How to Fight Fairly with Your Spouse (or anyone else)

olive chan —  April 5, 2012 — 9 Comments

When Tim proposed to me, he gave me a set of boxing gloves.  I remember opening up the gift and being quite shocked.  Was this his idea of being romantic?  Then I read the written note attached to them: “Our relationship has had its share of fights, challenges, and difficulties.  And we have and are continuing to learn how to work through these. The boxing gloves are for us to share.  One for you, one for me.  We will fight together.”  Suddenly, even a diamond ring could not have been more romantic!

fighting fair

photo credit: Ben Clifford via photopin cc

In our brief 5+ years of being in close relationship with each other (3 of which we’ve been married for), we have learned a lot about how to have good fights with each other.  It’s probably been a bigger learning curve for me because I grew up as an only child and missed out on the classroom of sibling squabbles.  But good conflict resolution has been something we value and keep working at.  Here are 6 things we’ve discovered to be extremely helpful in fighting fairly:

1) Remember you’re on the same team.
In the same note that came with the boxing gloves, Tim also wrote, “The key is that we are not fighting against each other, but fighting together as a team.”  This perspective has helped me many times when I felt upset or hurt by something Tim did or said.  There was one time when he asked me to move our car in the parking lot of our apartment but I was in the midst of changing glasses and could not see very well at all.  My natural reaction was to think that Tim was trying to get me killed.  But to him, it was a minor task and the parking lot was a safe place.  Remembering that we were on the same team helped me to be more open to hearing his point of view.

2) Understand each other’s temperament. (Are you a Turtle or a Woodpecker?)
A couple we respect greatly and who do premarital counselling with many couples (including us) gave us this extremely helpful illustration.  When it comes to conflict resolution, most people fall into one of two camps:  Turtles or Woodpeckers.  Turtles are those who resist addressing the issue and shy away from talking about what’s upsetting them.  They need to learn to take a risk and stick their heads out of their shells.  Woodpeckers are the opposite.  They want to talk about it right away and they’ll be very vocal about what’s bothering them. They need to learn to tone it down and give the other person space to speak. Many couples consist of one of each.  For me and Tim, we are both turtles.  So we have had to be very intentional about plucking up the courage to say what’s on our minds.  And we’ve found that with each conversation we’ve had, it builds our sense of safety for the next time around.

3) Choose a suitable time and location to talk (but don’t use that as an excuse to put it off).
I am usually quite tired and an emotional eggshell by the end of the day.  I’m also pretty groggy first thing in the morning.  So we’ve learned that those times are not good times for us to try to resolve conflict.  We’ve learned to say, “I’ve been feeling upset about [fill in the blank], can we talk about it [suggest a time]?”  Working through conflict requires energy and full attention.  So you want to set yourself up for success in choosing a time and place where you can talk without interruptions or distractions.  Sometimes, it means scheduling it for the next day or in a couple days, even.  Another advantage of setting aside time to talk is that it gives both parties some space to process what happened so that we don’t come flying at each other with emotionally charged accusations. But make it a priority to have the conversation as soon as appropriate. You don’t want to let the grievances accumulate.

4) Practice reflective listening.
Tim already posted about this here.  Basically, take turns hearing each other out and clarify what you heard each other say.  Many times, this is how misunderstandings are brought to the light and we realize we really still are on the same team.  I intentionally use the word practice here because being good at reflective listening does not come naturally, it takes work and well, practice.

5) Be willing to admit when you’ve wronged the other person.
This takes humility.  There was one time when we were dating that I decided to book a trip to visit my parents in Toronto.  It didn’t occur to me that my decision would affect Tim.  When I suddenly announced to him that I would be gone for a week, he was understandably hurt.  I learned the hard way that it was a good idea to run my decisions by Tim before committing to them.  And I had to apologize and ask for forgiveness for being so self-focused and inconsiderate.

6) Be willing to forgive and articulate your forgiveness.
At the end of a good fight, after each person has had a chance to speak and has felt heard, apologies and forgiveness are like the cherry that tops the sundae.  The practice of saying “I’m sorry for…” and “I forgive you for…” serve to cement the relationship as well as bring closure to that particular incident.  When I was thinking about writing this post, I had to ask Tim what fights we had had.  Because we had forgiven each other and I was free to think about other things instead of hanging on to those hurtful events, I had to be reminded of what those events were.

Conflict, when addressed maturely, can be occasions to deepen, solidify and grow a relationship. I often feel uncertain going into these conversations, but more often than not, when we emerge on the other side, we feel a satisfied sense of victory and reaffirmed that our relationship is alive and healthy. Fighting fairly is no easy task. But it is well worth the effort.