• Give Your Relationship a Fighting Chance: 23 Tips to Fight Fair and Effectively

    Dr. Gary Brown, Marriage and Couples therapy and counseling

    It goes without saying that even in the best of relationships, there are going to be inevitable conflicts. This is perfectly normal and natural.

    Sometimes our disagreements with each other can escalate into arguments, and we experience intense hurt, scared, and angry thoughts and emotions.

    When discussions turn into full-on arguments, is where things can get more than painful – we can actually do damage to each other. That is why it is so incredibly important to learn how to fight fairly.

    It’s also important to know your particular fighting style. Do you tend to avoid conflict altogether even if it means selling yourself short? Is even the idea of a disagreement so painful that you sit in silence or quietly withdraw, even though you are suffering because nothing has been resolved?

    Or do you declare all-out thermonuclear war as a way of intimidating and dominating someone, just so that you can get “the win”?

    Either way, if you give up too easily or wage war, things are probably not going too well for you right now. There are other ways that couples can use that are healthier where both of you can win.

    Learning how to fight fairly can not only help you and your partner resolve conflicts in a healthy way, it can actually help each of you expand your ability to love and respect one another. So, let’s start with some of the typical issues that arise in a fight.

    What is the real issue when we fight?

    Hint: Anger isn’t the real issue.

    It’s also important to understand the following as it relates to a fight: those strong feelings of anger you feel towards the other person are not what I call the “primary emotions,” which is usually feeling sad, hurt, or scared. These are more vulnerable emotions and sometimes we get so scared of these emotions that we automatically get triggered and become defensive.

    Actually, anger is what I refer to as a “secondary emotion” that serves as a defense against the more vulnerable emotions of feeling hurt, sad, or scared. We actually get angry because we initially feel threatened. Only when we can get to that place of vulnerability between the two of us, can we gain any real understanding and true empathy for the other.

    To help you get to a better place when things get heated, here are my Top 23 Ways to Resolve Conflicts.

    The end goal is to turn an argument into a discussion – and a discussion that hopefully leads to a resolution that you can both feel good about.

    23 Tips to Help Resolve a Conflict

    Following these tips can dramatically increase the chances that you will both come out on the other end stronger than before and hopefully closer, if not always in agreement, at least in understanding.

    1. Focus on one issue at a time

    If you want to improve your chances of resolving a conflict, most people find that their odds of a satisfying outcome are significantly enhanced if you can stick to just one issue at a time.

    Here are some typical questions to ask yourself that can help you get some clarity with all of this:

    “What is bothering me right now?”

    “Why is this important to me?”

    “Why is this issue coming to a head now?”

    “What am I hoping to accomplish?”

    “What is my goal? What resolution can I accept…and what is not acceptable?”

    “What am I willing to compromise on?”

    Of course, sometimes we build up a critical mass because we have held on to many complaints, only to bring them all up at the same time. This can happen to any of us. If you are having an argument, have an agreement between the two of you that you are going to tackle one issue at a time.

    Agree to move on only after you have both come to as much resolution as possible on the first issue. If you can’t resolve one issue, simply acknowledge that – table it for now – and move on to the next issue if there are more than one you are trying to deal with.

    2. Schedule the fight

    Many fights appear to happen spontaneously and seem to come out of nowhere and with little or no warning. At other times, you may know when something is bothering you.

    If that’s the case and you feel the need to talk about it long before your emotions erupt, simply give your partner a heads-up. Ask him/her, when is a good time to discuss the issue. Then get it on the calendar. It could be in 30 minutes, later in the day, or over the weekend.

    This time lag gives you both a better opportunity to enter the conversation at a time when you’re not tired, drunk, hungry, or distracted. You’ve both had time to think about the issue at hand and can come to the table with level heads and give it your full attention.

    3. One person at a time

    If your true goal is to resolve conflict, it’s absolutely vital that both of you feel heard. The best way to do that is to agree that each person gets to speak – uninterrupted – no matter how intense the feelings on either side.

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    Agreeing that each of you speaks one at a time, will help each of you to feel heard. This is vital to not only helping you resolve your conflicts and is just a smart thing to do every time you and your partner interact on a daily basis.

    Almost all couples find that doing this can actually help prevent an argument, or at the very least, lessen the impact.

    4. Don’t make a major life decision during a fight

    I really cannot emphasize this point too strongly. I’ve seen the ugly result of people ending a relationship in the middle of a fight and the human debris in the wake of a hasty decision.

    Unless you are in a domestic violence situation and your immediate safety is an issue, don’t make any decision to leave. Decisions made in the heat of battle are usually not well thought out and can do real damage.

    5. Don’t keep score

    Only discuss the issue you’ve scheduled; if something else comes up, table it for another time. Bringing up old stuff or laying out more than two or three examples will make your partner respond defensively and that’s when things heat up. Stay on topic and stay in the present.

    6. Allow for “Time Outs”

    Are any ‘How I Met Your Mother’ fans here? Remember, Lilly and Marshall? When they were having fights and things got too heated they would call a “time out” and resume the argument at a later time. This is absolutely acceptable.

    When emotions run high for too long, we are more likely to just throw in the towel and say whatever it takes to end the fight, or worse, say something we don’t mean in very hurtful ways. If you don’t take a timeout, you might strike out at your partner by saying something that would do damage.

    So, yes, on occasion, it’s ok to go to bed upset. Sleep on it. Calm down. Sober up. Just remember, before you call the break, schedule a time to return to the issue you have agreed to focus on.

    Remember this critical tip: If things get too heated, ideally you need to have made an agreement with each other, IN ADVANCE, that you are going to walk away until both of you have calmed done.

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    It can be as simple as agreeing to go in separate rooms to give yourselves some time and a wall between you, to help the cooling-off process. Not taking a timeout in the heat of the moment, can lead to saying things where one or both of you are “hitting below the belt.” You want to avoid this at all costs.

    The advantage of agreeing to take a timeout IN ADVANCE is that by walking away you won’t be escalating the argument and wind up saying or doing something that could result in long-term and possibly irreparable damage to your relationship.

    In these situations, taking a timeout to cool off, is not cowardly. The opposite is usually true. It’s the smart play.

    7. Fight to learn, not to win

    You have to ask yourself a question, “Is it more important to be close to my partner or is it more important for me to win?” I’m not saying that you should sell your soul for what I call “false makeup” to a fight. What I am saying, is that if you value being right more than you value being close, then there are likely other issues that you may need help with.

    And remember this: if you fight to win, that means your partner loses — and we’re not keeping score, remember? Use the argument to learn and grow in your relationship. You cannot change your partner, only yourself. So, keep the goal focused on learning why your partner continues that annoying habit, rather than on changing it.

    If you’re not sure what’s motivating you in a fight, ask yourself, “What’s more important right now: being right or being close?” Sometimes the initial answer may not be obvious. That’s part of learning how to argue.

    8. Don’t hit below the belt

    If you find yourself wanting to win so badly that you are hitting the other person “below the belt,” then you are likely causing not just emotional pain for them, but it is likely that you are actually doing damage to that person.

    Powerful words that can actually cause damage often relate to someone’s physical appearance, sexual performance, a financial reversal that was out of their control, or anything else that can cause the other person to feel deeply hurt, humiliated and ashamed. If your tone is particularly nasty, the damage will likely be even greater.

    In order to prevent damage, set the following intention before any fight with anyone in your life: No matter how angry I become, I refuse to hit them below the belt in any way that could really damage their self-esteem.

    9. Actually, no hitting at all

    Both of you simply have to agree that no matter how bad things are, no matter how physical you are feeling, you simply are not going to use physical violence…ever.

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    10. Keep your fights behind closed doors

    What you and your partner fight about is between you and them — no one else. This is important for so many reasons, namely maintaining trust in your relationship. If your partner fears you’ll be blabbing to your friends/family about something (especially on social media), they will start to hold back and create distance.

    Furthermore, while you’re out telling the town about your fights, you’re painting a picture of your relationship for everyone — is it one you want them to see? Now, this doesn’t mean keeping everything bottled up between you two; just be selective about what and how much you’re telling and to whom. And, of course, be aware of your intention. Are you trying to get others to take sides? Are you giving a balanced view?

    11. Talk only for yourself and let your partner talk for themselves

    Try focusing on your experience before, during, and after a fight. You’ve probably heard this before: it’s best to use “I” statements when fighting with your partner. “I feel…,” “I think…” instead of “You always…” or “You never…” Acknowledge your feelings and theirs by repeating back to your partner what you just heard them say. “I” statements help keep your defensiveness at bay and still get your feelings across.

    We all want to be heard. If you have the presence of mind to do this, agree with each other that both of you will each get at least five minutes at some point in the fight where just one of you speaks about what is happening for you.

    The person who is listening waits for the first person to speak, and then repeats back what they think they heard. Saying: “Did I hear you right when you said…?” Asking this simple question may likely help clarify any misunderstandings.

    Once the first person speaks, then reverse the process and the person who was the first listener now gets to speak. It’s important to remember not to interrupt the other person.

    Remember: the idea is not necessarily to initially agree or disagree. The idea is for each of you to be heard without judging the other person. It’s about creating safety and trust between the two of you when you do disagree or have a major misunderstanding.

    12. Keep it out of the bedroom

    Your bedroom is predominantly for three things: a refuge, for sleep, and romance.

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    Treat your bedroom as a sacred place. Period. If your partner insists, just say “No. Not here.”

    13. Compromise but don’t sell out your “must haves”

    You know how to push your partner’s buttons. You know what really sets them off and what they are insecure about. Bringing it up might end the fight really quickly (notice, I didn’t say “positively”). Those items have no business in your argument. In fact, it’s a surefire way to escalate the fight immediately. Take the high road instead and when it’s time to make a compromise, be the first to make a concession.

    14. Leave your kids out of it

    The wisest thing to do is to keep your kids out of the crossfire.

    If there are children in your relationship, absolutely never make any major decisions in front of the kids, and never ever make threats regarding the kids: e.g. “I’ll take the kids, and you’ll never see them again.”

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    Furthermore, if a spontaneous fight starts in front of the kids, they need to see that the fight has been resolved.

    If you weren’t able to avoid the impulses of the moment, and you find yourself fighting in front of your kids, just be sure to resolve it in front of them, too. This way your children see there is a healthy way to argue with people you love.

    15. An old-school tip

    There’s an old saying that so many couples I work with have found very helpful for the vast majority of fights. It’s this: “Never go to bed angry.”

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    Maybe you can’t fully embrace each other but at least try to touch your toes. It can be a nice ice-breaker.

    16. Set Your Own Rules

    This list can be a great start, but you may also want to set some rules that are specific to you and your partner. Maybe you set a time limit for each person to talk and say what they need to say before you move on to the compromise stage. Maybe you agree that once you’ve reached your compromise, you’ll try it for a week and schedule another time to see if it’s working. Try experimenting with different approaches and see what works for you.

    17. Ask for Help

    If you feel like you and your partner can’t fight fair or that you are but you’re not getting the resolution you are seeking, you may be feeling stuck. This happens in the best of relationships. If you’re feeling like you’ve tried everything, and your relationship needs some help, simply ask for some professional advice. Of course, you don’t want to get into a situation where your relationship becomes toxic or continues to stay toxic.

    18. Time alone does not always heal all wounds

    The longer you wait to resolve a fight, the more likely that hurt feelings can turn into resentment and even bitterness. We call this “gunny-sacking.” This is when you begin to store up unresolved arguments and emotionally carry them like a sack over your shoulder.

    Over time, gunny-sacking acts like rust on your relationship. And in the immortal words of Neil Young, “…rust never sleeps.” It just silently corrodes your relationship.

    The sooner you try to resolve your conflict, the quicker the two of you can get some understanding of what happened, and truly move on.

    19. No texting while fighting!

    It may be tempting in the heat of battle to try and resolve an argument via texting. My strongest advice would be to NOT try this. Why? Because there’s just way too much room for misunderstanding when trying to resolve an argument using text.

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    The smart move is to flat out refuse to fight over text. Instead, tell your partner that you are setting a boundary here and that you will deal with this in person, or at the very least, on the phone. That way you can at least hear the tone of their voice which is impossible to do over text.

    Refuse to fight over text. Ask your partner to make an agreement that neither of you will initiate or respond to a fight over text.

    In the end, it is more likely that both of you will be thankful that you communicated with each other more personally.

    20. Don’t take it to social media

    If you really want to do some serious damage to your partner – and also have it boomerang back on you – then take your argument public on social media. Yes. I know. It may be tempting to want to tell the world what a jerk your partner is being right now.

    Just remember, once you do it’s out there for everyone to see – it’s there permanently. Don’t think that because you later decide to delete it from Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter you’re safe.

    Do you really want to take the chance that someone hasn’t taken a screenshot for posting later or to use it in a way that will be embarrassing for you or your partner once the dust is settled? I’m guessing that if you really think about it, not so much. In the end, it will likely make you look as bad, if not worse than your significant other.

    Instead, try another tip in this article, and find a trusted friend who will be discreet and who will give you honest and objective feedback – which you may or may not want to hear.

    21. Makeup sex is great – except when it isn’t

    Sex after a big fight can be simply awesome – assuming that the fight is really over. Having makeup sex when the fight really isn’t over can really do damage. It can feel fake – because it is.

    Some partners will try to have makeup sex as a way to resolve the fight. That usually doesn’t work. The unfinished business you had that led to the argument is still going to be there.

    It’s much better to acknowledge that things aren’t resolved and if you are still in the heat of battle, having sex is like saying, “Hey, it’s ok if you treated me like crap and hurt my feelings. Let’s have sex and that will make everything go away.” It’s what therapists sometimes refer to as a “fake resolution.”

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    It is infinitely better to wait until things are resolved and then have makeup sex. Why? Because it’s so much more fulfilling that way because you are now truly free to let go into your passion for each other.

    22. Be gracious and accept a sincere apology

    Accepting a sincere apology is important to the healing process at the end of an argument. Of course, the operative word is “sincere.”

    Here are a couple of points to consider when making or receiving an apology.

    Sincere apology. This is when we offer or receive a heartfelt apology. We feel true remorse and take steps to not continue doing what we are apologizing for. A sincere apology comes from a place of love.

    Fake apology. A fake apology is just that. It’s that classic apology that really isn’t an apology. It isn’t sincere. Often it is used to prematurely end an argument. The problem is that it doesn’t really resolve anything. It may be that the person is apologizing just to be polite or they feel guilty.

    A classic “fake apology” that really isn’t an apology is when the person says, “I’m sorry you feel that way,” as opposed to a sincere apology when the person says, “I want to acknowledge that what I said (or did) has hurt your feelings, and I am so sorry that I did that.”

    23. After the fight

    Of course, you’re not going to start journaling in the middle of an argument. So many have found it helpful to wait until the initial dust settles a bit, and then put your thoughts about what just happened on paper, or in Notes.

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    So many of my clients have told me that this is one of the best tips to use after a fight. Writing about what happened helps us to do a deep dive into what triggered the fight, the impact of the fight on yourself and your relationship, and things that you may come up with to help repair the relationship, or make other decisions if needed.

    Just remember, you don’t want to be making any major decisions during the fight or in the immediate aftermath unless you are in a domestic violence situation.

    Ultimately, writing helps us get some perspective because we are not caught up in the immediate emotions of the moment.

    I help couples navigate conflict regularly. You’re not alone. You’re human. If what you are doing has not been working, simply reach out for professional support.

    I hope that this article was helpful to you. We all need help throughout our lives, and this may be one of those times. Please feel to reach out. I would be more than happy to offer you a free 15-minute phone consultation to help you navigate through a difficult time.

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