rather than the sin; of degrading the person rather than their behavior. It can and often does leave scar tissue.
  2.  No blaming.Think about it: blaming is a distraction and distances you from resolution. It is yet another invitation for your partner to engage in defensive talk and will surely escalate, rather than deescalate, the argument. It may feel good for a moment, but it too leaves scar tissue. It may even touch deep-seated fears that the other person may have about themselves. It is a close cousin to judgment, another of the results of putting the blame on someone else. Instead, I would invite you to stay focused on the relationship and to endeavor to keep it intact at all costs, and to find solutions rather than culprits.
  3.  No yelling. If you are a teacher, then you know that yelling at your students is counter-productive. They stop listening and they start reacting. The conversation, such as it was, is shut down. And, again, it may touch some deep-seated pain associated with raised voices. The bottom line is the message: if it cannot be delivered without yelling, then it is probably not the right message. Make a concerted effort to lower your voice. We know from research and just plain old common sense, that a lowered voice invites listeners into the conversation rather than shutting them out. And if you cannot lower your voice, then it’s clear that ‘now’ is the not the right time to be discussing the matter.
  4. No use of force. The threat of physical force, and the use of physical force itself, is at all times unacceptable. Period. Full stop. It accomplishes nothing except to render the relationship then, and into the foreseeable future, as an unsafe space. Even punching a hole in the stucco, or kicking the cat, will send that message. Each of us, especially in marriage, have a right to safety, to a home free of physical abuse. As with raised voices, I would suggest you remove yourself and go somewhere to cool down. You can have a fair fight without force. If you feel as if you cannot, then call and schedule a session with me.
  5. No talk of divorce or dissolution. Now we are into the manipulation that so many of us fear. We are talking here of “conditional love,” of the idea that it is “my way or the highway.” A threat such as that elicits in our partners deep-seated fears of abandonment and suggests a certain immaturity on the part of the other. It erodes trust. And it sorta sends the message that the problem is big, huge, and irresolvable. It isn’t.
  6. Talk about YOUR needs and wants, not your partner’s. As my couples clients will attest, one of the first questions I ask them when they present for couples therapy is: “Whose behavior can you control?” The answer is never anything but, “my own.” Instructing your partner on what THEY should want or need is patronizing, controlling, presumptuous and, frankly, immature. THEY get to decide what they want and need. Moreover, it is the epitome of wasted energy in a relationship to spend time analyzing your partner. In the alternative, spend the energy identifying your own wants, your unmet needs, and on constructing the approach to the matter (whatever it may be). YOU are the expert in YOUR world and no one else’s.
  7. Stay in the present, always. Resist the temptation to go back in time. At base, it is discouraging to be reminded of past transgression, especially when we have worked hard to resolve them, to make amends for them, and to grow from them. Besides, you cannot change the past! You can only change your behavior and contribute to a better today and tomorrow. Moreover, if you are forever dredging the past, the chances are that the past conflict was never satisfactorily resolved. Get therapy. And remember to discuss issues as they happen rather than allowing them to fester.
  8. Take turns speaking.One of my teachers from elementary school would calm an unruly class by reminding everyone that she had a “talking stick” and wasn’t afraid to use it. Her rule was simple: one speaker at a time. And, in a marriage, that means one listener at a time. Think of how frustrating it is to you to have someone forever interrupting you, or talking on top of you. Remember that feeling and apply it to fair marital fights. Oh, and don’t go using your “listening time” to compose your come-back, your rebuttal. REALLY LISTEN.
  9. No stonewalling. This means being present in the moment, being committed to a resolution, and earnestly remaining committed to NOT kicking the can down the road. “Not now, honey,” is not a good refrain. There is no better time than now.
  10. And finally, if you need to, take a time-out.Think here of football and the battle that rages on the gridiron. Things are getting fired up, the teams are really engaged and hammering away, and then … the coach calls a time-out. WTF? Well, he (or she) may be seeing something you are not. He may be seeing too much passion and not enough discipline. By slowing things down, the coach is saying, “OK, we need to refocus. We need to keep a larger picture in mind.”If you find yourself violating any of the rules above, then it is time for a time-out. Pure and simple. You have lost sight of the goal. You have lost perspective.

    How long? Well, 30 minutes is good. It takes at least that long to return the body’s metabolism from “fight” to normal. It takes at least that long to lose the urge to react rather than respond. Thirty minutes, an hour, two hours, but never more than 24 hours. And, yes, it is dangerous to go to bed mad.

In conclusion, remember this: many partners grew up in households, in so-called families-of-origin, where yelling, blaming, name-calling and finger wagging was the norm. The fact is – no one “wins” such arguments. Not then, not now.

Or as my grandma used to say, “don’t fight like a pig in the mud. Everyone gets wet and messy but the pig loves it.”


About Dr Joseph Russo

Born and raised in Woodland Hills, California; now residing in Laramie, Wyoming (or "Laradise" as we call it, for good reason), with my wife Cindy, our little schnauzer, Macy Mae, and a cat named Markie. I hold a BBA from Cal State Northridge and an MBA from the University of Nevada at Reno. My first career was in business, for some 25+ years. In 2007, I shifted gears and entered the helping professions as a mental health counselor. I earned an MA in Educational Psychology and a Doctorate (PhD) in Counselor Education and Supervision. In my spare time I enjoy mentoring young and not-so-young business and non-profit executives as they go about growing their businesses and presence. I also teach part-time at the University of Wyoming, in both the Colleges of Education and Business.
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2 Responses to Fair Fighting Rules

  1. Cindy Brock says:

    This is an excellent set of ideas!

  2. Kristin says:

    Printing the rules off right now! Thank you!

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