Learn to Fight Fair With Your Partner (article featured in The Tennessean)
Marital discord and interpersonal conflict are two prevalent issues that often lead to couples seeking professional counseling. Often, couples have similar values and goals that spark their initial attraction to one another. However, because each person is comprised of a unique collection of views, experiences, and opinions, it is inevitable that couples are going to disagree. It is important to recognize that disagreement is normal and, more importantly, that anger is a healthy, natural emotion. The unhealthy patterns come into play when couples fail to effectively communicate their feelings and expectations. Thus, anger is not unhealthy, but rather the way in which we express anger can be unhealthy and, at times, damaging to relationships. Learning how to successfully resolve conflict and fight fairly with your partner are two vital skills that will facilitate growth and contribute to a healthier bond. When addressing conflict, it is important to remember to focus on the following basics so that a resolution is more probable.
Pause and take a deep breath before addressing the issue. This Anger Management 101 skill may seem elementary and mundane, but there is a science behind deep breathing that will assist you in focusing on and attending to the problem at hand. Slow, steady, deep breaths will lead to a reduction in heart rate and, when relaxation ensues via inhaling deeply through the chest and releasing your breath slowly, you can actually reduce the release of stress hormones.
Be specific. Focus on a specific problem and, in turn, seek to resolve only one problem at a time. Be direct and unambiguous about what the issue is and how you foresee resolving it. Avoid generalities like, “You always…” or “You never…”
Take ownership of your feelings. Focus on how you feel versus how your partner is feeling. For example, “I feel like I’m being ignored” will receive a better reaction than, “You always get angry and ignore me.”
Don’t mind read. Assuming that you know what your partner is thinking and feeling can lead to detrimental results. Allow him or her to express feelings and don’t invalidate those feelings. While you may know your partner well, surprisingly enough, you do not know all of his/her inner thoughts and emotions.
Focus on the here and now. Only attend to the present issue that you are trying to resolve. Bringing up old arguments and issues from the past will change the argument from healthy conflict resolution to resentful antagonizing and blaming.
Focus on behaviors, not personality traits. Attacking a person’s character will not lead to positive change. However, delineating a specific behavior will communicate to your partner something that he/she can realistically change. For example, one might say, “When you come home late from work without calling me, I feel like you don’t want to spend time with me.” This points out a specific behavior (coming home late without calling) than can be changed (calling before coming home late). Contrarily, one could erroneously say, “The fact that you come home late and don’t call me shows that you are selfish and inconsiderate.” The latter assertion will evoke defensiveness and will not be received as a request for a change in behavior.
Don’t counter every argument. When your partner confronts you about an issue and is seeking to resolve a conflict, responding to his/her requests with your own requests or complaints is highly ineffective. For example, if your partner says, “I get angry when you don’t help me with the housework,” don’t respond with, “Well you never help me with the kids!” This does not lead to conflict resolution, but rather begins a game of score keeping and leaves your partner feeling invalidated. If you feel angry because your partner is not helping out with the children, choose a different time to address that issue. When your partner confronts you with a problem, focus solely on that problem and save other complaints for a different, unrelated argument.
Know when to fight. Be intentional about when, where, and how to address an issue. In order to resolve a conflict rationally, wait until your temper subsides. Avoid arguing in front of others and don’t bring up several complaints within a short time period. Arguing is healthy, but shaming, repetitive complaining (i.e., nagging), and yelling are not. In order to fight fairly, ensure that the time, place, and attitude with which you approach the argument are going to facilitate a healthy resolution of the conflict.