A very common complaint that brings couples to counseling is wanting to know how to communicate better and fight fair. Couples always want to discuss an issue in an assertive way that allows both partners to feel understood and validated without it ending up in some big fight. Sounds awesome, doesn’t it? Well, it is in your power to transform your dirty fight into clear communication. It won’t work perfectly every time, we are only humans after all, but it guarantees that both you and your spouse will feel respected during an argument and will be much more likely to end your fight on a high note rather than not talking.
Happy couples have conflicts, even big ones. However, they learn to solve problems based on mutual respect, desire to understand each other’s needs and focus on the big picture of happiness for both partners. Since conflict resolution is an art to be learned, here are some basic rules to keep the fights clean:
Rules for Keeping Your Fights Clean
1) No name calling: It is never ok to attack your partner’s personal integrity. Even if you believe your partner will understand that you “didn’t mean it” it is very hurtful and can deeply damage a relationship.
2) No physical contact that is harsh: Always stay in your corner during a fight. No grabbing, slapping or pushing. You might not have the intention of hurting your partner, but during a heated argument it is intimidating and degrading to have someone “in your face” or hitting you even if it doesn’t hurt. If you need space or attention ask with your words, not with your body.
3) No yelling: When we don’t feel heard we tend to get louder. Most people will say “I just raised my voice a little”. Well, you were probably yelling and that didn’t help you be heard. Once you start yelling you lost your audience. No one likes to be yelled at. If you feel like losing control take a time-out.
4) No labeling: This is similar to name calling, but it is personal as it picks on someone’s weakness and is intended to put the person down so you can “win” the argument. Calling your spouse “lazy”, “paranoid”, “stupid” or “selfish” will not help you win anything, but will create resentment and self-doubt.
5) Take a time-out: If the argument is becoming heated take time away to cool down and put things in perspective. The guidelines are that you two must agree that once someone asks for time-out it has to be respected. You can only ask for your own time-out, no telling the other person to leave. And one of the most important part is to agree on coming back to the discussion until a resolution is found. Time-out are good for all ages, not just your misbehaving toddler.
6) Focus on the issue at hand: An argument will get out of hand if one or both partners bring up old conflicts. Even if the problems are related, don’t pile it up. If you notice a pattern then bring it up the real issue rather than the small incidents that exemplify the disagreement.
7) Think before you speak. Give yourself time, whenever possible to think why you are mad/upset/frustrated at the situation. Prepare what you want to say and be ready for feedback. You will find a lot easier to avoid shouting matches and tears if you know what you want to communicate.
8) Own your feelings and your mistakes: Express yourself with “I feel…” rather than “You did…” If you attack and blame your partner the immediate response is to defend rather than listen. If you know you messed up don’t play mind games of “no, I didn’t say…” own it and apologize.
9) Listen to understand, not to respond: People in general have a tendency to listen to respond. Instead of thinking about what was said we have our defensive answer ready to be fired as soon as the person stops talking. Sometimes we don’t even wait that long, frequent interrupting is a sigh of not listening to each other. Try acknowledging the person first and then, after they know they have being heard, share how you feel about the situation. In that way it is easier to find a solution because now both of you know how each other feel.
Disagreement makes us grow as individuals and as a couple. It pushes our comfort zone of in order to express our needs. It helps us to learn to empathize and understand other people’s perspective. The rules apply to any relationship in your life so go ahead and start practicing. You will notice a change in how others respond to you.
About the Author: Patricia Cochran is a marriage counselor with The Marriage and Family Clinic. She is passionate about helping couples and families to feel connected again. In her spare time, she is busy with her toddler and enjoying friends and family time.