Fair Fighting in Relationships




If you are in an ongoing relationship of any sort, whether it be with a spouse, boyfriend/girlfriend, or some other type of significant other, it is likely that you have argued or fought with that person. In some cases, it may be an isolated incident or something that occurs rarely. Other relationships are practically characterized by arguing and fighting. Some arguments are executed calmly while others can be loud and disarming. Some end in resolution while others stop abruptly when one person storms out of the room. Some may even become physical. The manner of communicating during a fight as well as the style of conflict resolution is determined in part by the type of relationship the two people have and their skills in conflict resolution and fair fighting. You probably argue differently with your partner than you do with a co-worker. If a co-worker does something that bothers you, you might mention it in a calm, respectful manner, whereas if your partner did the same thing, you might explode. Some relationships can get to a point where we tend to treat our significant others with less respect than we give acquaintances! If we take a step back and think about that, I think we can agree we don't want to treat the person we love worse in any way than the guy in accounting whose last name we aren't sure of.


When two people in a relationship argue on a regular basis, each learns what the others’ “buttons” are. I think of it as a control panel. When the buttons are pushed, it is nearly impossible to produce a reaction that is different from the usual reaction. Our partners become aware of our buttons. Though they may not intentionally push them at first, it is not uncommon for couples to purposely push each other's buttons after some time.


For example, when Debbie and Chris argue, Debbie sometimes laughs nervously. This makes Chris even angrier. She admitted in a session that it's often uncontrollable but there are times when she will purposely giggle when he is mad just to enrage him further. Chris gets loud and animated and turns red in the face. He knows that when he raises his voice (and on occasion will break something), she leaves the house. He admitted he does this intentionally at times as well. Both know how to make the other even madder when they are arguing. This causes an unhealthy cycle where instead of trying to resolve the argument each will shift from the original topic to trying to infuriate the other. They begin to act almost child-like, talking over each other, shouting at the top of their lungs, and pushing each others’ buttons. We set forth many rules which I will discuss here then read on for an update at the end.


Another couple I worked with was blending families. It was a second marriage and each had a child from a previous relationship. They argued about how to do things around the house, what type of food to buy, and how to raise and discipline the children. When they first came in, they spent a good deal of time arguing in session. What started as a story about a past argument turned into name-calling. I intervened at that point and we discussed the pattern. He would get frustrated with her and instead of responding, he said “lower your voice.” I could see the look in her eye when he said this. She had heard it a thousand times before. She responded, “This is what he does. He begins to shift into telling me I am too loud and he knows when he does that it makes me want to yell even louder!” We were able to establish a "no name-calling" rule which is one I feel should be on every couples' list. They also agreed to dismantle unhealthy communication. Instead, when he would become frustrated, he would take a few minutes and some deep breaths before responding then calmly explain how he was feeling. Once their fighting was more respectful and manageable, they were able to discuss the bigger issues such as how to raise their blended family. These were the issues we were able to focus on in our sessions. It was a better use of our time together. When I meet a couple and we are able to get the initial fighting under control, we can focus on the deeper reasons they aren't seeing eye to eye.


I work with couples on several aspects surrounding arguments. Setting rules is an important one in many cases. I ask couples to work together to come up with their own rules for fair fighting. There are guidelines couples can put into place that can lessen the impact and length of an argument. After I have heard some history, I will mention specific rules for each couples' situation. We often talk about resolution. One example I hear quite often is that one person wants to walk away during an intense fight while the other wants to resolve it at that moment. In these cases, I urge couples to find middle ground though I also believe that separating temporarily (even just in separate rooms) is a good way for both people to calm down before communicating further. Each needs to collect thoughts and process what they want to say before they say it. Then they can come back together and take turns listening and talking without interruptions.


I have couples sit and think about other personal rules. After several sessions, Mike and Sue made a rule that when an argument begins to get heated, they “table it” and wait until later. Once time has passed, they say that they find that neither of them is still as upset and they are able to talk calmly. Taking issues one at a time is a rule that often applies. Some couples begin to argue about taking out the trash and it becomes about everything each other has done wrong during the quarantine. Sticking to one thing at a time is crucial and will help you reach a resolution faster than if you dive into each frustration. They found that when they stuck to one thing, they were able to quickly resolve it and move on.


Taking ownership is important in cases where arguing can get petty and/or when each person continually points the finger at the other. If you find you are playing the "blame game" with your partner, consider the importance of ownership. When each person can freely admit their share of the issue, disagreement, or situation, attitudes often quickly change. It can be attractive to hear someone respond humbly. Hearing your partner say, "I raised my voice and kept interrupting you. I'm sorry," will likely prompt you to do the same and own your part in it. "I should not have slammed the door. I will try to stay calm next time." Often, once these ownerships have been claimed, the couple can calmly discuss the deeper issue that is causing them trouble. Sometimes this is where a therapist comes in, but trying to talk it out on your own first is always advisable.


Finding a resolution is important in any couples' rules list. Try to move an inch toward your partner and you may find he or she will do the same. Talk about your feelings and needs using "I" language such as, "I feel hurt when you don't listen to me and when you discount my point of view. It makes me feel you don't respect me." This comes off as way less harsh than, "You constantly disrespect me and never listen to me!" Hear your partner out and try together to see where you can resolve the issue. Regardless of the issue, finding a resolution is going to be the key to avoiding resentment and fighting about the same thing again. If this is not working, getting a third opinion from an impartial, trained therapist can be helpful.


With Debbie and Chris, they kept trying and had to tweak their rules as they went. They even established specific rules such as, "Debbie won't walk out onto the porch and refuse to speak when she is mad" and "Chris won't raise his voice or break things." Their list was quite long and they did refer to it at times but it felt like they were just going through the motions. They continued to fight but eventually gave in to the rules and their need for change. They ended up telling me they became closer during quarantine! I was so happy to hear this and was glad their persistence paid off. In couples counseling, I believe persistence is key. Nothing gets resolved with little effort outside the therapy sessions and nothing can typically get resolved in only 1 or 2 sessions. However, most couples that do put forth great effort outside the office do not end up having to come many times before they are able to implement what they have learned and move forward.


If you are in a relationship and find that you are fighting more often than before the quarantine or it has gotten more intense as time has passed in general, you may want to consider making a list of rules. Though it is not always easy to adhere to the rules at first, if both people put forth effort, in time these rules can become second nature. Sometimes couples need a third person to facilitate the discussion and that is where a therapist comes in. There will always be disagreements in relationships. I am passionate about helping couples learn healthy ways to disagree with each other and resolve conflict. If you feel that you and your partner would benefit from a couples counseling session, please drop me a message - sarah@nayaclinics.com. I would be happy to meet with you individually or as a couple so we can begin to find new ways for you to communicate. As of June 2020, I am seeing clients in our Blue Ash and Hyde Park offices, but always offer secure telehealth (video) sessions as an alternative.


About Sam Nabil

Sam Nabil is the founder of Naya Clinics and is a Cincinnati therapist and a Cincinnati Marriage Counselor.

Sam offers therapy in Cincinnati and Cincinnati Marriage Counseling for adults suffering from relationship challenges, life transitions and anxiety.

Sam was featured in many prestigious publications. Check out his interview with Aljazeera English

And Cornell university , Yahoo News, USA Today, Marriage.com.

About Naya Clinics

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