The Formula for Fair Fighting
You and I Equal Respect
Author: Lynne Namka, Ed. D.
Conflict, confrontation, arguments! When do we ever win them? Why is it so difficult to disagree with others and come out feeling good about it? Why do we hate to be in the hot seat? Why does fighting with someone else make us feel so rotten? Maurice and Joan found themselves talking less and less to each other after their retirement. Formerly satisfied with their marriage when both had active careers, now they avoiding talking about things that upset them because they ended up fighting over the smallest things. The retirement years that they had long waited for were turning into a nightmare because of conflict. They were caught in a continual struggle for power and control resulting in an guerrilla style of fighting.
Fights happen when we feel threatened about something that is important to us. Otherwise with the painfulness of conflict, we would be willing to let go of the issue. Some of our values, attitudes or possessions are challenged making us feel that our basic self esteem is threatened. We take a defensive stand and come out swinging. Unfortunately few of us know how to fight in a productive way. We have learned rules for fighting from those people who did not know how to express themselves in constructive ways–our parents. When we are challenged, we often revert back to our little child self, hurt and angry. We simply perpetuate poor communication habits because we do not know how to do anything different.
But wait! Research and family systems theory to the rescue! Here is what current psychology has to say about approaching the tricky problem of getting what you want without beating up yourself and your mate. Here are some ideas that will help you reduce heated arguments and stay on the track of figuring out what will be the best for both of you.
- Don’t let things fester inside. Anger must be expressed or it will build up. Schedule arguments ahead of time when you feel the pressure building up. Agree before hand that there are some things that you can disagree on (opinions on politics, personal interests and beliefs.) Other things must be worked through (how to raise the children, spend money, how you would like to be treated, etc..) Determine which category your topic falls in.
- Chose a time when you will not be distracted by family members, guests or television and when you both are relatively relaxed. Sit face to face and keep eye contact at the same level. Make a contract to discuss the issue of concern only and agree to avoid those ways of acting that sabotage problem solving. Make a commitment to use the rules of fair fighting.
- Express what is going on to the best of your ability. Talk feelings. Tell the person how you feel about what is going on. Feeling first, solutions later. Get your point across in a constructive way by owning how you feel about the topic. Use the formula sentence, When you _____, I feel ____ . This simple statement allows you to take responsibility for your own feelings and behavior without blaming the other person.
Learning to use this feeling statement to express your emotions helps you stay in the present and keeps you real. Practice this sentence over and over in times when you are not angry so that it becomes part of your vocabulary. Sharing of feelings increases intimacy. Avoid sentences that begin with You always…. Don’t tell the other person what they always do in a blaming way, but focus on what you want to have happen. Keep coming back to the I feel formula that helps you own your own feelings. Talk feelings, talk feelings, talk feelings!
- Allow the other person’s feelings to come out. Do not discount the other person’s feelings by saying, You should not feel that way. All feelings of anger, disgust, jealously, despair, etc. are human and need to be expressed. Bottled up feelings that are uncomfortable will only serve to make the problem worse as resentment and bitterness increase.
- Show the other person that you really heard what he or she said. Repeat back what the other person just said. Say I heard that you said ______ and what I feel about that is __________. Listen for the feelings of hurt and threat behind their statements. Ask the other person for clarification if you do not understand what they are saying.
- Take turns talking. No monologues allowed. You should be able to make your point in less than a minute or two. Any longer turns into a lecture and You always or you should ____ which are blaming statements. Make sure the other person is listening. Only one person should speak at a time. Healthy conversation is like playing toss and catch. One person speaks and one person listens. Go back and forth with the conversational ball. Take turns talking.
- Stick to the topic. Do not bring in other sore issues. Agree to discuss the pertinent topic only saying, We are discussing______, not ________ Watch for ways you get off the track. Keep coming back to the issue under discussion.
- Stop using techniques that turn up the heat and move you both away from problem solving. Blaming, name calling, threatening, foul language and sarcasm decrease intimacy. Young children believe what they hear their parents saying. They are devastated when they overhear these forms of verbal abuse. These ways of communicating cut down on the possibility of your getting what you want out of the argument.
Take out blame statements and name calling. No problem is ever solved by telling the other person how bad they are. Name calling causes the person to revert back to their behavior and feelings they had as a little child when their parents scolded them. It either renders them helpless or makes them more angry. Name calling, criticism and blaming only perpetuate the problem.
Watch your use of cursing. Cursing adds negative energy to the confrontation placing the other person in danger of feeling shame. Cuss words are like waving a red flag at a bull and increase the heat of the argument. Know that your use of cuss works only shuts the other person down and that they feel the need to defend themselves further.
Do not make empty threats. Do not threaten to leave the relationship or order the other person to get out unless you really mean it. Threatening to break up the relationship only brings up more fear and defensiveness in the other person.
Stop using statements of sarcasm. Sarcasm is a learned habit of moving away from problem solving. Sarcasm is a form of dishonesty as you say one thing but mean another. It is a technique of distraction moving away from the issue at hand.
- Watch for ways you withdraw from the argument. Withdrawal from conflict is one of the most common reasons for causing a relationship to fail. Nothing is ever solved by leaving the issue hanging and both partners are left in feelings of hopelessness due to lack of closure.
The typical pattern is that men withdrawal and women push for more discussion. Another typical pattern is that women become compliant. They do not carry the topic through to closure but give up because feelings of helplessness and what’s the use creep in.
- Schedule breathing breaks, or set a timer for every two or three minutes for a breathing break. During this time do not think of the argument and what you want to say. Think of being calm and relaxed. Say to yourself I respect my partner and his or her opinions. I respect myself and my opinions. When you start to become confused or upset, breathe deeply from your diaphragm to bring in more energy and stay centered.
- Watch your need to be right and win. Remember the quote from The Course In Miracles, Do you want to be right or do you want to be happy. Tell the other person what you do want. Remember that you won’t always get it but you need to express what you feel is best for you. Keep coming back to what you want but be ready to compromise. Stand firm only on those decisions which compromise your integrity as a person.
- Offer compromises. Stop investing in winning and using power plays and figure out what is really important to you. Tell the other person what you will give up if they give up something of value to them. Keep the negotiation open. Stop every five minutes to sum up what you do agree on and note where the disagreements still lie.
Make notes if necessary. Remind yourself and your partner about the importance of fighting fairly. See how you respond and cope when you feel threatened.
- Observe your patterns of coping with conflict by becoming compliant, using blame or withdrawing. Observe how you go for the jugular vein of the other person in attempts to get your way. Note how you are willing to attack your partner’s vulnerable areas and make the conscious choice to stop doing this. Challenge yourself to change your own pattern of dysfunctional communication. When you slip off into changing the topic, name calling, sarcasm, withdrawal or compliance, state it to you partner, Look, I found myself doing _____. Make a commitment to break the dysfunctional pattern and stick to the positive ways of communicating. Keep coming back to the topic. Bring conflict back to the expressing of feelings level and willingness to negotiate.
These are the basic rules for staying clean while you disagree with someone. Now go to your corners and come out fighting! Fair fighting only!
Hold practice sessions with your partner to learn these stick to the topic and fight fair rules. Practice on topics that are not highly emotionally involved for both of you. Focus on improving your communication style instead of trying to win fights. Remember you, like everyone else, have had years of practice in the ways of dysfunctional communication. Keep asking yourself, Do I want to increase intimacy with my partner or do I want to win? What do I really want? Put your energy into problem solving at all times. Put your energy into learning about yourself and your partner.
When the discussion is over, evaluate yourself on how you did. Don’t be a critical judge about your performance. Remember that you are learning new ways of acting. Be gentle with yourself. Give yourself credit for every time you remembered to fight fair. Make a contract with yourself on areas that you still need to change. Learning to fight fair is about self responsibility!
If you hear your parents speak through your voice when you are upset, you may be projecting your parents style of fighting on your mate. Projection is a style of slipping back into the past because of unresolved childhood issues. When you project, you confuse unresolved anger felt at your parents with your mate. There are techniques of hypnosis that can help you break projecting your anger at your parent on your current partner. If you have difficulty following these rules and your anger is highly irrational or so highly threatened by conflict that you avoid it at any costs, then you are operating out of the dictates of the unconscious mind. If applying these fair fighting techniques on your own does not work, then you may need some professional help to help you break old behavior patterns that stem from childhood.
Recent research shows that couples break up because they do not know how to resolve their differences through communication. Hostility only breeds more hostility. Venting the negative emotions may clear the air temporarily, but it does not solve the underlying problem and serves to make it worse. Backing away from the conflict and ignoring it only sends each partner into secretiveness, withdraw and isolation. The message becomes clear–the couple that fights together stays together happily only if they use the techniques of conflict resolution.
Becoming an observer of yourself during times of confrontation can give you realms of information about your defensiveness. Defensiveness is only a signal that you need to learn about how you protect yourself when you are threatened. You can learn about yourself and your patterns of coping with threat and ways to stay present and centered during disagreements. Bringing a problem to resolution and closure through continued discussion and compromise is an honorable act as it shows respect for the needs of both partners. Learning to fight fair and keep communication open can be an opportunity for growth for you as an individual and can increase the intimacy between you and your partner.