Disagreement. Clash. Battle. Quarrel. Argument. Conflict. Dispute. Fight.
Whatever you call it, at some point in your relationship, you and your partner are bound to butt heads. In fact, the sign of a healthy relationship is that you’re fighting fair. The emphasis is on the word ‘fair’ here. That’s because while fighting is all but inevitable, how it’s carried out is not always predictable or pretty.
However, there are ways that you and your partner can fight in a productive and even helpful manner. Just like any good relationship, fighting fair will take compromise and respect for your partner, but tit’s doable. Atlanta-based psychologist Dr. Laura Louis, PhD, says that a fair fight is all about “coming from a place of wanting to understand your partner’s perspective.”
Rather than continually hitting emotional and mental gridlock, here are some of the ways you and your partner can become better at having healthy arguments and, in turn, have a stronger relationship.
Setting Ground Rules
In order to have a fair fight, there are rules that should be set in place by couples. (That whole “No hitting below the belt” boxers agreement actually comes in handy for just about everyone.)
One of the first things you should do before having a difficult conversation that has the potential to be a fight, is to “check-in with your partner to determine if they are available… logistically and emotionally,” says Austin-based counselor Seth Houdeshell, LCSW, SAP.
If both parties feel up for an exchange, there are a variety of ground rules that you can consider. Houdeshell, for instance, suggests fighting guidelines such as “don’t talk over each other” and “be aware of [each other’s] triggers.” (For instance, if you know one of your partner’s sensitivities is about their parenting skills, a fair fight would not challenge or insult them as a parent.)
Knowing when to take a break can also be an important ground rule, says therapist Megan Negendank, LMFT, CST, of Sacramento. A time-out should occur if “either person is too overwhelmed for the argument and notice that they are either too angry and losing control of what they are saying or shutting down and not able to communicate effectively.”
When this happens, either party can say they need to hit pause and use that time to calm down, by perhaps taking a walk (no storming out) or listening to some music.
But, this time-out is only for a limited amount of time (at least 30 minutes, Negendank, suggests, but certainly no longer than 24 hours) “and both people should work together to try to understand where the other person is coming from in the disagreement.”
Watching Your Language and Tone
One of the key ways to fight fair, Houdeshell says, is to “use a conversational tone of voice,” because the way couples address one another during an argument can escalate or deescalate it.
To do this, you can try a soft start-up to your discussion, rather than a hard start-up. For instance, Houdeshell explains, rather than telling your partner, “You left the dishes in the sink again, you’re such a mess,” you can start with a softer prompt like, “I was really hoping you’d do the dishes, will you have time today?”
Louis adds that positive “I” statements can make a big difference when it comes to avoiding the blame game. She also says that it’s important to avoid “always” (i.e. “You’re always late”), as it triggers defensiveness, rather than stating your needs in a positive way.
All of the experts agree that for fair fighting, things like yelling, eye-rolling, making demands, shaming, name calling, and/or cursing are major things to avoid.
Reaching a Compromise or Resolution
Now that you’ve set your boundaries and ground rules, kept your tone and language in check, and taken a limited break when needed, how do you know when it’s time to call a fair fight?
For some, it’s reaching a compromise. Houdeshell says this can be done by arriving in the middle of each party’s desired outcome. (For instance, if one partner wanted to take a 2-week vacation and the other a long weekend, a compromise would be agreeing to go away for a week.) For others, it can be reaching a concrete resolution.
Whatever conclusion you reach together, Negendank says that arguments “end best when each person is able to express what the other person’s main concerns are so that each person feels understood.”
Just like your time-out during the fight, if you need to take a breather and spend some time apart after the argument is over, that’s okay as well. It’s all about setting term limits and openly communicating your thoughts and feelings after the fight, too.
“Just tell your partner that it’s not because you are angry with them, but you just need some space to decompress,” Negendank says. “If your partner asks for this space, give them the benefit of the doubt that they are just trying to take care of themselves and respect their request.”
Fighting is Good (When It’s Done Fairly)
Bad or unhealthy fights include serious problems like gaslighting, stonewalling, and any kind of abuse, be it physical, emotional, and/or psychological. If your fights include these issues, you and your partner may want to seek outside help in order to have better coping and communication skills.
So long as your fights have not reached this negative or potentially dangerous place, then there’s a chance you’re fighting healthy, which is ultimately a positive thing for your relationship. This is because, as Houdeshell explains, “it allows your relationship to adjust to your current emotional realities.”
“If you don’t share the information that comes out in a fight, then you don’t really know your partner,” Houdeshell says, adding, that your interactions are then just “based on old information or giving you a partial perspective of who they really are.”
The benefits of conflict, Louis says, is that it allows us to understand what the key problems are. “[Fights] reveal to us the things we need to change: in ourselves, in our partners and in our relationships.”