August 4, 2022

How to Fight Fair in Relationships

Young married black couple having fight, man yelling at woman

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Are you a team even when you are fighting? This is the ninth episode of a series on Getting Ready for Marriage. ​In this podcast episode, Elizabeth Polinsky discusses the importance of fighting fair in relationships. 

IN THIS PODCAST

SUMMARY:

  • Qualities of fighting dirty in relationships
  • Qualities of fighting fair in relationships
  • Tips to fight fair in relationships

Why I am doing this series on Getting Ready for Marriage?

I had a wedding photographer reach out to me asking me to provide some tips for couples getting married. I created an entire checklist for her with the things I think are foundational for getting ready for marriage and starting off your marriage on the right foot. If you want the checklist, you can download it here!

An example of dirty fighting.

Hey, everyone welcome back to the communicate and connect podcast. This is Episode 29 on how to fight fair in relationships. So today is all about how to fight fair in relationships and I am thinking right now about a fight that I witnessed about a year ago. There was a couple where it was a guy who was bringing up a concern that he had. I can’t remember what their fight was about, but I remember the female partner responded and just said, “well if you don’t like it then you can leave”. And I was thinking to myself, “okay, I don’t really like how their fight is going”.It doesn’t feel like a very fair fight to say “whatever you don’t like, if you don’t like it, you can just leave”. There’s no room for negotiation in that. In the above example, the woman didn’t even hear what his concerns were.​And so today I figured let’s talk about how to fight fair in relationships. This is probably something that’s pretty important as you’re starting out your marriage because you want to build up a habit of trying to fight fair. This way you don’t build up these like really negative fighting habits that then later on have to then try to fix and repair. Let’s just try to get it down from the beginning. So we’ll talk a little bit about like some qualities that are related to fighting poorly, and what are some things that are qualities of fighting well and fighting fairly, and then I’ll give you some of my tips for how you could do this.

Upset young couple after a fight

Qualities of dirty fighting.

Qualities of a bad fight, or fighting in an unfair way include:

  • Generalizations: statements like “you always do this” or “you never do this” or “I’m the one that always has to do this” or “I never get to do this”. These sort of big generalizations words–like always, never, etc.–are usually not fighting fairly. They’re very rarely ever truly the case that somebody never does something or that you are the only one who always is doing something. So I I would count that in a poor fighting arena.
  • Criticism: The next one would be being critical, and especially being critical of someone’s character such as name calling. So when a fight gets to being critical and name calling–like saying things like “you’re lazy” or “you’re an invalid”. Or insulting someone’s intelligence using words like “you’re retarded”. I hate that word but I’ve definitely heard couples say that to each other. So things that are critical of someone’s character. This isn’t just a fight about having a disagreement and needing to problem solve and come to an agreement about something. Somehow it’s turned into attacking and tearing your partner down and trying to make them feel bad about themselves. At that point we are really in a bad fight and that is not a fair fight.
  • Switching Topics: Another thing that’s not great is getting off topic and I see that happen so often with couples. Someone brings up a topic, maybe they say “I don’t like this”, or “I want to do this, I want us to go on on date night on Fridays”. Then somehow the conversation gets to a different topic. So let’s say one partner says, “I want to go on date nights on Fridays”; and the other partner says, “well, there’s no time to go on date nights because I’m the one who always has to do the cleaning and Fridays are the only time to do cleaning. And if you weren’t so lazy, then we would have time to clean earlier in the week. Why do you have to be lazy?  You never help around the house.” Now we we have generalizations that are critical of someone’s character and we’re also off topic. The couple is no longer talking about date nights. They are talking about chores and cleaning the house. This happens a lot for couples and it’s a quality of fighting poorly.
  • Making Threats: Another quality would be threats, which is what happened in that example where somebody said, “if you don’t like it, you can just leave”. That is a threat about the relationship. It’s not outright, but I have also seen couples outrightly threaten, “I’m going to leave the relationship unless you don’t do this”. In situations like this, there’s no room to fight, or to have a discussion, or to come to an agreement, or negotiate ,or anything. I’ve also seen people threaten to take kids: “Well, I’m going to take the kids and we’re going to leave”. That is also not a fair fight.
  • Not Giving Space: Another thing that is not fair is not giving your partner space or not taking a time out when you both are getting really heated. Some couples have a hard time with taking breaks its because the fight is really stressful. People want to get it resolved, and want to talk it through; but at some point they are both too emotional to have a productive conversation. When people can’t take a break to calm down, not taking a break at that point is a quality of poor fighting.
  • Sweeping Things Under the Rug: And then lastly, is sweeping things under the rug. So let’s say that you do have the ability to take a break, but then you don’t return back to the discussion in order to resolve it. Then you’re just sweeping the problem under the rug and that is also a quality of poor fighting.

Qualities of fair fighting. 

  • Staying on Topic: So number one for me is staying on topic. If someone says a generalization (ex: “that you never do something”), then you are already off topic now because the partner is going to start getting defensive (Ex: saying “well I did it this time and this time and this time”). Then you are not talking about the actual topic at hand. Same thing if you get into name calling or get defensive or give an excuse–these led couples to be off topic as well. So number one in good fights, fair fights, is to stay on topic and address the issue at hand instead of getting swept away into something else.
  • Be Direct About What you are Looking for From Your Partner: Another quality of fighting fair and fighting well in relationships is being direct about what you’re looking for from your partner in response. So if you’re bringing up a concern, you should also be direct about what you’re wanting from them. Are you wanting acknowledgement? Just that they heard you and acknowledge your concern? Are you asking for something that is a specific change? Do you want them to do a specific behavior in response? Then you want to make that clear that you’re bringing up this concern and this is what you hope they are going to do in response to hearing you bring this up. That could be asking for a change. It could be acknowledgement, but it could also be comfort. For example, it could be, “my feelings are really hurt that this happened and I am wanting reassurance and comfort from you”. That is a perfectly legitimate and wonderful thing to bring up in a relationship. It’s helpful to your partner, keeps you guys on track, and and keeps you in the fair fighting lane when you’re clear about what it is you’re looking for from your partner.
  • Talk About the Actual Present Moment Problem: Other things that are qualities of fighting fairly are talking about the actual problem versus talking about the past. Avoid bringing up the past or talking about negative qualities of your partner or personality characteristics you don’t like. Talk about the issue that just happened.
  • Take Breaks as needed to Calm Down: Also taking breaks is a really great thing to do to help you fight fair because again, if both of you are so emotionally overwhelmed, there’s no way that you guys can can fight fair. Definitely not if you’re like pissed off or enraged on the inside. Take time to calm down and regulate your emotions first in order to stay in a fair fighting spot.
  • Return Back to the Discussion: If you do take a break or if you find yourself getting off topic, you want to circle back around and return to the topic. This way the actual topic gets addressed instead of sweeping it under the rug. 

Make a claim about what you want instead of blaming your partner, it’s a claim not to blame” 

Man And Woman Wearing Brown Leather Jackets

Tips to fight fair in relationships. 

  • Make a Claim, Not a Blame: So my first one is a quote that I recently heard. I can’t remember where I got it, but they were saying “make a claim about what you want instead of blaming your partner, it’s a claim not to blame”. That’s going to be like one of my new favorite quotes.
  • Use Acronym DEAR: So how can someone make a claim? I really like to use an acronym called DEAR MAN which comes from a type of therapy called dialectical behavioral therapy. It’s a skills group. It’s group therapy that covers a wide range of different skills and this is one of the skills that gets taught in this therapy group. So it’s an acronym; it stands for 1. Describe, 2. Express , 3. Assert, and  4. Reinforce.
    • DESCRIBE: The goal is to describe the situation factually without any opinions. For example, a couple of episodes ago I used this example where my husband got into this hot tub with some of our friends and didn’t include me or at least that’s how I felt. I felt kind of excluded and I realized that a few weeks have gone by between these episodes by the time they’re released, but at the time that I’m recording it, it’s still kind of fresh. So I’ll use this as an example. So in the actual situation I did go into blaming him. I should a have made that into a claim using DEAR. If I had used DEAR, it might sound like: “Okay, I looked up and I realized you weren’t there and then I found out you had gone into the hot tub with other people.” This would be just describing the facts.
    • EXPRESS: Then you want to express your thoughts and feelings about it. For example, I could have said, “That hurt my feelings because I felt excluded.” It’s factual; it’s not blaming; I’m describing how I feel and I’m expressing my thoughts and feelings about it.
    • ASSERT: The next step is to assert what I want or what my request is going to be here. And so maybe I’m I could say, “I really want reassurance and comfort that you weren’t trying to exclude me”. I could make that be my “assert” or I could assert what I want in the future. For example, “I would really like it if in the future you could remember to try to include me in activities”. That would be a great assert as well. 
    • REINFORCE: Then our is reinforce. You want to reinforce the positive thing that will come as a result of somebody giving you what you want or what you’re asking for. In certain situations you could always describe the negative consequences, but that is not as great. I would always start with a carrot and not a stick; so you want to start with the positive. For example, “That would, if you did that, that would help me feel better in this relationship and I probably wouldn’t gets so frustrated when things like this happen”. That would be a positive. There is also a negative version which has some nuance that is probably best discussed with a therapist who’s familiar with with DEAR for when do you use a carrot versus a stick. But, for example, I could say: “If you keep excluding me, then I’m no longer gonna come with you on group trips like this because it’s not fun for me to feel excluded”.  That would be a stick, but I would always recommend starting with the carrot: “It would make me feel a lot better and I think we would enjoy our trip more if you could make an intentional effort to include me in things moving forward”. And that is how you use DEAR to describe, express, assert, and reinforce.
    • So altogether it might sound like:
      • “I looked up and you weren’t there and I noticed you went to the hot tub with a bunch of other people. My feelings were hurt because I felt really excluded. Moving forward, I would appreciate it if you could intentionally make an effort to include me in things. That would help me feel better and help us both have a better time on this trip. Are you good with that?”
      • That would be DEAR altogether and would be a claim not a blame. It’s a claim of what I want, what I’m looking for, and what I’m asking for. It’s to the point and it’s on topic. There are no generalizations, there’s no criticalness happening here. It’s about the problem and it’s clear. 
    • Focus on Hurt Feelings: So this is one of my top tips for having clear request and it also helps if you focus on your hurt feelings. So for example, in Step 2 of Express, I said “my feelings are hurt by this. I felt excluded.” I went to my deeper emotion at the time. I was feeling pissed but I was feeling pissed because I was so hurt by feeling excluded. It’s totally different thing if I said, “you went to the hot tub without me. I’m really pissed at you. I can’t believe you would do that. Don’t do that again or else I’m gonna leave“. That would be a totally different emotional experience. Technically I used DEAR, but I used DEAR in a super negative way. So you want to focus on the hurt feelings over the anger, and that’s going to help that go more smoothly.
    • Repair First, Then Problem Solve: And then my final tip is, let’s say your partner uses DAER with you and makes a claim about how their feelings were hurt and how they have this concern and they’re making this request of you. You want to focus on repairing the hurt feelings, and then problem solving. You have to repair the hurt feelings before you can problem solve. And that might look like, “oh my gosh, I didn’t know you felt excluded. That was not my goal.” That’s lovely validation around the hurt feelings, and then you can negotiate about whether you’ll be included or not and how that will go. Remember, you want to repair hurt feelings first and then negotiate. Then after you’ve had this discussion, whether you’re wanting acknowledgement or asking for a change, you want to end with love and care. At the end of the day, while we may need to problem solve, we also need to know that we’re connected. We all need to know that we’re loved and cared for. So at the end of a fight, one of the things that is really helpful for fighting fair is reconnecting emotionally. It can look a lot of different ways but the goal would be ending in a place where both of you feel loved and cared for.

Action Items for Communicate & Connect Episode 29: How to Fight Fair in Relationships

So my action item for everyone today is to practice DEAR in at least one conversation. I would practice an easy one. You know when I teach this to people in therapy, I often tell them to start by asking for salt because that’s really easy. “I noticed the salt is over there (Describe). I would really like the salt (Express). Could you pass it? (Assert) That would make me really happy. (reinforce)” That’s such an easy way. You just wanna start practicing the template/ format of using DEAR and then that’ll make it easier and easier to use in more difficult conversations. So find one thing (not the biggest, most painful topic in your relationship!) that you could use to make a request of your partner. Use DEAR as the format for that conversation and then let me know how it goes.

Liz’s Useful Links: 

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Thanks for listening!

     

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    About Author

    Elizabeth Polinsky is a Certified Emotionally Focused Couple Therapist (EFT) providing EFT marriage counseling in the states of Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Arkansas, and Nevada. She also provides EFT training and supervision to therapists looking to become certified in EFT Couple Therapy. As a military spouse, she has a special passion for working with military and veteran couples, and is also the host of The Communicate & Connect Podcast for Military Relationships.

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