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Fair fighting


What is it and who needs it?

Even the healthiest relationships at times experience conflict. That is to say, persons who care about one another often find it necessary to make important decisions. In that process, the couple may find that differences in perspective and opinion exist. These variances may occur around the definition of a problem, how it is to be solved, or even what is assumed to be an appropriate outcome. The important thing to remember is that people who care about each other do not always think or behave alike. But because they care about each other, the couple who cares can usually find a way to resolve the conflict in a way constructive to the relationship. Conflict, therefore, can be a means to an end, namely constructive decision-making and enhanced respect for one another’s perspectives and contributions.

The following suggestions are made to assist you in planning and implementing conflict resolution. While the steps may sometimes seem mechanical or overly simplistic, take a chance and try them. The approach has been employed successfully by many couples seeking to use their differences creatively in problem solving.

How do I do this when I feel so upset?

When we become angry or fearful, our bodies react accordingly. We may feel some unusual and discomforting feelings. Often, the more important the issue and the closer our relation to the other person, the more intense our reactions. The body’s way of managing this stress is to initiate a fight or flight response. While of benefit in dangerous situations, these automatic reactions may not lead to effective and thoughtful decision-making. To varying degrees we may feel ourselves become worked up (e.g., increases in heart and breathing rate, queasiness, dryness of the mouth, muscle tension, and tightness in the stomach). If voices are raised, some persons feel an upwelling of sadness or fear while others experience rising anger. These are normal responses to what our body thinks is a threat. To adjust these reactions try the following:

  • Remind yourself that you are experiencing the body's normal way of dealing with what is initially perceived as threatening and stressful;
  • Take several nice slow breaths, breathing in through the nose and out slowly from the mouth;
  • Try to stand or sit in a relaxed posture;
  • If you feel you are becoming very sad or angry, tell your partner. Perhaps a time-out is in order until you collect yourself;
  • Respect each other by keeping a reasonable distance and avoiding physical touch that may be interpreted as condescending or prematurely intimate;
  • Try to avoid raising your voice as this may be interpreted as intimidating or elicit similar defensive behavior on the part of the other person;
  • Remember the person with whom you are talking is someone who cares about you and vice versa.

How do we get to the point?

Several things are important to remember as the two of you attempt to reconcile differences. Remember this does not have to be a win-lose experience. Setting the problem up so someone has to be the victor usually restricts the range of solutions available and will result in someone being cast as the loser. Stay open to the possibilities that exist when both perspectives are applied to the problem solving. Here are some suggestions:

  • Make sure you understand the other person. Seek information by asking open-ended questions. These are questions that invite information to be shared. They begin with the inquiries of who, when, what, how, or where. Avoid the interrogative "why" as this invites a more defensive reply. If necessary it is okay to stop and begin your question over to assure you are inviting information;
  • Before you reply, repeat what the other person said as a way of clarifying potential areas of misunderstanding and demonstrating respect;
  • As you respond, try to avoid what are called "blaming" attacks. This occurs when we use the second person pronoun 'you' and attach blame to an action. For example, "We would not have been late had 'you' not taken so long getting back here."
  • Similarly, avoid using language that may be perceived as provocative or insulting to your partner;
  • Keep focused on the here and now. Slipping into conflict over past issues can derail even the most caring of couples. Sometimes we do not recall the details of past conflicts, nor do we have any control over changing the past. Stay in the present;
  • Only one problem at a time can be solved. Avoid the practice of unloading several problems at once. This only serves to confuse the parties and often results in limited, if any, closure on the central concerns;
  • Look for several solutions. Look outside the lines and see if the two of you can think of multiple ways of solving the problem. Be creative;
  • Keep a sense of humor. Nurture your creativity by using your humor.

What if we can't get anywhere?

Sometimes problems can not be solved on the first attempt. Perhaps emotions are too intense or the circumstances appear too complex for an easy resolution. It is important to remember that it may take time to think through the issues. Try the following ideas when you feel stuck:

  • Either or both parties can call for a "time-out". This is a rest period that allows for each person to have some physical and emotional space. It is important to establish a time to come back together. Failure to schedule this re-joining time may otherwise appear to be a slight or disrespectful to one's partner. Remember, it only takes one person to call a time out;
  • Take into consideration the time and place of the conflict. Perhaps where you are physically and emotionally merits a change in time and location before the discussion continues. It is also okay to contract for time limits on the discussion for any given session;
  • If during the process of clarification you discovered a lack of the information necessary to respond, seek out the necessary resources. Try to be informative but not judgmental with your findings;
  • Experiment with some exercises to gain insight into your partner's perspective. For instance, trade places and attempt to advocate from the position of the other person. Or as a couple engage in a free association game in an effort to think of as many solutions to the problem as possible.
  • Examine your own motives for the conflict. Are their attitudes or beliefs that may be temporarily suspended to better understand the other's perspective?
  • Consider using a consultant. If you become stuck and find it difficult to generate new ideas for reconciliation, perhaps a consultant can provide a perspective that is helpful.

What if we can't get to a solution?

Some problems are not easily resolved. Perhaps the timing, setting, or other circumstances make it difficult to concentrate. Other concerns may have diminished the personal energy and focus necessary to reconcile the differences. Sometimes conflicts also reflect more serious differences in core values or growth on the part of the persons involved. When a solution can not be achieved that contributes to the well being of the relationship, it is wise to seek consultation. A third party that is objective and caring can often help clarify underlying concerns or assist in identifying an issue that may be causing a blockage. To seek help is a compliment to the value of the relationship.

What kind of "fighter" are you? do you...

  • Avoid conflict at all costs?
  • Feel that any criticism or disagreement is an attack on you?
  • Hit "below the belt" and regret it later?
  • Feel "out of control" when conflict arises?
  • Withdraw and become silent when you're angry?
  • Store up complaints from the distant past?

At one time or another, most of us have done one or more of these things. That's because in most relationships, conflict inevitably arises, and for many of us it creates significant discomfort. But conflict, if handled appropriately, can actually strengthen relationships and improve our understanding of each other. When handled badly, conflict can result in broken friendships, ended relationships, and long-simmering feuds.

What causes conflict?

Conflict can arise whenever people - whether close friends, family members, co-workers, or romantic partners - disagree about their perceptions, desires, ideas, or values. These differences can range from the trivial, such as who last took out the garbage, to more significant disagreements, which strike at the heart of our most fundamental beliefs and concerns. Regardless of the substance of the disagreement, though, conflict often arouses strong feelings.

Anger and conflict

Disagreements can lead to people feeling angry or hurt, and for many people, feeling hurt is a position of vulnerability. People generally feel less in control when they are hurt, and they may move into feeling angry as a way of feeling less vulnerable or more "powerful." Feeling angry isn't necessarily a problem if that anger is handled constructively; however, problems with anger are often worsened by common beliefs that are not necessarily true. For many people, parental messages planted the idea that being angry is the same as being out of control or acting childishly. Or, many people have the idea that anger equals aggression. But the truth is that anger is a normal human emotion, just as normal - and healthy - as joy, happiness, and sadness.

Conflict styles

"Mad Bomber," "Smolderer," or Somewhere in Between?

Because many people never learned to manage anger constructively, it's very common to handle it in inappropriate ways. The "Mad Bomber" gets angry easily and expresses it, but with little control. At the other end of the spectrum, the "Smolderer" stores up complaints but doesn't express them directly. Instead, "smolderers" may seethe inwardly and act out angry feelings in passive ways.

To the rescue... fair fighting!!!

Fair fighting is a way to manage conflict and associated feelings effectively. To fight fairly, you just need to follow some basic guidelines to help keep your disagreements from becoming entrenched or destructive. This may be difficult when you think another's point of view is silly, irrational, or just plain unfair. But remember, he or she may think the same thing about your ideas.

Fair fighting: ground rules

  • Remain calm. Try not to overreact to difficult situations. By remaining calm it will be more likely that others will consider your viewpoint.
  • Express feelings in words, not actions. Telling someone directly and honestly how you feel can be a very powerful form of communication. If you start to feel so angry or upset that you feel you may lose control, take a "time out" and do something to help yourself feel steadier - take a walk, do some deep breathing, pet the cat, play with the dog, do the dishes - whatever works for you.
  • Be specific about what is bothering you. Vague complaints are hard to work on.
  • Deal with only one issue at a time . Don't introduce other topics until each is fully discussed. This avoids the "kitchen sink" effect where people throw in all their complaints while not allowing anything to be resolved.
  • No "hitting below the belt." Attacking areas of personal sensitivity creates an atmosphere of distrust, anger, and vulnerability.
  • Avoid accusations. Accusations will cause others to defend themselves. Instead, talk about how someone's actions made you feel.
  • Don't generalize. Avoid words like "never" or "always." Such generalizations are usually inaccurate and will heighten tensions.
  • Avoid "make believe." Exaggerating or inventing a complaint - or your feelings about it - will prevent the real issues from surfacing. Stick with the facts and your honest feelings.
  • Don't stockpile. Storing up lots of grievances and hurt feelings over time is counterproductive. It's almost impossible to deal with numerous old problems for which interpretations may differ. Try to deal with problems as they arise.
  • Avoid clamming up. When one person becomes silent and stops responding to the other, frustration and anger can result. Positive results can only be attained with two-way communication.
  • Establish common ground rules. You may even want to ask your partner-in-conflict to read and discuss this brochure with you. When parties accept positive common ground rules for managing a conflict, resolution becomes much more likely.

Fair fighting: step by step

To make the Fair Fighting ground rules effective in resolving a specific conflict, use the following steps:

  • Step one: Before you begin, ask yourself, "What exactly is bothering me? What do I want the other person to do or not do? Are my feelings in proportion to the issue?"
  • Step two: Know what your goals are before you begin. What are the possible outcomes that could be acceptable to you?
  • Step three: Remember that the idea is not to "win" but to come to a mutually satisfying and peaceful solution to the problem.
  • Step four: Set a time for a discussion with your partner-in-conflict. It should be as soon as possible but agreeable to both persons. Springing something when another is unprepared may leave the other person feeling that he or she has to fend off an attack. If you encounter resistance to setting a time, try to help the other person see that the problem is important to you.
  • Step five: State the problem clearly. At first, try to stick to the facts; then, once you've stated the facts, state your feelings. Use "I" messages to describe feelings of anger, hurt, or disappointment. Avoid "you" messages such as "you make me angry...."
  • Step six: Invite your partner-in-conflict to share his or her point of view, and use active listening skills. Be careful not to interrupt, and genuinely try to hear his or her concerns and feelings. If it seems helpful, try to restate what you have heard in a way that lets your partner know you have fully understood, and ask your partner to do the same for you.
  • Step seven: Try to take the other's perspective - that is, try to see the problem through his or her eyes. The "opposing" viewpoint can make sense even if you don't agree.
  • Step eight: Propose specific solutions, and invite the other person to propose solutions, too.
  • Step nine: Discuss the advantages and disadvantages of each proposal.
  • Step ten: Be ready for some compromise. Allowing the other person only one course of action will likely hinder resolution. When there is agreement on a proposal for change, celebrate! Set a trial period for the new behavior. At the end of the trial period, you can discuss the possibility of modifying or continuing the change. If no solution has been reached regarding the original problem, schedule a time to begin the discussion again.

When nothing seems to work

Sometimes, despite our best fair-fighting efforts, a disagreement or conflict seems insurmountable. When this occurs, talking with a trained professional can help. A trained mediator can help you communicate more effectively and eventually work your way through to a solution.