7 Rules of a Fair Fight

Help Couples with Fair Fighting Rules

I used to think that my marriage was great because we didn’t fight. Ok, maybe we would snap at each other once in a while, but then we’d apologize and move on.

Early in our marriage we heard someone talk about having rules for fair fighting. So, we agreed on a few guidelines:

  • No name calling
  • No hitting, throwing, etc.
  • No using “always” or “never”
  • Don’t raise your voice (I’ve come to think this is a bad rule, for us anyway)

These rules seemed to work for a little while. I still think the top three are good rules to have.

Most of my rules where about being able to avoid emotion. I wasn’t comfortable with emotion. I didn’t think that showing emotion was healthy.

The result? We didn’t fight. When Michelle would become upset, I would tell her to go off by herself and, when she was calm, we would discuss it rationally.

The problem was that my wife couldn’t process her emotions without becoming emotional. So, I ended up shutting her down. Our calm relationship was actually dying. Things didn’t get discussed, just buried. Resentment grew and conflict wasn’t dealt with.

It looked calm on the outside, but inside it was tearing us apart.

Now, we’ve worked with lots of couples and I recognize that there are different ways to manage conflict. Some couples yell and scream. Some couples silently withdraw. Either of those methods could be bad or they could be good. It depends.

I’ve come to recognize that what works for one couple won’t work for another couple. Each couple needs to create their own rules for fair fighting.

Here’s my 7 rules for fighting.

Rule 1: Connection Is First

The goal is to build connection in your relationship. Of course, you will have disagreements. You will fight with each other. How do you have conflict, but still build your connection?

Michelle grew up watching her parents fight. They would snap at each other and sometimes they would yell. Then, later that night, they would be sitting on the couch holding hands. Their fight would actually release tension and neither one of them took it very seriously.

I’ve known couples that work this way. They yell and scream, but then it’s over. They make up and their marriage bond is stronger than it was before.

One time Michelle and I were on a plane working on a talk about conflict management. There were three seats together and there was a woman sitting next to Michelle. That woman listened to us talking about managing conflict for about 3 hours. Finally, she spoke up. She told us that when she and husband would fight, they would silently retreat into their own worlds. Her husband would never bring it up again, but he would bring her a cup of tea. She came to realize that the tea was his way of apologizing and reestablishing connection in the relationship. It worked for them.

Rule 2: Don’t Ignore Issues

I’ve met lots of couples that stonewall in order to keep the peace. In other words, they don’t bring up an issue because they don’t want to fight about it.

Resentment grows. Distance increases.

It’s peaceful on the outside, but it’s not building connection.

When I would dismiss Michelle’s emotions, she would hold them in. I felt better about it, but she grew distant. That wasn’t healthy for our relationship.

She needed to learn that she had to talk about things that I didn’t want to hear. I needed to learn to let her talk about these things, even if it became emotional. We had to learn to fight.

True connection means that you have to talk about what’s bothering you.

Rule 3: Value Each Other

This one sounds so simple, but it’s very hard. It means to do anything you can do to show value and worth to your spouse, even when you are fighting.

The poor behaviors that tear apart couples contradict this simple statement. Any words that put yourself above your partner means that you are devaluing them.

These statements can be things like:

  • “You are such a tightwad.”
  • “Don’t be an idiot.”
  • “I can’t believe you just said that.”
  • “You shouldn’t feel that way.”
  • “Why can’t you do anything right?”
  • “I have to do everything around here.”
  • “Do you see what I put up with?”

How do any of those statements communicate value and respect? Each of them conveys the thought that I am better than you. That’s not valuing each other.

When I value someone, I want to hear their opinions and understand their feelings. I may not agree with their conclusions, but at least I’m demonstrating respect.

Rule 4: Be the First to Repair

The bible says, “Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed.” James 5:16

Be the first to confess when you blow it.

We all say things in the heat of the moment that we know are wrong. I learned about repairs from marriage researcher, Dr. John Gottman. His research found that doing the right kind of damage control helps couples to have a better resolution.

This means quickly apologizing and taking ownership of your poor behaviors.

It can be statements like:

  • “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have said that.”
  • “Can I take that back?”
  • “I’m getting a little worked up. Can we start again?”
  • “I know this is a tough subject, but I want to work through it with you.”
  • “That was really hurtful, wasn’t it? I didn’t mean that.”

Anything that de-escalates an argument and helps to restore connection can help.

Rule 5: Take a Time Out

Taking a break can be very healthy. When your emotions become overwhelming, it is almost impossible to think straight. Our anger can cause us to strike out and say or do things that don’t demonstrate value.

When this happens, take a time out. A great rule for fair fighting is to agree that you will take a break when you get to this point.

Here’s the key – you HAVE to come back and talk about it. Otherwise, you risk disconnection.

Rule 6: Identify Your Patterns

Couple conflict tends to follow regular patterns. In other words, we fight the same way, regardless of the topic.

Michelle and I used to follow this pattern:

Michelle Phil
Michelle gets upset and criticizes. Phil gets defensive.
Michelle criticizes again. Phil dismisses her feelings or opinions and tells her why she’s wrong.
Michelle criticizes again. Phil tells her to talk calmly.
Michelle shuts down. Phil forgets about it and thinks it’s resolved.

We were able to recognize this pattern and understand that this was causing us to be distant from each other. When that happened, we started to change the pattern. I made sure to listen and treat her emotions as valuable, even when I disagreed. When she felt listened to, she was able to listen to my response. We were able to work things out.

We don’t always agree, but at least it doesn’t cause distance and disconnection.

Rule 7: Understand Your Emotional Triggers

In conflict, we often react to something that we hear. Often, our partner says something that triggers something deep inside of us.

These triggers are often based on assumptions and beliefs that come from our upbringing or from past relationships. They can include deep feelings inside of us such as abandonment, belonging, self-worth, etc.

My reaction to Michelle’s emotions was a trigger inside of me. Michelle’s emotions caused me to flip into logic in order to control my own feelings. The more emotions I felt inside, the more I tended to sooth them by reacting with analysis.

We often ask couples about their emotional triggers. What causes you react in that way?

The more I understood myself and the more I understood Michelle’s triggers, the better we were able to repair our fights, value each other and restore connection.

Tips for Marriage Mentors:

  • They are Not You – What works for you may not work for them. Share what works for you, but keep an open mind.
  • What Shows Value and Respect? In the midst of an argument, what would each person like to hear?
  • Help a Couple Figure Out What Works – Each person will have their own triggers. What does it take to calm those fears and insecurities?