Fighting Fair: Improving Troubled Relationships


5 strategies for building success.


We’ve all been there: Our partner does or says something that sets us off and suddenly we’re in a huge fight where feelings are bruised—sometimes irreparably.  It’s an ugly, uncomfortable situation.  Fighting like this leads to stress and anxiety, which in turn can create a barrier of distrust almost impossible to penetrate.

Bad And Getting Worse


In the worst cases, a nasty verbal blowup is only the beginning.  Without a conscious effort to contain it, partners may continually squabble or bicker, the discord may worsen, and soon each person wonders whether they should be in the relationship.


The Blame Game


When a marriage or relationship goes in this direction it’s quite easy to point a finger and assign blame.  This is the natural tendency.  We don’t like where we’re at, we don’t like arguing, and we certainly don’t want to be the person responsible.  Thus, we do everything we can to put the source of our problem on somebody else.


Are You Ready?


Here’s the question both partners need to confront when they find they’re in this situation: Since you know you’re now miserable are you ready and willing to change?  Though it may sound obvious, it’s an important question for without willingness on the part of both parties to work on a solution, it’s nearly impossible to fix a troubled relationship.


Building Long-Term Trust


Solving difficult issues is one of the hardest and yet sometimes the most rewarding part of a relating with a significant other.  When we overcome tough times we generate positive feelings around “weathering the storm”.  Loving relationships can deepen this way.  And when you have experience moving through one particularly difficult situation, you build trust and gain a sense it’s possible to do it again down the road.


Taking The Steps


So what should couples do when fighting becomes the norm?  Here are 5 steps to consider as you go to improve a troubled relationship.


(1) Seek out professional help. If both partners agree to it, couples counseling may be the best bet to get beyond a crisis.  A neutral third party who is experienced counseling couples can help sort out the issues and teach critical communication skills.  If your partner doesn’t agree to get counseling, don’t let it keep you from getting help yourself. You’re obviously unhappy or you wouldn’t be in this situation.  It doesn’t hurt to commit to at least a few individual counseling sessions and see if there’s something in it for you.


(2) Recognize the issue you’re currently fighting about may have nothing to do with what’s really going on. This gets tricky: Sometimes an underlying or unvoiced feeling is the real source of the problem, not the issue at hand.



Let’s take an example to see what this might look like.  Say you and your partner are suddenly squabbling over money.  You’re mad your partner just spent $200 on an item you believe is frivolous.  You tell him you’ve been stressed at work, hate your job and now hear rumors of impending layoffs.  From all the outward signs this appears to be a fight over discretionary spending and personal priorities.


However, life is often more complicated than outside appearances suggest. What may not come up in the argument is that your mother is ill and you’re extremely worried whether she’ll survive the next six months.  The thing is Mom has always been there for you and bailed you out of some difficult financial situations in the past.  Though it may feel selfish, if you were pressed you’d have to admit you see your mother’s imminent death as a form of abandonment.  These feelings—the potential loss of a parent and the abandonment that come from it—can be the perfect fuel to start a fight over something that feels far more controllable (i.e. your partner’s spending priorities).


Abandonment, guilt, shame (and with them the general sense one is unlovable) are common feelings most of us have lying dormant just below the surface.  Ultimately, unless we make a conscious effort to expose and heal these hidden emotions they can pop up without warning and get in the way of relating.  One may swear they’re mad at their partner over a particular issue, the issue may warrant careful consideration, yet frequently the trouble appearing on the surface is only a reminder of the simmering stew below.


When you’re in a fight, and if you or your partner can remember to do it, it’s good to remind each other that something else might be going on instead of the issue you’re fighting about.  Sometimes this simple act—stepping back to turn an emotionally charged discussion into a more intellectual one—can help put the current topic in its proper perspective.  At the same time, it can also bring to light the old wounds underneath and provide opportunities to heal them.


(3) Stop the blame game. The blame game is easy.  In the heat of passion, it’s even easier.  When a person is riled up, it’s as if their anger frees the tongue and they start spewing the exact words they know will hurt the most.  For example, if a partner is overweight, a fight can easily turn into the moment one lets their frustration over the issue become hurtful—even vengeful. Even a well-meaning comment about losing a few pounds can be delivered the wrong way.  If a person is already sensitive to the issue of their weight, a statement like, “You should stop eating seconds and get more exercise,” can easily be heard as “You think I’m fat?”


There’s probably no way to avoid fighting, and some suggest it can be helpful to the degree one can vent some steam over a given situation.  Still, how that venting occurs is everything.


If a fight evolves into name-calling and crying chances are it’ll be a lot harder to come back to a neutral place.  For that reason, it can pay off for partners to take a physical break from each other if things get too hot.  If you’re already angry about something you’ve been discussing with your partner, it’s probably better to go for a long walk or to talk with a counselor or friend, instead.  One note of caution: Venting with a friend rarely works to solve a problem, unless you’re willing to change or see the problem in a new light.  In other words, if your only intent is whine and complain you may discover your friends really don’t want to listen.


(4) Take responsibility for your feelings. One way to take responsibility for your “emotional baggage” is change the way you communicate.  Rather than tell your partner, “You need to do this, you should do that, you make me cry, and so on, try expressing all thoughts and arguments with the word “I” instead of “you”.


For example, suppose your partner says something really mean like this:  “You’re gross! You’ve got a really huge zit on your nose.  It’s ugly!  You expect me to go out with you looking this way?”   In the heat of the moment, really hurtful comments like these might generate an immediate and visceral response—it would be easy to lash back and criticize your partner’s appearance or tell them where to go.


The hard part in circumstances like these is to remember that what we say always involves a personal choice.  Yes, we might lash back, but the consequence is bound to create an even worse situation.  Reining in impulse takes practice, but it can be far more effective in maintaining long-term peace.


How would this look?  In the above situation, it might be more productive to reply with something like: “I think I’m going to cry.  I’m feeling really sensitive about my complexion today.  I’m so embarrassed by this acne.  It hasn’t been this bad since I was a teen!”  Though there are no guarantees it will work, a response like this may help your partner understand how hurt you are by their comments in a way they’ll be able to hear.  Plus, by owning your feelings you won’t end up feeding the fuel for conflict.  Obviously, it will help if your partner comes to understand the impact their personally directed attacks have on you.  If they don’t, then your best bet may be to seek professional help—ongoing comments meant to demean and belittle are destructive to trust-building and should be considered a form of emotional abuse.


(5) Ask yourself the following question:  Is it more important to be happy or to be right? This is always an interesting question when it comes to verbal sparring, for it points out the consequence of conflict.  In other words, being right about a particular issue is often possible, but the consequence of being right can end up creating bitter feelings between partners—feelings that can last far beyond the crisis at hand.


If you can remember to ask the question, step back and try to understand why it’s so important to be right in this situation.  When you feel doggedly determined to “win the day” it’s often a sign of feeling out of control in another part of your life.


Admittedly, allowing your partner to “win” the argument can be viewed as settling or giving in to them.  However, to be successful over the long haul, every relationship will have a certain amount of surrender built into it.  And though we often think of surrender as a negative thing—something only losers do—it takes on special significance in relationships.  Some might even call it a building block for long-term happiness, since surrender is a selfless act designed to keep the peace.


Key to the issue of surrender is to decide how to give in to a partner while maintaining the sense your personal boundaries are and will continue to be respected.  In other words, if giving up on an argument threatens your ability to “be in integrity”, then there may come a point where that leads to a general feeling of selling out.  It’s a tricky balance to get it just right, but if you end up feeling like you do most of the settling most of the time it’s probably time to seek help.


Moving Forward


Fighting by itself isn’t all bad.  It’s natural and human.  Put two people in a confined space and sooner or later there’s going to be a disagreement over something.  The trouble comes when a fight over an issue deteriorates into a personal attack on a partner and is perceived as a grave injury to their sense of self-worth.  That’s an act that often leads to the destruction of trust—the very thing to avoid if you plan to build a successful, long-term relationship.


General References: Fighting Fair To Resolve Conflict
Dr. Phil:  How To Fight Fair
Happy Lists: 37 Rules For Fighting Fair  10 Rules For Friendly Fighting For Couples

For additional information on the way couples relate I recommend the following books:
Men Are From Mars.  Women Are From Venus
The Five Love Languages: The Secret To Love That Lasts


If you enjoyed this post, you may also want to read:
Time To Shift Your Paradigm?
Unbind The Chain And Unlock The Locks


Comments are closed.


Favorite Pages