Not only does every great story have conflict, every great relationship has that as well. I always find it interesting when the question, “How’s your relationship?” is met with the response, “It’s great. We never fight.” As though a lack of fighting is somehow a measure of a healthy relationship. Certainly, there is no health to be found in fighting that turns physically, emotionally, or verbally abusive. But when did conflict within relationships get such a bad reputation? Learning to fight fairly can actually help strengthen the relationship by giving us an opportunity to fight for the relationship dynamics we want, rather than settling for the dynamics currently present. Conflict gives us an opportunity to better understand our partner, build a stronger team dynamic in working together to find a resolution, and gives us practice in speaking up about what we need within the relationship. It’s not the conflict that’s bad for the health of the relationship, it’s how we go about it. Here are five “rules” to learning the art of fair fighting…
1. You are in charge of your own feelings
Sure, your partner can push your buttons, but you cannot control your partner, only yourself. So check in with yourself. Do you know how you’re feeling? Are your feelings manageable and do you feel in control of your words and actions? When we become overly charged with anger or any emotion, we can lose the higher-level brain functioning needed to fight fairly and show up to a conflict in a way that makes it productive. So if you find yourself flooded with feelings, do some self-care and maybe take a break from the fight; just let your partner know what’s going on and when you may be ready to come back to the dialogue. To that point, be as expressive as you can with how you’re feeling and what you’re thinking. Your partner, no matter how long they’ve been your partner, is not a mind reader and reading intentions into the actions of others fuels conflicts. So the next time conflict emerges in your relationship, challenge yourself to only speak about your experience and feelings.
2. Know what the fight is really about
Taking inventory of our own feelings helps us understand what it is about our partner’s actions that have us triggered. Rarely is the fight truly about forgetting the dry cleaning or being late to dinner. More likely, the angry response to these actions stems more from a place of hurt, fear, or in some way feeling devalued within the relationship. The sooner you are able to identify the underlying source of the presenting issue, the sooner you will be able to address the true needs that are not currently being met. So rather than fighting about the money spent on a recent purchase, challenge yourself to talk about the impact of financial stress or needing support from your partner in maintaining a budget. Knowing what the fight is truly about helps us avoid dividing the relationship by getting lost in fighting about the details of a situation and instead offers an opportunity to come together in support of a resolution.
3. Operate from a place of curiosity vs. animosity
When conflict moves away from finger pointing and blaming, conflict resolution can begin. Rather than assuming your partner’s intentions and placing responsibility on them for how you are currently feeling, challenge yourself to ask questions to better understand your partner and where they’re coming from. Similarly, when your partner is hurting, ask questions to better understand their feelings. Healthy relationships are a two-way street, so just as it’s important to practice sharing about your feelings and experience, it’s equally important to have an understanding of your partner’s feelings and experience. Compassion and empathy, challenge feelings of animosity, and animosity is a blocker of conflict resolution. Remember there is no designated “winner” when it comes to fighting within a relationship.
4. Remember language matters
The old saying, “it’s not what you said but how you said it,” holds a lot of truth. Our wording, tone, and delivery influence how our message is being received. Being mindful of what you are saying and how you are saying it can make a significant difference in the productivity of conflict. When we use aggressive language or nonverbal cues, we foster self-defense mechanisms that limit vulnerability and emotional intimacy, two key ingredients to strengthening relationships. It’s important to be able to speak about anger, but anger does not give a free pass to use hurtful wording. At the same time, we hear messages through the lens of our emotions, which are often heightened during times of conflict. Reflecting back to your partner what you are hearing can be helpful in clarifying miscommunication and ensuring the intended message is received. Lastly, just as much as our wording matters, lack of wording has just as much of an impact. Avoid using the silent treatment in response to anger, as no resolution can come when one partner is checking out of the conflict.
5. Repair work is an important part of fighting
Conflicts are bound to happen in relationships and offer an opportunity for growth. Fighting fairly helps make the tension of conflict productive and serving of the relationship, but it’s the repair work after a fight that helps partners reunite. Talk about what was helpful and hurtful to you during the conflict so you can fight differently in the future. Conflicts tempt partners to disconnect, but if you can lean into one another rather than distance yourselves, your relationship has the opportunity to strengthen. Ask yourself what you need the most from your partner to feel connected so you can work towards repairing the bridge that separated you during a conflict. By honoring the hurt evoked during a conflict and showing respect for both our and our partner’s feelings, we allow the relationship the opportunity to move beyond the latest conflict.