Fighting fair starts with respecting your partner and the issue they are bringing up. Gottman says that the way a conversation starts is usually the way it ends.
If your partner is being excessively critical (you always… you never) do your best to resist the temptation to defend yourself. Many couples can sink into an attack-defend verbal dance that often escalates into endless bickering …or worse.
It might surprise you to learn that the amount that a couple fights is not a scientifically accurate or useful predictor of divorce. It is rather the ratio of positive to negative interactions. Ideally, a couple should have 5 positive interactions to 1 negative.
Fighting fair will allow your conflicts to be briefer, and much more productive. When you are fighting fair, you can even fight in front of the kids. Research suggests that respectful conflict dialogue models respect, and a healthy give and take.
This lesson in managing conflict provides a valuable life lesson for your children. Decades from now, they ‘ll reflexively engage in fair fighting with their intimate partners because that’s “how mom and dad did it.”
Ask yourself; “what is my partner saying that I can agree with?” Respect that they have the floor, and don’t interrupt. Give them the most precious thing you can at this critical moment… your undivided attention.
Sure you’re disappointed, maybe even furious. But it will be a lot harder for your partner to hear you if you start out with you always, you never, you just don’t etc. Obviously you have strong feelings, so lead with them.
Fighting fair starts with honoring yourself and your partner by describing exactly how you feel. If you feel frustrated, annoyed, disrespected etc. start the conversation by saying:
“I feel (insert accurate emotion here) about (the topic of your complaint). “You never do the dishes” becomes “I feel frustrated that I have made dinner and did the dishes every night this week.”
Make sure that the topic of your complaint is an accurate report. If a video camera filmed your topic, what would it see? Describe the topic factually and specifically, without evaluative or judgemental language.
Think about this for a minute. Have you ever successfully defended yourself in an argument with your spouse?
Gottman’s research tells us that defensiveness is a universal human response in the face of withering criticism. The antidote to defensiveness in is to ask yourself “What is my partner saying that I can agree with?”
A criticism sounds like this: “You never do the dishes.”
Which invites the defensive response: “That’s not true… I did them twice last week!”
And you are off to the races.
An effective complaint sounds more like this: “I feel frustrated about the dishes. I have made dinner and cleaned up every night this week.”
A non-defensive response might sound like:
“You’re right. I really dropped the ball on that this week.”
Gottman Method couples therapy calls that going into “admitting mode.”
Here’s what you can do if you are feeling defensive. Wait 3 seconds before you respond. Reflect on what was said, and how it was said. If your partner was unusually harsh, you might say:
“I know you’re upset about the dishes. I hear that loud and clear. But I’m feeling kind of defensive right now. Could you put that another way?”
A verbal mulligan can be a very effective way of keeping a conversation on a more positive track. For you non-golfers, a “mulligan” is an extra shot that is not counted on the scorecard. Fair fighting values ongoing dialogue over perpetual conflict. Give your partner the option of a mulligan.
Notice that instead of acting defensive, you have the option to say that you are feeling defensive.
Fighting fair means whether you are on the complaining end, or the receiving end, you both always start with your feelings first. But always make sure that you acknowledge and validate how your partner feels about the topic. Make it absolutely clear that you are willing to discuss it.
Want to make it easy on your partner to really hear you? Continue to describe what you would like instead:
“I feel frustrated about the dishes. I’ve made dinner and cleaned up every night this week. I would prefer that we did them together. It would go faster. That would make me happy. What do you think?”
Science tells us that the way men and women are socialized shapes the way in which they complain, and how they respond to complaints. Women do most of the complaining, and men do much of the defending. However, men are typically action-oriented, and typically want to shine for their partners. They may sometimes act defensively, but they really deep down, many men really want to make their wives happy. Fighting fair means you are being specific about what you want to change, and giving your partner valuable feedback.
When you provide a detailed description of what you want to be different, your partner can relax in the knowledge that you are describing the problem as between the two of you, and not specifically in them. They will appreciate the opportunity to be a part of the solution. Tell them specifically what you want. Tell them what behavioral change would make you happy. Give them the opportunity to be a hero and shine for you.
Call us for more information 844-926-8753 to reach me, Daniel Dashnaw, use option 2.
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.
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