Couples can create serious damage in their relationships when they fight dirty. The research of relationship expert John Gottman shows that for every hostile interaction a couple has, it takes five positive interactions to repair the damage. Fights and disagreements are inevitable in all relationships, but it’s important to know how to fight in a way does no damage. That’s where fair fighting rules come in.
All the rules of fair fighting derive from the most fundamental one, which we might call the Prime Directive: Always be respectful. In practice this means to never say or do anything that violates your partner’s dignity. To remember just this fundamental principle will do much to make fighting less damaging. Here are some of the more important fair fighting rules that follow from this principle:
1. Always remember that your goal is not to win, and not just to vent your anger, but to find a resolution of the issue at hand that is satisfactory to both of you. In any fight, try to stay as calm as you can, listen, and work to understand the other person’s point of view as much as to express your own.
2. Avoid degrading language – name-calling, insults, put-downs, and ridicule are all attempts to intimidate. To behave in these ways is to express disrespect for your partner, and will always be received as disrespect. The message such behaviors convey is, essentially, “You’re not safe with me. I will do whatever I have to do to win.”
3. Don’t talk about, or even mention, the option of breaking up. This tactic completely undermines your ability to resolve your issues. To threaten to leave the relationship in the heat of an argument is manipulative and hurtful. It evokes fear of abandonment and quickly erodes your partner’s confidence in your commitment. Trust is not easily restored once it’s broken in this way.
4. Define yourself, not your partner. Use words that describe how you feel, and what you want and need, not what you think your partner feels, wants, or needs. To do this is controlling and presumptuous. It is saying that you know your partner’s inner world better than your partner does. Instead, work on identifying your own unmet needs, feelings, and ways of thinking and describe these needs and feelings to your partner.
5. Stay in the present. Resist the temptation to use the situation as an occasion to bring up other issues from the past. It’s discouraging to keep bringing up the past. If you find yourself beginning sentences with “You always” or “You never,” you are probably violating this rule. Try to keep your focus on what can be done today to resolve the issue at hand and go forward from there. If you do find yourself bringing up past issues, it may be because those issues were never resolved in the first place. This rule will be easier to follow if you both make a commitment to discuss issues as they arise rather than letting them fester.
6. Know when to suspend the fight and use time-outs. A time-out is a short break to cool off, calm down and recover perspective. When you fight, especially when you violate fair fighting rules, you almost inevitably cross a physiological threshold, in which signals from the more primitive, emotional centers of your brain begin to drown out the signals from the more rational parts of your brain. Stress hormones flood your body at this stage, and self-preservation becomes the focus. In this fight-or-flight state, creative problem-solving and mutual cooperation become impossible, and you end up in an escalating argument that becomes more and more hostile and defensive. That is when it’s time for a time-out. You can think of it as similar to pushing the pause button on a video. It’s an opportunity to restore calm and be more reflective instead of reactive. A time-out should be at least a half-hour long, but no longer than twenty-four hours. It takes at least a half-hour for your body’s physiology to return to a normal resting state and for your thoughts to become less hostile and defensive. But it’s surprising how miraculously reasonable we can be once we’ve had a chance to calm down.