Fair Fighting Rules for Couples

Fair Fighting Rules for Couples

Rules to help couples manage conflict fairly, safely and productively.

Many of the couples I see have found that it is helpful to use the following guidelines in managing their conflict. Sticking to these rules makes it possible to change conflict from a feared, avoided or destructive force in the relationship to one that is useful and productive, if not always completely relaxing! Conflict is inevitable and healthy if it leads to the resolution of problems as opposed to aggravating them.

Many of these rules are taken from the work of Dr G Bach, who wrote a number of books and journal articles on Couple aggression and conflict. He developed a system for helping couples called “Fair Fight Training.” Since then many therapists and researchers have taken this work further and explored what it is about managing conflict that differentiates between successful and unsuccessful relationships. (see eg www.selfhelpmagazine.com )

I’ve found that some of the most helpful characteristics of successful couples are:

  1. That both partners accept that they and their loved one are human, can make mistakes and are not perfect,
  2. Both partners are committed to resolving the issue and accept that they are responsible for this, and furthermore,
  3. That they are responsible for managing their own feelings (ie it doesn’t matter what the partner said to trigger their feelings, they are still responsible for how they deal with their feelings).
  4. Both are committed to achieving what is best for the relationship and willing to compromise within reason.
  5. Both are committed to achieving what is best for the relationship and willing to compromise within reason.
  6. Spend as much time on trying to listen and understand as they do on talking and being understood.

From my own experience I have distilled some of the essential guidelines to help couples “fight fairly.”

  1. Choose one issue, be as specific about it as possible (stick to facts) and stay with it.
  2. Listen to each other!!!!! Try to listen to the other’s experience without judging whether they are right or wrong. It helps if you say how you feel rather than pointing fingers at the other (see 4 below). Your feelings and experience are simply your feelings and experience - very important in the relationship, but not the final truth, or right or wrong.
  3. Violence of any form is not acceptable (physical violence to the other; punching doors and walls; throwing things; other acts or words of intimidation or threats; verbal personal insults or demeaning statements). It helps if you can both take responsibility for staying reasonably calm. You both absolutely need to feel physically and emotionally safe if you are to stay connected to each other and the issue.
  4. Choose a safe and private space by mutual consent and agree that you will both stay in the space until the discussion is over.
  5. However, agree that if one of you feels they’re about to “lose it” and can’t control yourself any more, you’ll allow “time out” to cool down. You can come back within 10 - 20 minutes. You want to avoid escalating towards the old stuck patterns, especially if one of you’ve been triggered. Also avoid spending your time during “time-out” planning how to get back at your partner! Use the “WIN formula” below. Tell your partner that you’re being triggered, what you’re going to do to clear your mind (eg take a walk) and when you’ll be back (eg 15 minutes), and make sure that are back in that time.
  6. Listen Listen Listen!!!!!!! One of Steven Covey‘s 7 habits of highly effective people is to “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” Most of us are so preoccupied with what we want to say that we don’t focus on what the other is saying. This also means allowing the speaker to finish.
  7. It’s easier to be clear and to the point if you stay focused on the current issue and avoid dredging up the past. Don’t go off on a tangent into other issues.
  8. The flip side of allowing the speaker to finish is to ensure that when you are speaking, you don’t go on too long.
  9. No fair fighting if either party has used drugs or alcohol, or after 10pm.
  10. Related to 1, no name calling such as “you are stupid/an idiot/always ……….. If you feel strongly about something use the “WIN formula” “When you ………I feel ………………. And I’d like it if we could find a New way of dealing with this……” (ie what you Need from your partner). Then give them a chance to respond.
  11. Don’t use unresolved family-of-origin issues and other factors as a weapon against your partner. Avoid sweeping generalisations (“you’re just like your mother;” “I can’t ever trust you to do anything properly”) - successful conflict management requires mutual respect.
  12. Avoid blaming - trying to prove that one person is at fault doesn’t help anything. Rather use “I speech” and WIN eg “I feel …………when you ………….
  13. At the same time, if you know you are/were wrong, promptly admit it. Human beings are the only species that waste energy trying to make other people wrong - we would rather be right than happy! One characteristic of successful relationships is that both parties accept that it’s ok to disagree and even have very different views on some things. As 2 adult individuals you are bound to disagree at times.
  14. It also helps if you can learn to catch yourself when you’re being defensive - and if you acknowledge it so much the better.
  15. Listen Listen Listen!!!!! Or at the very least notice when you are reacting without having properly heard what the other is saying.
  16. Between the 2 of you set your own ground rules - you might want to stick to all these rules, adapt a few of them or add your own.
  17. At the end of the fair fight each state your understanding of the resolution to ensure that you have an agreed understanding. Acknowledge each other for reaching closure. If you can’t reach closure then agree to address it further after a bit of reflection. Sometimes you may need professional help to reach a resolution or to respectively agree to disagree.
  18. In your relationship don’t avoid addressing issues - they will only fester and swell. Sometimes we may need a therapist to make this easier, safer and more productive.