Learning to Fight Fair in a Relationship with the Help of Counseling

Fight Fair in a Relationship

Part of every relationship, be it a friendship or a romantic relationship, involves disagreements. It’s part of the human condition. We are all different and sometimes those differences need to be discussed. There is nothing wrong with disagreeing with your partner or even arguing. Arguments happen in all relationships and there are healthy ways to argue that can bring you closer as a couple rather than push you away from each other. Most couples who seek out couples counseling are seeking it out to be able to learn to communicate better. They are coming in because they need support in hearing their partner and being heard by their partner.

Nobody really teaches us what it means to fight fair. We learn in school about sharing or are told it’s not nice to say certain things about people but there isn’t really a class that teaches us how to communicate with others. We, therefore, learn how to communicate with our environment. It usually starts by looking at how our parents argue and as we age we start to look at other adult relationships for clues on how to fight fair with the hopes that we are doing it right. This article will give you a few pointers on how to fight fair and avoid damaging your relationship. I would also like to give a little disclaimer that this article is geared towards couples who have arguments but do not engage in domestic violence or any kind of abuse.

1. Use “I statements”

I statements are probably one of the top techniques that a couple’s counselor will introduce towards the beginning of couples counseling. The idea behind using “I statements” is that it gives each person a chance to talk about how his/her partner’s behavior makes him/her feel and offers alternative behaviors. It’s a way to express your needs without coming across as accusatory or combative. “I statements” always have the same format: I feel __________ when you do _____________ and I would prefer ______________. For example, I feel frustrated when you leave the dishes in the sink and I would prefer for you to clean them up before you go to bed.

2. Avoid extreme language

Often times what happens in arguments with our partners is that we start to use extreme language to try to prove our point or because we start to believe it. Try to avoid extreme language like “always” or “never” since in most cases those words aren’t true. For example, “you never take out the trash” or “we always do what you want” or “you never listen to me”. Of course, these are statements that are coming from a place of frustration and emotion but they aren’t true. In the majority of couples, you are able to find instances where you were able to do something that you wanted. So, if you notice extreme language being used take a step back and ask yourself if that is really a true statement. Refocusing the conversation to “I statements” will help eliminate extreme language.

3. Listen to understand, not to rebattle

This is one of the hardest pieces of advice to follow in the moment of an argument. When things escalate and our emotions take over, we can get tunnel vision where the only goal in mind is to win the argument or destroy the partner. When that happens, the relationship suffers. If you’re listening to your partner in order to find flaws in his statements or to rebattle the point then you have already lost. The goal of an argument in a relationship needs to be to “create a healthy relationship”. The question you need to ask yourself is “what can I do to make sure that I am expressing my needs while keeping this relationship intact”. A way to make sure that you are listening to understand your partner rather than rebattling is to repeat back what your partner just said. So instead of responding with a counter-argument, respond by saying “so what you need from me is ____________. Did I hear that right?” It’s amazing how repeating what your partner says can de-escalate the situation and can help you two come to a compromise.

4. Don’t get distracted by other topics

It’s easy to get distracted with other topics when you’re in the thralls of an argument that you just want to win. You start bringing up old points of contention or old issues that had never been resolved. But going about your argument with your spouse in this manner will only hurt the relationship; not help it. Bringing up old arguments in these moments will not help you two come to a resolution but instead will prolong the argument and derail it. Any chance of coming to a resolution for the current topic will go up in smoke if you find yourselves arguing about 5 other things that were just mentioned just because one or both of you is so angry that you have lost track of what matters in this moment; the relationship not you.

5. Timing of an argument

A lot of people will tell you to not hold anything in and just say what comes to your mind when it happens. To just be honest with each other all the time. And I agree with that to a certain extent but I think that the timing of when you say something is vital to your ability to express yourself and more importantly, for your partner’s ability to hear you. So be mindful of the timing of when you bring something up that you know will cause an argument. Avoid bringing things up in public where you will have an audience and where it will be easy for your ego to take over and just want to win. Be mindful to bring things up when you have enough time to discuss everything and your partner won’t feel rushed. Be mindful to bring things up when you and your partner are as calm as you can be. Your chances of expressing your concerns and finding a solution together will increase dramatically if you are mindful of the timing.

Timing of an argument

6. Take a time-out

It’s OK to ask for a break. There are certain things that we say that we just cannot take back. And most of the time, we regret saying those things once the argument is over. We can feel the words of anger boiling below the surface and then all of a sudden we explode. There are usually warning signs that come up before you explode (e.g. raising your voice, becoming confrontational, name calling) and those are the red flags that your body is sending you to warn you that you need a time-out; You need time to cool off. So ask for it. It’s OK to ask for a 10-minute time-out on an argument so that you and your partner can cool off, remind yourselves of what the argument was really about, and return to each other with hopefully greater understanding and a calmer approach.

7. Avoid threats of rejection

This is probably the biggest thing to avoid while arguing. If you are not thinking about leaving your relationship when you are both feeling calm then don’t bring up that threat in an argument. Sometimes we get so overwhelmed with emotions and just want to end the argument or just want to win that we end up threatening to leave the relationship. Threatening to leave or threatening with divorce is one of the biggest ways that you can hurt your relationship. Once that threat is made, it creates a sense of insecurity in the relationship that will take a lot of time to heal. Even if it came out of anger, even if you didn’t mean it, even if you just said it to stop the argument, you have now threatened to leave. You have now given your partner the idea that this might be something that you have been thinking about. So, don’t say it unless you truly mean it when you are feeling calm.

I hope that these little tips will help you in your relationship and your arguments with your partner. Remember that it is natural to argue and it is natural to have disagreements. It happens to all of us. What’s important is how you manage those disagreements so that your relationship can remain healthy and can continue to thrive even when you disagree with your partner.

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Linda Meier Abdelsayed
Therapist, LMFT
Linda Meier Abdelsayed is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist for California and Illinois. She specializes in working with couples that face infertility. Linda is the founder of Smart Talk, a video therapy practice serving individuals and couples in California, Illinois, and Internationally. She created Smart Talk as a way to provide convenient and affordable mental health to people who might otherwise not have access to therapy due to location, lack of child care, busy work/life schedules, or affordability. Linda also sees clients in a private practice group (PeoplePsych) in Chicago, Illinois. Linda speaks German, French, and Spanish.

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