Fighting is healthy. Disagreeing is healthy. What is unhealthy is when fighting and disagreeing turns into emotional, verbal, and/or physical abuse. You have two responsibilities during a conversation: 1) be aware of your own actions 2) be aware of how the other person's actions are impacting you. If these seem overwhelming, try being aware of what is manageable, especially during an argument. Here are some suggestions for how to fight fair.
Focus on one issue. Have one argument at a time. If you are talking about finances, talk about finances. Don't throw intimacy or other issues into one conversation. If there is a repetitive pattern of a behavior (e.g. dishonesty, forgetfulness, insensitivity), have the conversation about one instance. It's usually not productive to recall something that has happened months or years ago.
You might be thinking that you have to bring up other examples of the behavior to show that it's been a problem for a long time. There are instances where this might apply. If you feel it is necessary, bring it into the conversation as a way of showing a pattern, not as a way of punishing the person repeatedly and endlessly for past mistakes. If this is difficult for you, read my previous posts about letting go and grudges.
If you find yourself bringing up specific instances from the past, it may very well be you are presenting these issues to show a pattern of behavior. However, it may be these issues are still memorable because you have unresolved feelings about what happened. If there are unresolved feelings, then set a time to talk about them after reaching a resolution about the current issue.
No name calling or insults. Name calling and insults happen when you have been hurt. If you are tossing insults, it's usually to hurt the other person. Once insults and sharp criticism enter the conversation, the actual issue is lost in the back and forth. Also, you might use a name or insult that you really regret later. I've worked with many couples where one person had a very difficult time healing from a specific insult that happened years ago.
Listen. Listen. An argument usually intensifies when there is a breakdown in listening and message comprehension. If you find yourself preparing your response before the other person has finished speaking, then you are probably more interested in debating your perspective than listening to theirs. If someone has ever told you, “You'd be a really good lawyer”, then this might apply to you.
Take a break. If things get too heated or unproductive, take a break. If you are feeling overwhelmed or unable to express yourself, say so. When you take a break, set a time or day to come back and reengage. Many people feel dismissed and angry if someone asks for a break without a timetable for returning to the issue. So when you say, “I need a break”, add a “let's talk about this after dinner or on Wednesday after my presentation.” Setting a time shows that you are still invested on solving the issue. Taking a break isn't giving up, it's being human.
Find what works. Not to undermine what I just wrote, but find what works for you and your relationship. I always recommend having the conversation in person. If that's too difficult, try email, a letter, phone call, or even including another person. Those aren't ideal but if they are more effective than talking in person, go with what works. Relationships are complex, sometimes there is no black and white solution.
Again, it is healthy to disagree and fight in your relationship. I'd be weary of a relationship where there is never a disagreement. Fighting can strengthen your relationship as it shows that you trust the other person to engage in something that might be uncomfortable, as long as you fight fair.
The final part of this communication series will focus on being aware of who you are talking to.
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Salmaan Toor is a licensed clinical psychologist practicing in Knoxville, TN. If you are interested in being notified of future posts, you can “like” The Family Center of Knoxville on facebook here or can follow me on Twitter here. Thanks for your support!