Fighting Fair II: Absolutely No Absolutes

Last week, I kind of skirted the fight:  I wrote about avoiding the fight by “discussing” fair.  I called it Civil Dialogue.  Indeed, if we speak more civilly to each other – even when we are annoyed – during the discussion of a thing, then odds are, we may not even get into the fight.  However, for whatever reason (and oh boy there are many, aren’t there?), couples will continue to fight.  So:  Fair Fighting.  Is this a pipe dream?  I mean come on, when you’re fighting, you’re angry/hurt/pissed off/etc….how can we be expected to fight fair under such stress?

Maybe , just maybe, if you can force yourself to experiment for a few fights, and see what the outcome is, see how effective it can be, you’ll see that it’s worth it.  Even if your fights aren’t more “productive” due to your fighting fair, at least you walk away from the argument with dignity intact.  And this is no small thing.

Anyway, to move on:  The Take-The-Extreme Strategy.  I’ve decided to start with this (see list of Strategies in last week’s blog).  Because it’s so easy to do.  Just slips off of the tongue (“You always do this….).  It’s almost like telling your partner to um, well, “f-word off”.  Swearing at your partner during a fight may feel good in the moment, but we all know it is unproductive, inflammatory, and really quite unimaginative.  As is taking the extreme; using absolutes.

If you don’t like what your partner is saying, and you want to shut them down, or change the subject, or escalate the fight, just say:  “You always do blank” or “This is just like you to blank” or “You never can just blank, can you?”.  Tone of voice is of course nasty and accusing (kind of like, ahhh…. swearing?)

O.K. so let’s break this down.  What do you really mean when you say this?  Perhaps it is “It ‘s so very frustrating when you say that when we argue.  Quite often you say it, and when you do, it really makes me mad and I would like you to stop.  We need to get back to the subject at hand.”  Or maybe plainly, “Please stop saying/doing that when we fight!  It’s not fair!”

However (and this is a big however), what your partner hears, or at least what I hear when someone says this to me, is “You are a bad person.  I am defining you, and judging you and finding you to be a failure.  Always.”  Them’s fightin’ words.  And even though you may want to hurt your partner at the moment you say something like this, is it really what you mean?  Is it honest?  Is it FAIR?

No.  So why do we do this, go to the extreme?  It’s pretty likely that you have, that almost all of us have gone there (see how I avoid the extreme there with “almost” – I’m being careful!).  So why?  Other than the idea that it is an “easy “ comeback and that it is a hurtful thing to say so it’s perfect for lashing out or lashing back at our partner.

I guess it could be that we want to be heard.  We might think that if we make the case strong enough, we’ll finally be heard and he/she will stop doing this or that.  Even though going to the extreme has never worked before, maybe, just maybe, this time it will.  Well, that’s a bit irrational, even crazy.  And I think we’re smarter than that:  we know that in a middle of a fight, our partner is going to hear this (“You always….”), stop and say, “Really, is that what you think I’m doing?  Do I do this all the time?  Gee, I’m sorry, I didn’t realize that.  I didn’t mean to.”  Nope, ain’t gonna happen.

More likely, the reason you fling the absolutes around is that you are responding to your partner’s Unfair Fighting. Let’s say he/she walks away during a fight, starts mimicking you, says mean/degrading things, starts screaming, etc……and usually does this when you fight.  So, makes sense, doesn’t it?  To go to the extreme and start defining your partner with a bold “factual” statement of condemnation?  He/She started it – they are being totally unfair and wrong, and you need to respond in kind, damnit.

Sure.  It does make sense.  However (another big one), the point here, in this blog, is Fair Fighting, period.  Not Fair Fighting If and When Your Partner Fights Fair.  Doesn’t work that way.  That’s why it is hard to do:  it takes control, forethought, and determination to turn things around.  The idea is that you start to fight fair first, hoping to effect a change.

On the positive side, as I’ve said, doing so will at least allow you to leave an argument with dignity intact.  The hope though is that you can also stop fights from escalating and even, just maybe, you can teach your spouse, through your behavior, how to fight fair.  I would say, if you decide to take on this challenge, you tell your spouse what you are going to do (not during a fight).  “Honey, you know how when we fight, I often (careful) go to the extreme? You know how I tell you how you always blank?  Well, I’m not going to anymore.  It just makes you angry, puts you on the defensive, makes the fight more heated, and anyway, it’s just not true, so it’s not fair for me to say it.”

Hopefully, your partner will want to hear more; ask you what prompted this.  Together you can read a whole score of books on the subject of Fighting Fair.  Or just go to the internet and search for it; along with my blog will be a host of others.  The two of you can discover a new strategy that might work for both of you.  Don’t give up hope if it doesn’t work right away, or if you slip back into old patterns.  Just start again, review the material, or change tactics.

In the beginning of my relationship with Steve, when I would go to the extreme, he would stop me in my tracks.  He would just not accept what I said, “Pauline, I don’t accept that, I won’t take that on.  It is just untrue and you know it.”  He didn’t yell it, he just said it.  It took the wind right out of my sails of anger.  And, sheepishly I had to admit, he was right.  It forced me to really look at what I was doing, and seeing it for what it was, I changed.  I found ways to say what I really meant.  It took a while, but I’m relieved to say that I now avoid absolutes in almost (!) all conversations.

Perhaps that’s the way to begin.  Just promise yourself that you will not use absolutes.  Period.  Without them you really have no foundation for the Take-The-Extreme Strategy.  Start there and see how that forces you to say it some other way.  See if you don’t find yourself speaking more honestly.

Good Luck

This concludes another view from my married life.