Fighting Fairly

Disagreements are Inevitable; How we Fight is Our Choice

“You can't win an argument. You can't because if you lose it, you lose it; and if you win it, you lose it.” Dale Carnegie

When you get two humans living in close proximity to each other for a length of time, there is bound to be debates and conflict. This fact doesn’t change when we’re talking about our husband, wife or partner. No matter how much we love someone, there are going to be times when we disagree and become frustrated with one another.


This is natural, and when handled correctly, healthy. Disagreements and/or conflicts, when explored with an open mind, will force us to see a different point of view which will stimulate growth. Conflict can actually create chemistry. A couple is stronger for having two individuals in it. There’s an old saying, “If both of us agree all the time, one of us isn’t necessary.”


There are, of course, levels to this. An honest disagreement about an element in our lives (money, family, work, etc.) doesn’t have to descend into anger and yelling. There are two points of view and, when we both keep level heads and use good conflict resolution strategies — which we’ll get to later — we’ll come up with a solution that, even if everyone isn’t thrilled about, we can both survive and/or thrive with.


Then there are the arguments that start when one partner says the wrong thing at the wrong time. A stressful day at work and a perceived unkind word after we get home can lead to a conflict where things can quickly get blown out of proportion.


Newlyweds often fear that their first major conflict means the end of their relationship, or at least what they imagined their married relationship would be. While it can be a shock to the system to realize that the honeymoon might be over, having disagreements is just part of the human experience. What we can control is our reaction to what we see and hear. If our partner says something that upsets us, we take a deep breath and know they didn’t intentionally mean to hurt our feelings (if we think they actually did mean to hurt us, that’s a much deeper issue). If we both hold this mindset, we know that, when natural disagreements occur, we can work the concern with a mindset where we’re not trying to “win.”


As one of my friends and mentors once said, “Learn to disagree well and choose your battles wisely.”


Check Your Attitude

In order to live with another person in a loving, healthy relationship, we must learn to know ourselves as much as we know our partner. Being aware and understanding our innate style of handling conflict is crucial.


There are people, for instance, who need to take some time when a disagreement occurs. If the discussion is becoming heated, they feel the need to tell their partner they need to stop and cool down a bit. This keeps the disagreement from escalating into a long-term conflict and saying things that we may regret saying.


Others, when there’s a disagreement, feel the need to get everything out in the open immediately and work things out in one sitting. They don’t feel the need to drag this out any longer than absolutely necessary. They prefer to have the argument, hash everything out and then be done with it.


There’s nothing inherently wrong with either of these philosophies; we’re all wired differently, and one will come more naturally to you than the other. Where couples run into difficulty is when each partner has a different natural strategy. The one who needs a moment is seen as “running away” from the discussion; the one who wants to “hash it out” is seen as not wanting to let anything go. If we don’t know our partner’s “conflict” style — and if we’re not aware of our own — this could be the recipe for disaster. If we recognize this about ourselves and our partner, however, we can both adjust our approaches and not play the “blame game.”


Common Conflict Behaviors

I once heard a corporate speaker give a presentation about conflict resolution, and what he shared has stuck with me ever since. While he was speaking about conflict more in the business arena, his lessons translate to the family home just as well, if not a little better.


He taught that there are six core behaviors we tend to use when conflict comes around. Most of us don’t use all six — we have our go-to “favorites” — but the use of any of these behaviors can cause a disagreement to spiral out of control. Not only do we not solve the problem that caused the conflict in the first place, but we start to damage the relationship in ways that are harder, if not impossible, to repair if left unchecked.


These six behaviors are:


  • Walk/Storm Out — This is more than the “I need to cool down” style mentioned earlier. This is when one partner unilaterally walks away, possibly after saying something deliberately designed to anger the other. That partner is then left alone, the argument still lingering in the air, with yet another reason to be angry.

  • The Silent Treatment — Again, this isn’t the “cool down” approach. Here, the argument has stopped but nothing has been resolved. The anger is still there, but one or both partners have shut down the lines of communication. The anger festers and looks for other places to erupt — and it will.

  • “You’re Wrong/I’m Right” — This is another way to shut down communication, by taking the “ultimate” stance that might end this argument. This is going to lead to other, deeper fights. When we say this to our partner, we’ve basically told them that their opinion doesn’t really matter to us.

  • Labeling the Other — Basically, we’re resorting to name calling, which has never ended a discussion well. “You’re stupid,” “You always/never…” and so on. When we do this, we’ve taken the heated discussion we were having and expanding it in ways that are not helpful, to say the least.

  • Venting to the Wrong People — While mentors and co-mentors might actually challenge us and our position, our friends are generally going to take our side (unless we’re spectacularly off base). What’s worse, they might help us vilify our partner. This gives us the “moral authority” to dig into our side of the argument, which makes it harder to compromise with our partner later. This isn’t helping; it’s hurting.

  • Vicious Attacks — This is the worst stage. This is when the attacks get vulgar and cruel and are deliberately designed to inflict pain. At the final stage, the attacks become physically violent.


When being honest with ourselves, we’ll recognize the behaviors in this list that we “default” to if we aren’t watching our attitudes and keeping our partner’s well-being in mind.


Just because we gravitate toward one or more of these mindsets doesn’t mean we’re powerless to stop ourselves. Just the opposite, actually, and this is where the “Three A’s of Change” come in. We are the only ones who can control our Actions. Also, just being Aware of this and Accepting it gives us the understanding to know when we’re about to fall into a negative reaction — it’s the “warning light” to avoid this and take action to do something constructive.


What should we do? In the next post, we’ll examine some methods my mentors and I have found serve us better when the inevitable disagreements come around. These are the behaviors that will allow us and our partners to win at life, instead of “winning” against one another.




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