Everyone fights sometimes. No relationship — whether between couples, family members, officemates, schoolmates, whomever — is completely without conflict. In fact, a relationship that avoids conflict may very well be in some ways unhealthy.
The key to a healthy relationship isn't avoiding conflict, but making sure that you and your partner can clear the air productively — without hurt feelings or worse.
Below are fourteen rules for fighting fair that many couples I work with have found successful. You and your partner may have thought of others.
1. Take Responsibility. It may take two to tangle, but it only takes one to end a conflict. Even if your partner doesn't agree to fight fair, you can make a commitment to never intentionally harm your partner's feelings. Commit to using the rules below. Then, if despite your best efforts, you find the fight getting out of control, walk away, using the suggestions in rule #4.
2. Don't escalate. When someone hurts us, it's human nature to want to hurt them back. But this starts an endless cycle of escalation as each person tries to hurt the other because they were hurt. The most important commitment you can make to fair fighting is to avoid escalating when your feelings are hurt. If either party continues to speak or act hurtfully, choose to walk away — don't lash out.
3. Use "I" speech. When we use "you" speech — such as "You do this" or "You do that" — the other person naturally feels accused and goes on the defensive. This usually leads to escalation. Instead talk about your own feelings: "I feel hurt when you talk that way to me." This avoids defensiveness because it's hard to argue with your self-report of how you feel. It avoids mistakes of understanding, too. There's a good chance that you won't understand your partner's feelings in the midst of a heated argument. If you try to tell your partner what he or she feels, means, or is doing, pretty soon your argument will be side-tracked into who is right, rather than talking about the real issue. But you will always be an expert on how you feel. So stick with your own feelings.
4. Learn when to walk away — productively. If despite your best efforts hurtful speech or actions continue by either party, call a time out. There are three elements to a successful time out. First, use "I" speech to take responsibility. Say something like: "I'm afraid of losing control." Second, tell your partner what you are going to do: "I'm going to take a walk to clear my head." Finally, set a time limit: "I'll be back in 15 minutes and we can talk about this then." Using these three steps — especially setting a time limit — will keep your partner from feeling abandoned or out of control. You are making a commitment to talking about the issue — so your partner won't feel you are avoiding the conversation. But you are clearly saying that you need a brief break. If you still don't feel safe to continue the discussion after your break, make sure you tell your partner — and set a new time limit.
5. Avoid — and defend against — hurtful speech. This includes name calling, swearing, hurtful sarcasm, raising the voice, and other forms of verbal hostility or intimidation. When either party says something hurtful, agree with your partner to use a key phrase that indicates the partner has hurt your feelings, such as "That's below the belt!" If your partner continues despite your warning, it may be time to walk away.
6. Stay calm. Try not to overreact. Especially avoid exaggerating. That way your partner is more likely to consider your viewpoint.
7. Use words, not actions. When feelings are running high, even innocent actions can be misinterpreted. Stick with using "I" speech to explain your feelings, rather than gesturing, menacing, or touching/hitting.
8. Be as specific as possible — with examples. Don't make vague complaints. Try to give concrete examples — who, what, when, and where — of what you object to.
9. Argue about only one issue at a time. Don't start new topics until the first one is fully discussed. Too many couples do what's called "kitchen sinking": They store up a number of hurts and bring them up all in one grand, confusing fight. If you find yourself saying, "And another thing...," you're probably "kitchen sinking."
10. Don't generalize. Avoid words like "never" or "always." Generalizations are usually inaccurate. They will only make things tenser. Stick with specific examples.
11. Avoid "make believe." Exaggerating or inventing a complaint — even to make an innocent example — just stops you from talking about the real issue. Stick with the facts and your honest feelings.
12. Don't wait. Try to deal with problems as they arise — before hurt feelings have a chance to grow.
13. Don't clam up. When one person becomes silent and stops responding to the other, frustration and anger can build. Positive results can only be attained with two-way communication.
14. Agree to ground rules. The rules above are just suggestions — although they have worked for many couples I've counseled. But they'll only be maximally effective if you and your partner agree to them. Consider printing out this page and discussing these rules with your partner. You may find that he or she may disagree with some, but want to add others. When you do agree to common ground rules, resolving your conflicts will be much more likely.