Fair Fighting Guide for Couples

By:Jan Rakoff

Quite often when I see new couples in my practice, conflict exists because they have not established basic ground rules for handling disagreements.

If the two parties can agree on some basic (yet essential) boundaries to be respected in times of conflict, they can spare themselves a tremendous amount of wear and tear and lost good will in the relationship.

Here are some guidelines which have been proven helpful to couples in my practice. It is recommended that you sit down together at a time when you’re not having conflict and review these guidelines and see if you can agree on them.

1. Has a history of violence in the relationship? If so, there may need to be reassurance that no violence will occur in the course of the discussion. It needs to be explicit: “Under no circumstances will I use violence or aggression towards you during this discussion.”

Violence and aggression include throwing or smashing objects, using body language in a menacing manner such as standing over your partner, clenching fists, and using cold, hard stares to intimidate.

2. Are innocent bystanders present? Innocent bystanders include children, other friends and family, and even pets. Children who grow up witnessing domestic violence carry scars into adulthood. If you cannot take the discussion private in the moment, then wait until you have privacy to proceed.

3. No screaming or yelling. Screaming and yelling represent threats of violence. They indicates that you may have slipped into “fight mode” in which your physiological responses have taken over your “wise mind.” If this has occurred, further discussion is not likely to be beneficial. Take a timeout, compose yourself, and try again when both parties are calmer.

4. Give each other physical space. During your discussion, do not physically touch your partner. This includes caressing. Touch may be perceived as control or intimidation during times of conflict.

5. Use assertive communication. This means using “I” messages. “I feel disrespected when you come home late without calling. I need you to honor our agreements to call if you’re going to be later than expected.” This allows you to maintain responsibility for your feelings and needs and to avoid presuming that your partner intentionally hurt you. By using certain communication, it is possible to stick to the issues at hand instead of escalating the situation by putting your partner on the defensive.

Note that assertive communication can also be used to convey positive feelings, not just the negatives or disappointments.

6. Do your best to stay in the present moment. Dredging up old issues or forecasting what might happen in the future virtually guarantee that your discussion will not go well.

7. Accept that your mate may have different feelings, values, opinions, and ideas. You are two different people. Insisting that your mate agree with you on every point is a form of emotional abuse. Instead, try to keep an open mind and hear your mate completely.

Even if you feel strongly about your point of view, try taking some time to “digest” what your mate is saying and keep the possibility open that you might even change your mind or perhaps meet in the middle for a compromise.

8. Avoid “mind reading”. This is where you say things like “I know that you don’t love me. I know that the only reason you’re here is because you feel sorry for me.” None of us has a crystal ball. Allow your mate to fill you in on their feelings. That way, there is a greater chance that you are dealing with reality. Do your best to take what your mate says at face value. By doing so, it conveys respect.

9. Do not tease or insult your mate when you’re having discussions. Do not use putdowns at any time, especially when having a disagreement. It’s a sure-fire way to evaporate any goodwill between you and further polarize the situation.

10. Do not use name-calling when having an argument. This is a time to potentially increase the respect between the two of you versus tearing it down.

11. Take turns when speaking. When your mate is speaking, Listen attentively and with patience. If necessary, use a kitchen timer and a lot each person 5 min. to speak without being interrupted. If you can keep an open mind, what you learn could be called “gold.”

12. Make the commitment to see the discussion through to a mutually agreeable conclusion. If you escalate too much to proceed in a calm manner, take a break and agree on a specific time to return to the discussion.

13. Absolutely no discussions should take place when one or both parties are under the influence of drugs or alcohol. We know it is inadvisable to drink and drive; human relationships are far more complex and require being at the top of your game to negotiate.

14. At the conclusion of your talk together, recap the agreements that were reached and find ways to compliment each other even if you can’t fully agree on every subject that was introduced.

If you find that you do not have sufficient skills to fight fairly, consider contacting me at 858-481-0425 to set up a couples therapy session. I can help you learn how to practice assertiveness and to have more positive interactions in your relationship.
Copyright ©2012 Jan Rakoff. All Rights Reserved.

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