12 Tips for Couples Who Fight, According to Therapists
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If you’ve clicked on this article about fighting fair, there’s a chance it’s a skill you’d like to strengthen. Maybe you’re someone who never argues because you think the easiest path to harmony is never voicing concerns. Or maybe you’re quick-tempered, and small disagreements often turn into all-out war. Well, no matter what type of fighter you are, there’s probably some advice for you here.
Whether you fight a lot or not at all, it’s important to remember the following: Disagreements are a natural part of relating to others. In fact, occasional conflicts “actually deepen relationships, if you can have them with empathy,” Marisa G. Franco, Ph.D., counseling psychologist and friendship expert, tells SELF. “Our relationships reach a whole new level of intimacy when we realize that we can be truthful and upfront about [issues], even when it comes to hard things.”
However, the key is to fight with the same care and intention you use to express love. Below, relationship therapists share 12 tips to help with fighting fair.
1. Take a breath.
If you’re mad as hell (and you’re not going to take it anymore), one of the best things you can do is try to take a deep breath and remind yourself of your ultimate goal here. You might practice diaphragmatic breathing, which activates your rest-and-digest response (the opposite of a stress response). For instance, you can put one hand on your chest and the other on your stomach. Then breathe in and out slowly through your nose. Doing this gives you an opportunity to calm down and see the situation more holistically. “Zoom out and consider the other person’s needs alongside your own,” Dr. Franco says. “If I am someone who can zoom out and say, ‘This is what my partner needs, this is what I need, and this is what makes sense for both of us right now,’ you’ll approach the conflict more like a team,” Dr. Franco says.
2. Consider scheduling your conflict conversation.
A solid way to avoid an unfair fight is to tell your partner that you’d like to discuss a particular problem in advance—it’s the opposite of an ambush. Emily Jamea, Ph.D., L.M.F.T., tells SELF that casually setting aside time to discuss specific issues allows your partner to think about them too. In doing this, they can (hopefully) approach the conversation with vulnerability instead of feeling attacked. Another idea? Settling disagreements via email can give partners time to organize their thoughts and articulate them with compassion, SELF previously reported.
3. Stick to the issue.
In the heat of the moment, it’s tempting to pack every single issue you’ve ever experienced into one epic fight. This is, er, overwhelming for the person you’re arguing with, and it’s not a productive way to talk about why you’re actually mad. Instead of “kitchen-sinking,” it’s better to stay focused on the one point you want to address, Dr. Jamea says, especially if the goal is to get to a workable solution.
4. Don’t fight to win.
After you remind yourself that you and your partner are on the same team, it’s helpful to try and suspend the urge to defeat your partner in battle. Your relationship isn’t “a dictatorship, and it’s not really a democracy because there are two of you, so that leaves you with a compromise,” Dr. Jamea explains. (Even if there are more than two of you in your relationship, compromise is the best way to make sure all parties feel heard.) “You want to ask yourself how balanced compromise feels in the grand scheme of your relationship,” Dr. Jamea says. Real winning will probably involve working together.
5. Try to be receptive to each other’s concerns.
Perhaps your partner approaches you about an issue they’re having, and they want to discuss it. Or maybe you’ve come to the argument all riled up, but your partner has a solid explanation. No matter who is talking, it can be hard to remain open and receptive when you’re upset.
“When we blow off our partner, minimize their concerns, or we’re dismissive about [what they’re saying], they’ll end up having to bring it up to us several times,” Dr. Jamea says. “And every time they bring it up, it might get louder and louder,” which can turn a minor issue into a significant relationship problem. Instead of dismissing concerns or ignoring them, try to take a deep breath and listen to what your partner is saying (even when it’s hard).
6. Repeat what you’re hearing.
One of the best ways to remain open is to repeat your partner’s statements so that they feel heard, understood, and can clarify if necessary, Dr. Franco says. So you might say, “What I’m hearing is that you feel upset when you ask me to do something around the house and I never follow through.” This small tip allows each of you to strive for mutual understanding and common ground. It’s also helpful when things get tense, Dr. Franco says. Sometimes hearing something back can be enough to interrupt someone’s tendency to say something hurtful.
7. Use “I statements.”
This is a go-to for any difficult conversation. When you frame unfavorable feedback about the other person, it can come off as critical instead of constructive. Using statements that focus on you can help the comments feel less harsh. Before you get too creative with “I statements,” note that they shouldn’t include things like “I hate it when…” Instead, try phrases like, “When X happens, I feel Y.” This doesn’t eliminate all possible tension, but it can help your partner understand how you might be experiencing certain behaviors without coming off as unnecessarily judgmental or critical.
8. Find common ground.
As we’ve mentioned, listening closely and asking if you’re hearing your partner correctly can help keep your disagreements constructive. Another tip? Acknowledge when you agree with (or at least understand) where the other person is coming from. “Typically, when we unpack thoughts and feelings we have around a certain issue, we can identify areas that we overlap,” Dr. Jamea explains. “And if we do that, it’s easier to compromise and come up with a solution.”
9. Leave snark and name-calling at the door.
This might seem like a no-brainer, but common sense can disappear when tempers flare. To that end, try to refrain from hitting below-the-belt or speaking in diminishing, disrespectful, or downright abusive ways. Being a jerk might feel satisfying in the moment, but it detracts from any resolution you’re aiming for, and it can cause lasting relationship damage. If things get nasty during a fight, try the next tip…
10. Take a break (but don’t just leave).
We know how hard it is to maintain composure in tense moments—especially if you have a history of losing your cool. Still, it might help to take a very loving, caring, and intentional break if things devolve. Before we explain what this looks like, let’s be clear: Taking a break isn’t storming out in mid-sentence and slamming the door while your partner begs you to stay.
What is taking a break? “If we are in a place where the conflict has escalated, and we’re stressed…being able to say something like, ‘Hey, it seems like we’re getting really stressed. Why don’t we come back to this conversation in X amount of time’ can be helpful,” Dr. Franco says. Taking a break might seem easy, but it takes a lot of maturity to pull off. “You need to be able to identify what your feelings are, ask for a break, and give a specific timeframe for when you’re returning,” Dr. Franco says. “That’s how you take a break and also show concern and love for the relationship.”
11. Set “fair fight” boundaries.
One way to make taking breaks easier is to set some nonnegotiable “fair fight boundaries” before your next fight. These might include zero tolerance for name-calling, aggression, or anything else that makes both parties uncomfortable. If setting clear boundaries sounds extreme, remember that these are guidelines to help you both maintain the respect required for a genuinely constructive discussion. “Boundaries are not punitive,” Dr. Jamea explains. “They’re what we set in place to protect ourselves emotionally.”
12. Consider an aftercare ritual.
Aftercare is a BDSM practice that helps people who’ve been participating in a kink scene find a way to transition out of their roles. While this might sound like a perfect technique to use during sex, it can be useful after difficult conversations, too, Liz Powell, Ph.D., psychologist and author of Building Open Relationships, previously told SELF. Aftercare might involve make-up sex, a period of handholding, hugging in silence, or simply asking each other questions designed to restore a bit of intimacy and connection (without rehashing the argument). “Any time you’re having a strong emotional response, something that looks like a version of aftercare could be helpful,” Dr. Powell explained.
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