5 Rules for Fighting Fair

by Jennifer M. Ryan, M.Ed.

in Marriage and Relationships

Being in a long term relationship with someone isn’t always easy. In fact, let me rephrase: Being in a long term relationship with someone is challenging, angering, and maddening at times, even within the same 10 minute span. Sometimes it’s blissful and joyous, too, of course. But being in close quarters 24/7 with someone for a lifetime takes work!

There are many books that give all kinds of advice on how to fight fair and how to communicate better. Renowned couples therapist John Gottman even says we need to realize when we fight, there are some problems that will never get solved. I think that’s true, and very sound advice to hold onto.

Still, when we’re in the crux of a difficult situation with a loved one, our heads in two different places on seemingly small issues (they usually are in hindsight, aren’t they?), it’s nice to have some easy tools we can reach for so we don’t completely damage our relationship.

Here are five things I think every marriage should use each time a difficult topic comes up:

1.  Honor who has the floor.  

In other words, if a grievance is presented to you (“I don’t like it when you leave your wet towel on the floor,” “I didn’t like it when you ignored my request to unload the dishwasher,” and “You don’t ever ask me out on a date” are some good examples), honor your spouse – respect them – for the issue they’re presenting.  Our first response is usually defensive. Afterall, who likes to be told they’re inadequate or didn’t measure up?  Still, it’s a real issue for the person who brings it up, and it’s our job as their partner to respect their feelings, even if we disagree with their perception.

2.  Feelings first, content second.

Just as we allow our loved one to express their grievance openly, we need to honor their flood of emotions. Think about it: The main reason there’s a grievance is because there’s a hurt.  Your spouse feels left out, rejected, lonely, ignored, sad, inadequate or disrespected, and although the situation went down way different than your spouse’s interpretation, it’s not nice to compound his grievance by discrediting their emotions. Plus, allowing your spouse to simply feel what they need to feel about their perceived grievance will build a stronger connection between the two of you so you can begin to talk about the content of the grievance.

Most arguments are presented in anger.  Notice that I didn’t list anger in the feelings above. Generally speaking, anger isn’t the CORE emotion. At the core, your spouse feels something deeper. If you can connect with that deeper emotion, you’ll be ready to talk about the perceived instance that created that feeling. (Remember, all feelings are created out of a thought, belief or perception. Even if you have a different thought, belief or perception, it doesn’t mean your spouse’s is way off base. Honor what she brings to the table.)

3. Validate feelings and thoughts.

Nothing is more unnerving than laying your heart and soul on the line, only to feel like you’re a big heap of irrational. Am I right?

Yet, it’s not always clear what the emotions are in any given argument. This can be difficult, especially when my second rule (#2 above) is to encourage you to validate feelings above all else. Therefore, we have to stay very in-tune to what our spouse is saying. Further, we have to deduce what they’re feeling based on what they’ve said and on their body language.

It’s usually easy to recognize anger. Fist pounding, eye-rolling, raised voices, and stomping are just a few clues! But anger is only the tip of the iceberg. If we’re going to really connect with our spouse, and validate their emotion, we need to listen for their feelings in their NONverbal cues. They may not say, “I feel lonely and disrespected,” but they may be showing you in their actions.

Validating thoughts is equally important. If your spouse says, for example, “You don’t know how to manage the finances,” or “You never want to have sex,” those statements are simply PERCEPTIONS (or an opinion). And, they’re valid. It’s okay if that’s what it SEEMS like to your spouse, isn’t it?  He is to be respected for his perceptions and opinions, even if they aren’t true for you.  Your spouse has the floor when their grievance is presented, and it’s your job to HEAR their feedback. For example, “You don’t like the way I do finances. You feel frustrated? (a clarifying question)” Another example is, “You think we don’t have sex enough” as opposed to, “You’re always thinking about sex! Other couples don’t have sex four times per week!” What’s important is that your spouse feels heard and validated – however they feel and whatever they think is true and valid for them, even if it isn’t true and valid for you.

4.  Just observe / Be inquisitive.

The opposite of getting defensive is to simply listen and accept. Lack of validation means you aren’t able to simply observe, and respect, how your spouse feels.  You may not LIKE it, but you have to honor it (unless you want to have more argument on your hands!). The best way to connect with your spouse is to just observe him. Observe what he says, what he does, what he thinks, his body language, and what he seems to feel (if he doesn’t tell you). And, be inquisitive. No, you aren’t expected to be a mind-reader. But you are expected to be tuned in. Being tuned in means you CAN deduce and imply what is going on with body language.  However, it’s always good to ask questions about the grievance. The more you ask, the more you’ll seem interested. The more interested you seem, the more emotionally connected your spouse feels.

Some examples of open-ended, inquisitive, probing questions sound like this:

  • How do you want to see the finances managed?
  • What are some ideas you have about staying on budget?
  • How can we help each other stay on track throughout the month?
  • What seems like a normal amount of sex for you?
  • How can we meet in the middle with sex?
  • Sex is important to both of us, how we can make it a priority?
  • It seems like you feel disrespected when I don’t clear the dishwasher when you’ve asked. Please talk to me about that.

This list can go on and on and on. The point is, stay connected to your spouse by getting as much information as you need, and to help her feel understood and listened to.  Her grievance is about HER, not about YOU, so let her have the floor, honor her emotions before you dig into the problem-solving content, validate what she’s feeling, and observe her in action.

5. Be the audience.

I wrote about this concept in a previous post in more detail. This tip is about stepping back and observing your spouse AND the argument from a different angle. This is the best way to attempt to put yourself in your spouses shoes. Ask yourself, while observing him:

  • What is he feeling?
  • What is he thinking?
  • Is there any part of what he is saying that’s true?
  • It’s not true for me, but is it true for him?
  • Can I see how he would have that perception?
  • How can I honor what he’s feeling right this moment?
  • How can I love, accept, and respect him, even though I don’t agree with his perceptions?
  • What can I do to show him I care?

Being the audience means you CARE and RESPECT the outcome of the argument, enough to step aside for a moment, analyzing it’s contents. Be the audience of your theatrical production, which is your argument!  You can choose differently in this moment, and the way you right your script – the words you’re going to say and the physical response you have – will have a direct affect on what you receive in return.

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