There are at the very least two good reasons to fight fair. It will help you have better relationships, and it will make your life easier and happier. It might mean your relationships have a chance to last, too. Conflicts and arguments are inevitable, so it’s not about whether or not you argue. It’s about how you argue.
According to Marriage.com, chronic poor communication and fighting is the third most frequent cause of relationships ending. While number one is cheating and number two is money and spending, it’s not hard to see how communication problems are likely play a role even with them.
Some serious research has proven this out over more than 25 years. John Gottman has identified 4 major communication patterns that can predict, with more than 90% accuracy, whether or not a relationship is likely to survive for 3 years. He calls these patterns the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.
Avoiding the Worst
The happiness of your relationships is directly related to how frequently the Four Horseman are part of your life together. They are not only communication patterns, but they also reflect how you think and feel about someone. Jesus is recorded to have said, “Out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks.” This is what happens in a destructive way day in and day out in many relationships. What these patterns reflect is not just unhealthy for your relationships, it is extremely likely to kill your relationships, too.
Criticism is attacking another person’s character. It’s not simply complaining about behavior. It says, one way or another, that the person is bad or defective. It’s saying more than that their behavior was wrong. It’s saying that they as human beings are wrong. It also tends to imply that you are better or above them. You could also be claiming that you are a victim.
Criticism often comes with statements that start with “You always…”, “You never…” or “You’re so…” If you find yourself making “You” statements frequently, you’re probably being critical.
Critical statements can often be converted into simple complaints. Simple complaints are usually “I” statements that include a feeling and a request. So, a criticism like “You never pick up your stuff.” could be said better as “I feel aggravated/ignored/disrespected when you leave your stuff lying around. Would you please pick it up?” In this case, you probably feel aggravated because prior complaints have been ignored and that makes you feel unloved and, for that reason, disrespected. A complaint focuses on behavior, feelings and positive requests for change.
Defensiveness is how people usually respond to criticism. It may also be heard in how you attempt to ignore or discount a complaint and make excuses or counter-criticize back. In the end, defensiveness is about why you don’t need to acknowledge or change something.
Defensiveness tends to communicate things like, “you’re wrong,” “you’re not worth it,” “I don’t want to help make things better,” “I’m not responsible” or, simply, “I’m mad at you.” Defensiveness keeps things the way they are, which in the long run, makes them worse. Defensiveness might sound like, “I’ve been really busy. I picked up my stuff last week and, hey, you don’t always pick up your stuff.”
Contempt is a step deeper into criticism. It’s criticism combined with a very unhealthy dose of disrespect. Contempt might be reflected in sarcastic remarks or name calling. Contempt can also be expressed in annoyed looks, eye rolling and other body language. Contempt might look like stony coldness and a refusal to engage. Contempt might sound like “Oh yeah, so busy you played video games all night. Grow up!”
Stonewalling is how not paying attention, not talking or not engaging comes across. You’re “checked out” in some sense and not participating. You might look or act withdrawn, defeated, apathetic or angry, but the bottom line is you aren’t an active part of the conversation, and you’re refusing to be one, too.
Stonewalling can be a response to criticism and contempt. If you feel you can’t say anything effectively, you may choose to simply stop talking. This can also be done passive-aggressively to simply frustrate the other person.
Stonewalling is not taking a timeout. You ask for and negotiate taking a timeout with a plan to come back and finish the conversation later. Stonewalling is not an “undeclared” timeout.
If you feel the conversation can’t be productive any further, negotiate a timeout. Stonewalling will only make things worse. It will increase contempt and invite criticism. Stonewalling might look like the silent treatment, stomping out of the room or simply loudly declaring that the conversation is over.
Principles that Help
- Always work toward building a connected relationship. One of the keys to doing this is to validate the other person. Remember, validation is not about agreeing with them or accepting their side. It’s about making sure the other person knows you’re listening; have a good sense of way they feel and have a basic understanding of why they feel that way right now. Be the first to repair things. When miscommunication happens work to humbly and politely correct it. Apologize when you need to. Keep working to establish common ground and mutual goals.
- Value each other. You show you value the other person when you demonstrate respect. This goes double when you’re struggling, the other person is frequently pushing your buttons or it’s tense all the time. You can’t maintain connection very well when either of you doesn’t feel valued. No one feels valued when they don’t feel heard or when there’s no quality time together.
- Don’t ignore issues. Avoiding and stonewalling doesn’t resolve anything. It lets things fester and grow in the background. It contributes to “attitude,” hostility, resentment, bitterness and contempt.
- Take a timeout. When you’re in fight-or-flight, you’re not fully rational and you don’t hear things as well as you should. It’s much too easy for things to escalate when this is going on. Get used to stopping and then coming back in an hour or two when you’re both in a better frame of mind.
- Identify your patterns and emotional triggers. Regardless of what you fight about, you tend to do it the same way every time. You go through the same motions and stages. You take the same basic actions. Become aware of these things, so you can make better choices in how you communicate. You also need to recognizer your personal assumptions, beliefs and expectations trip you up or hold you hostage? As you start to learn yours, you may start to recognize a few in others. This can contribute to feed back into recognizing your fighting patterns better.
- Being ready to listen. Be curious. What is it that don’t know or haven’t understood, yet? You know you’re missing something when the same things keep coming back up over and over again. Always find whatever bit of truth you need to acknowledge in the other person’s words. What can agree with in what the other person is saying? What’s important to them right now? What do you actually need to be talking about?
- Practice remembering your core values under pressure. It’s so tempting to fire back when others push your buttons. It’s easy to lash out when you’ve been angry or disappointed for some time. It’s even easier when you’ve let resentment and bitterness take root. Unfortunately, every time you give into you anger, you set yourself back. Those things you’ve wanted for your relationship just got further, probably much further, away. You also need to remember that having to be right and having to have the last word also postpone what you want indefinitely.
- Be quick to own up to your own behavior. Apologize when it’s needed. It doesn’t matter if the other person won’t or hasn’t behaved well. You can go first.
How to Think About Rules You Might Want
- You want rules that are easy to remember and easy to do. You aren’t going to be at you best when you need to use them.
- You will tend to overestimate your ability to be rational after a few minutes of fighting, so err on the side of caution. You will know, too late, that you’ve been talking too long when it’s hard to take a timeout.
Some Rules to Consider Adopting
- We don’t fight in front of other people and especially not in front of the kids.
- We don’t use name calling, put downs and nasty language or statements. We consistently treat each other with respect.
- We don’t push buttons, make threats or issue ultimatums.
- We don’t hit, kick, slap, push, throw or break things. We don’t block the way.
- We don’t say “You always…”, “You never…” or “You’re so…” in a negative way.
- We take a timeout if we’re getting heated or not making progress.
- We don’t have big discussions first thing in the morning (“before coffee”) or later in the evening. We’re either “not awake” or we’re “too tired.”
- We don’t “dumpster dive” or go “deep sea fishing.” We don’t bring up anything that happened more than a few days ago. We can focus on recent behavior to make our points. We realize “time traveling” is intended to make a case for criticism or contempt.
- We don’t make personal attacks. We talk about behavior or how we do things and what we could do to change to improve them or to make them better or easier to live with.
- We stick to one thing at a time. We don’t pile on or keep changing the point. Making too many points gets confusing and is another way to try to criticize or express contempt. (“You never do/get anything right.”)
- We have a time limit to resolve things before we take an automatic timeout.
Other Ideas to Consider
- Accept that you may not be able to agree at the moment. Both of you may need time to think things over, change your mind or come up with something you can both agree on. Compromising leaves both parties unhappy and prone to future fighting. Be reluctant to do it. Wait until you can find a better solution if you can. Being upset makes it seem too important to do something right now and to demand an immediate answer. Somehow you have survived up to this point, and you can usually wait a little longer. You can plan or schedule a time to come back to it.
- Think about rules for big purchases or spending. Emphasize mutual agreement. Instead of simply saying “No!”, talk about the circumstances you might find reasonable for it. Talk about your priorities.
- Ask each other to summarize what you’ve said or what you want. Help each other rephrase or restate their point. Use language that the other person will find appropriate or helpful.
- When talking together, sit down with a piece of paper, write down summaries of your points and responses. Ask each other if they are accurate. Make sure the language used is “simple,” “plain,” “clean” and honors the best intents of the other person. This will slow you down and help keep you focused until you have developed better habits.
- When you blow it, go all CSI and do a post-mortem or autopsy on your fight the day after or when you’ve had enough time to think about what you (not the other person) did that was “wrong” or unhelpful. How did you not use the rules effectively (especially timeout)?
Other Questions to Consider
When things go wrong:
- Did you talk too long?
- At what point did you stop following or start fudging the rules?
- Were you refusing to acknowledge the other person’s complaint or not owning your own stuff?
- Were you acting in good faith?
- Did you try to repair or to de-escalate? Did you refuse to accept any attempts by the other person?
- Are some new rules or adjustments needed?
Talk about it together. Avoid blame and excuses by talking about your own mistakes, failures or bad choices. Be sure to talk about anything that the other person did that was positive or helpful.
How to Get Started
You won’t be able to suddenly start choosing or using rules in the middle of a fight. You’re going to have to think about this ahead of time. Have a flexible idea of what you want to suggest or propose and be clear about what makes that significant for you. Know what principles or reasoning goes into them, so you can talk about it and make your case.
When you have a fairly good idea about the rules you’d like to start trying, think about how and when you want to talk about it. What are better times of day? When and where will you have enough privacy? When you have that in mind think a bit about how you want to ask about having that first discussion. Avoid making a show of it. At some point, you simply need to ask to talk about how you want to do better with each other when you fight or have to talk about stuff.
A sentence or two about not being happy with the status quo and wanting better things for your relationship is all that it takes. Avoid saying anything that makes it sound like the other person is at fault. Focus on “we” and the fact that you want the two of you to work together to make communication more pleasant and perhaps even fun.
Tell them that you’ve read about how agreeing on some rules can help. Ask to share this article and offer to watch a few of the videos link below later if you think that might help. If they aren’t game for it right away, ask them to think about it and that you’ll ask again later (think a few days, not minutes or hours).
You might mention one or two of the rules you think might help the most. Don’t push it. You want the other person to see the possibilities and choose to work with you. Do what you can to make this a win-win process. You absolutely need their buy in.
When you do get to talk in more detail, you’ll be ready since you’ve done your homework and know what’s the most important to you and why you think that it will fit your situation. You do need to listen to any objections and suggestions without being defensive. Let them help in the process.
This is where you first get to practice what you’re starting to learn. You want to convince them that it’s worth doing. You want them to believe that it can make things better. You can start by letting them see some of it right in front of them, right then and there. Make this a positive experience, because this should be your first smart fight.
Phil Carlson, Four Horseman of the Apocalypse
Phil Carlson, 7 Rules of a Fair Fight
How Communication Works, Relationship Communication: John Gottman’s Repair Attempts
Stan Tatkin, Relationships Are Hard, But Why? (TEDxKC)
John Gottman and Nan Silver, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work: A Practical Guide from the Country’s Foremost Relationship Expert (2015)
Stan Tatkin, Wired for Love: How Understanding Your Partner’s Brain and Attachment Style Can Help You Defuse Conflict and Build a Secure Relationship (2012)
Steven Stosny, Ph.D. and Patricia Love, Ed.D., How to Improve Your Marriage Without Talking About It (2009)