When most people think of fighting, they think of a boxing ring with two heavyweight fighters in opposite corners coming out ready to swing. This can also happen in our relationships, where we are so invested in what we believe, we end up like those two boxers. Bruised, battered, broken. Some fights are TKO in the first 5 minutes and others take an agonizingly long time to get through. Recovery can be long and painful. And if you and your spouse have enough of these kinds of fights, one or both of you may be ready to throw in the towel and end the relationship.

My parents were once these heavyweight fighters. Each one of them were trained by their parents. Similar communication style, awful results. We learn from what we observe and not always to our benefit. 

There were times during my childhood and teen years when I’d get home from some after-school activity to find them arguing. Times when I pulled up a chair with my cup of soda to settle in for the entertainment. It really didn’t make much of a difference to them if we kids were watching or not. For my parents, it was about verbally tearing into each other. They insulted one another, brought up various slights (big or small) and could easily spend an hour (or more) yelling at each other.  Pick, pick, pick. There was also no compromising or vulnerability. Instead of sharing their true feelings of hurt and working together to resolve the issue they focused on what really counted to them – showing no weakness or mercy. Sounds harsh, but dysfunctional fighting IS painful and harsh. My parents listened to respond instead of listening to understand. There was no room for understanding because that would mean they had to try to set aside their feelings for a few moments to understand someone else’s point of view.

I’d sit and watch, feeling like it was a Saturday bout on Pay-per-view (Yes, I’m THAT old).

Because of them, I thought this was how true love looked like. It was my normal for years.  And I hated it. I hated it SO much that as a senior in high school after one particularly horrendous fight (during which I called the cops because I couldn’t take it), I begged my parents to please, please break up already.  They screamed, insulted each other for nearly two hours and then tried to bring me into the middle of it by trying to get me to agree with either one of them. I didn’t participate, but sat there with my soda on that wild Friday night.

For the parents reading this, I ache for you because I KNOW this is NOT how you want to be for your kids.  And for those couples without kids, I ache for you also, because who wants to live in the middle of WW 3 all of the time? 

What are the risks of poor communication with no direction or purpose? The risk is your relationship with your partner, your relationship with yourself AND your relationship with your children (if applicable).

But, is there REALLY a way to fight fair??

Yes, there absolutely is!

No one, I mean NO ONE deserves or needs to live like this. There is a healthier way to have arguments that help you make your point, advocate for your needs while also taking into account your partner’s needs and resolving the issue.

The last person I thought would teach me about fighting fair was my boys’ father. It was a difficult relationship because of the many challenges we had, but I am able to recognize the good lessons I’ve learned from the experience. One of the biggest lessons was on how to fight fair.

During the very early years of our 8 year relationship, after our oldest son was born, we had fights about a lot of things. And it was during those fights that I learned that I wasn’t fighting fair. I copied (or tried to copy) everything both of my parents did.  But, it didn’t work. Because my children’s father didn’t participate. I found it frustrating that he only wanted to stick to ONE topic. Annoying that he didn’t call me names the way my parents (and I) did. The worst thing about our fights was that I had to be honest and vulnerable about my feelings. Holy crap! Honesty? Vulnerability? Focus? This man drove me crazy with his way of fighting fair, that I realized it was much healthier than what I’d learned from my parents.

Now don’t get me wrong, my parents weren’t bad people. They worked to provide for us and give us the things we needed. But they couldn’t give what they didn’t have and weren’t taught by their own families. And more importantly, they didn’t know how to step back and really truly set up healthy rules for healthy arguments.

In a world growing with negativity and contempt for each other (hello local news), it would be easy to think that fighting fair is impossible. Because as a society, we’ve learned that fighting is normal. It was the same for me until my relationship with my sons’ father.

He taught me that fighting fair was about respect, healthy communication and problem-solving. So even though we may only by co-parents now, I’m truly grateful to him for teaching me how to fight fair. Keep reading below for the ground rules to fighting fair.

Ground Rules for Fighting Fair

Why is it important to have ground rules for arguments? Ground rules allow you to protect both of you while still working towards resolution.  Arguments can spiral out of control and you can hurt one another when really you just want to clue the other person into how you feel. Read on and see how many of these rules you and your spouse follow.

Give respect at all times.

I.e. No insults or name-calling. When you respect each other, you’ll have a more productive conversation.

Stick to ONE topic per argument.

Let’s be real, there are SO many things that couples fight about. Some are bigger than others, but you can’t fix everything during one discussion. So focus on the most important issue at the moment.

Be honest and vulnerable.

Some of the most vulnerable times we go through as humans is during a major argument. We feel hurt, disappointed or scared (or all three). When you are open and honest about how you’re feeling, you allow yourself the opportunity to grow trust in yourself and your partner. Imagine, having a hard discussion and coming out on the other side of it with a better understanding of yourself AND your partner. There’s nothing like that.

Give each person time to speak.

No cutting each other off.  This rule is a follow-up to rule #1. It’s about respect and when you cut each other off during arguments, it’s rude and can become a barrier. And you’ll miss a lot of important information if you’re cutting each other off every chance you get.

Listen to understand, not to respond.

My parents were experts at this one. They only waited long enough for the person to finish speaking only to jump back into the fray with a response. Again, not a response to resolve the issue, but one that further separated them.

Review what you heard the other person say.

Not what you THINK he/she said, but the exact words. When you recap what you heard your partner say, he/she has an opportunity to confirm or correct it. This also helps you check off solutions to address all of the points made during discussion. We get so angry that we start making things up. I know I have made my own assumptions during arguments and this really stopped me from being honest with my sons’ father AND myself. When you go over what the other person said, you can make sure that you practice understanding AND being understood.

Focus on the facts.

Talk about the things that actually happened to upset you. In the heat of the moment, we CAN actually forget the point of the argument/discussion. When you stick to the facts (not feelings), you can be clear on the problem that needs fixing. And this one is a great intro to the next rule.

Share your feelings in a healthy way.

I know I just mentioned sticking to the facts, but feelings are important, too. You can share your feelings while still talking about the facts. Ex: “When you interrupt me, I feel hurt because it seems like what I have to say isn’t important.”

Keep the discussion between the two of you.

Dragging the kids into the argument is a disaster all around. Kids want to see their parents getting along and when they don’t, it can be scary for them. Also, fighting in front of the kids (or pets) can cause them to develop a fear response due to yelling.  You may think this one is Captain Obvious moment, but in the heat of an dysfunctional relationship, the focus is on hurting the other person, not about problem solving.

Limit the discussion to no more than an hour. 

Let’s be honest, anything that’s done for an hour or more can be very draining, especially arguing. If you find that nothing is getting resolved, put the argument to bed for another time.

Know your hot buttons.

When you already know what sets you off, you can actively work to keep yourself from blowing up. My hot button is feeling ignored (because I felt like I was ignored growing up).  “When you didn’t throw out the trash when I asked you to, I felt ignored.”

Agree to disagree.

Sometimes, there isn’t an easy solution to the problem you’re trying to resolve. And that’s okay. If the subject of discussion isn’t one that will make or break you as a couple, be like Elsa and LET IT GO.

Get more support.

Sometimes, we need more help to resolve an issue. If you don’t see eye to eye and it has the potential to collapse your relationship, get help. Find a mediator, coach or therapist to help you sort things out. An objective third party can point out things that the two of you as a couple may be overlooking or missing.

Here’s the thing about fighting fair – it actually is meant to help strengthen your relationship. Yes, you’ll have problems to work out, but at the end of the day, it’s about healthy communication. And when you have that along with the determination to find resolution, you can maintain a healthy relationship all around.  It takes some work, but it can be done. And you and your partner (and your entire family) will benefit from it.