This article is part of the Why Couples Fight Series
Any discussion about fair fighting rules in marriage first has to deal with the question “why fight at all? Isn’t fighting a sign of a troubled relationship?”
Before we have any discussion about rules for fighting fair in marriage, we have to discuss why conflict is not only normal, and unavoidable, and it’s often necessary.
It’s completely normal to have disagreements with your spouse. One of the questions we often get about rules for is how much fighting in marriage is “how much is too much?”
We hate to disappoint you, but the truth is there is no “sweet spot” when it comes to the frequency of marital conflict, and there are no singularly perfect, “one size fits all” frequency rules for fighting in marriage.
Here’s an idea that husbands struggle with. When your wife fights with you, she is caring about the quality of the marriage.
One of the signs of real trouble in a marriage is when wives give up in favor of stony silence.
Another thing. It’s essential to be skilled at repair attempts. Couples that embrace the rules for fighting fair in marriage, and make repair attempts with sincere skill can increase their intimacy.
Emotional regulation is the bedrock of fair fighting in marriage, and the most important guideline. But the most important rule is don’t fight in front of your kids.
Fighting in front of your kids is a particularly toxic behavior which has been carefully researched for decades.
It’s some of the worst behaviors parents can engage in. New research has shown that even low levels of chronic conflict leave a lasting imprint, particularly on shy, introverted kids.
I’ve covered this before. It’s awful. It’s reckless with your family’s future. Just don’t do it.
One of the hallmarks of mental health is emotional regulation. It’s the essential guideline for effectively managing marital conflict. If you want to have an awkward conversation with your spouse, saying “I feel…” is an excellent way to start.
I feel ignored, furious, disappointed, sad, frustrated…etc. Let there be a part of you that watches. I call it having an “observing self.” Avoid attacking your partner’s character.
Whenever you start with “you always…you never…why did you…how could you…” You are making your partner synonymous with the problem. Consequently, you forfeit the ability to recruit them to help with a solution.
A very important, of the 13 fair fighting rules is to keep the fighting private. When you do it in public, you make others uncomfortable, and you offer yourselves up as fodder for gossip.
When is the last time you resolved a fight in public? The right context is unfriendly to the process. Have a “bookmarking process” to pack the toxic topic away for the moment until you get home.
Respect and courtesy are essential rules for fighting fair in marriage. Stop hurting the one you love. Don’t use your words as weapons.
Intimacy means you know their weaknesses and enduring vulnerabilities. Don’t inflict pain to make your point. And if your partner is not their best self, use another 4 letter word instead…ouch!
I know. You’re upset. You’ve been waiting all day for him to come home. But don’t ambush him with a harsh start-up the second he walks in the door. Give him 15 minutes or so to settle in.
Tell him you have some feelings and use a softened start-up. Softened start-ups are highly predictive of successful interactions. Remember, the way a conversation begins is the way it most typically ends.
Gottman’s research tells us that most couples have fights about nothing. The issue du jour is irrelevant. It’s a surrogate for something else.
These proxy fights will get you nowhere. Fighting is way too important to engage in to resort to proxy fights. Fight about what directly matters to you.
Clarity is a virtue in marital fighting. Be specific and be real.
Please remember that your nervous system can only take so much. Try to agree to a 20 minute limit for difficult conversations. One of the most essential rules for fighting in marriage is setting a time limit on conflict-rich discussions.
Start by saying something like this. “I want to kick this issue around with you for 20 minutes. I imagine that we see it differently, and I’m pretty sure that we’re not going to resolve it in just one conversation. And I want to hear what you have to say about this. When 20 minutes is up, I want us to hug each other, and I’d like us to move on to something else. We can think about what we heard each other say, and maybe we can revisit the issue in a few days. Would that be OK with you?”
End difficult conversations with dignity and grace. “You’ve given me a lot to think about. Let’s discuss it further in a few days.” Also, don’t forget that a Generative Conversation is a great way to safely and deeply explore both of your thoughts and feelings on highly conflictual topics.
One of the essential rules for fighting fair in marriage is establishing and maintaining firm boundaries. Your relationship with your spouse is sacred.
Nobody deserves to know your personal business. Keep firm boundaries around your personal issues. Research tells us that poor relationship boundaries will a negative impact on the quality of your marriage.
If all you’ve done after the fight is calm down, you’ve learned nothing, and you might repeat the same battle again. A few days after the battle, conduct a fight autopsy.
A fight autopsy is a calm unpacking of what you felt, what you thought, and what you did, paying particular attention to the triggers that set you off. There are several different kinds of fight autopsies, but they all have the same purpose.
You want to learn more about yourself and more about your partner so you can handle yourselves better next time.
The thing that makes fighting isn’t the conflict. Conflict is inevitable. It’s the escalation that is the enemy. If you can take a break when flooding is a concern, the other 12 rules for fighting fair in marriage will be a lot easier to follow.
Couples who attend one of our Couples Therapy Intensives leave with a customized, battle-tested repair attempt checklist. Escalation is a mutual enemy. Most couples have room for improvement when dealing with the issue at hand.
If your repair attempts are executed too late, you may need to take a break to calm down your nervous systems.
Get out of eyesight and earshot of each other. Breath deeply. Tense and relax your muscles. Read something. Gottman’s research clearly shows that reading helps prevent toxic rumination.
You want to calm your nervous systems down. After 20 minutes or so reconnect with each other and see how your partner feels about making another attempt at a more courteous interaction.
But remember that time limits on conflictual discussions are another vital way to help regulate your nervous system.
Remember when we were kids on the playground? “Take that back!” we would say. We somehow forgot that as adults. The Mulligan is a do-over. It’s a great conflict de-escalator. “Hey, I’m feeling kinda defensive… can you put that another way?” Or even better, if you notice that your partner is upset, you can do a Self-Mulligan. A Self-Mulligan might sound like this; “Hey, I can tell that didn’t land so well. I love you, and I’m on your side, can I try that again in a softer way?
Kitchen Sinking is a combative strategy where you throw all the complaints you have about your partner in breathless run-on sentences, hoping to overwhelm them by sheer force of your moral authority.
Keep the Past out of the Present. Kitchen Sinking is inherently disrespectful, and it never works…but that doesn’t stop us from trying. When you are having conflictual conversations, stick to one topic at a time.
Research tells us that kitchen sinking and kitchen thinking are a reliable pathway to flooding and escalation. Patience is an essential idea in conflictual discussions. Dealing with this problem solves the problem of getting overwhelmed during an argument.
Surprisingly, research reveals that the actual words our partner choose contributes only 7%, while almost 40% of the message comes from our partner’s speech patterns and tone of voice. Words that may seem harmless on the surface can become hurtful if spoken with a belittling, sarcastic, or disrespectful tone. Watch the ecology of how you address your partner. Talk to your partner as if they were someone you loved.
If you learn to accept the idea that 69% of the issues in your marriage can never be solved, you may give up your fear of conflict. Conflict is inevitable. Avoiding conflict is unrealistic. Conflict can even be a path to intimacy. Good humor, mutual respect, and patience are the bedrock for these rules for fighting fair in marriage.
There is no “perfect” amount of conflict in a marriage. But there is an effective way to manage conflict that can not only improve your marriage, but it can also model intimacy for your kids as well.
The best gift you can ever give your children is the gentle memory of how you treated each other over time. What will they remember about your fighting rules? Research tells us that they will model that behavior in front of your grandchildren as well.
Daniel is a Marriage and Family Therapist. He currently sees couples at Couples Therapy Inc. in Boston, Massachusetts, three seasons in Cummington (at the foothills of the Berkshires...) and in Miami during joint retreats with his wife, Dr. Kathy McMahon. He uses EFT, Gottman Method, Solution-focused and the Developmental Model in his approaches.