8 Rules For Fighting Fair As A Couple

fight fair
Love, Heartbreak

It makes no sense. If you want to be a doctor, you spend countless hours studying medicine. If you want to be a lawyer, you spend years of your life in law school. But the most important thing in our lives — our relationships — are just supposed to "come naturally."

What "naturally" means is what we grew up with. If you behave "naturally," you'll get a relationship very similar to your parents' marriage. When you notice that you're both fighting like your parents did, you are behaving according to nature. It doesn't have to be this way. There are some vital skills to develop if you want to have a different kind of relationship. Being able to have a fair fight is high on the list. Fortunately, there are some simple rules that anyone can practice.

1. Use "I" statements. This is a basic idea, shared by most communications programs. It comes from the fact that you can only speak your own truth. Reading the other person's mind is just not possible. And telling the other person what's wrong with his/her feelings is a declaration of war. "I" statements start out like: "I feel … " or "I think … " followed by a description or a thought. ("I feel like you're an idiot" is not an "I" statement.)

2. Slow down. Many people get so excited by their own thoughts that they can't wait to express them, even when their partner is in the middle of a sentence. I've observed people break in when the other takes a breath and then try to excuse their rudeness by saying, "But I thought you had finished!" At this point, the pressure to talk is so great that you hear only the sound and the break in sound, not the message. Basically, you've lost all perspective. You may as well be animals roaring at one another. When you're in the heat of the moment, this is understandable, but it tends to get you nowhere in the argument.

3. Listen. Take the time to listen to what your partner is saying. The more people I work with, the more I realize how hard real listening is. It involves not only containing your own thoughts and feelings, but also putting yourself in the other's shoes. Listening is the only thing that can actually bring us to understanding.

4. Mirror. This is one of the most powerful tools one can bring to dialogue. "Mirror" means just that: repeat back to your partner what you heard her say. If she agrees that you've "got" it, you're golden. It's surprising, though, how often what you hear is not — or not exactly — what your partner has just said. If this is the case, ask for clarification.

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5. No "buts"! Here's something that happens with just about everyone. One person may have mirrored beautifully and her partner feels fully understood and then, boom! She trails off into another sentence by continuing, "But … " That little word usually negates everything that came before it. It's a conversation killer. Avoid it.

6. Go easy on the questions. We tend to think that questions are good for conversation when in fact, many questions are dangerously loaded. Behind most questions is emotion. Ponder this one: "Don't you think that's foolish?" (You're really actually saying, "That's dumb!" in the form of a question.) Or, "Don't you think you should … ?" That's manipulation if I ever heard it!

7. Express emotion. Rather than asking questions, using "you" statements or impatient interruptions, ask yourself what you want from this discussion. What is your goal? What do you want to get across? What do you want your partner to know about you? Simply, what are you feeling about yourself, about your partner? Then say that. There's nothing more powerful.

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8. Tell the story. We're story-telling creatures. Novel-readers, soap-opera-watchers and explainers. When I feel something, I will probably try to explain it to myself immediately, assuming that I then know what's going on. Maybe my husband turns his eyes to the clock while I'm talking. I just know he doesn't care about what I'm saying!

Telling the story sounds like this: "When you turned away from me, I felt lonely and unconnected. What I told myself about that was that you didn't care about me as much as I care about you."

A useful conversation falls apart when partners attack, defend or withdraw. These "rules" help to keep the connections clean. They are simple. They are not easy, but they will effectively change the way you address — and resolve — issues.

Cheryl Gerson is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and Board Certified Diplomate in a private practice in New York City. Feel free to ask a question or speak with her about finding the right treatment for you.