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Handling Major Disagreements In Your Relationship: Fair Fighting


Guest Article By Dr. Annie Dennison, Ph.D

If fights happen in your relationship every once in a while, don't worry -- provided that both of you stick to some fair fighting guidelines.

Ideally, if you're single and getting involved with someone new, it's a good idea to start laying the foundation for fair fighting BEFORE you have that first major blowout.

How do you do that?

By discussing important topics with your partner to see if the two of you are basically on the same page. Some of the dirtiest fights in relationships happen when two people get seriously involved and then discover that they have surprisingly different expectations about basic things like money, sex, housework -- and how to handle conflict.

So, long before you're about to move in together, find out where your partner stands on topics that could have a huge impact on your relationship somewhere down the line. If you're not on the same page, please don't convince yourself that it won't matter because you love each other. Discuss those differences realistically upfront, rather than fighting angrily about them later.

Or, here's a radical concept:find someone who matches up with you better on the basics from the get-go.

And no matter how long you've been in a relationship, a great way to keep laying the foundation for fair fighting is by not allowing problems between you to fester -- and anger to build. Once all that anger builds up and explodes, it's harder to resist the urge to fight dirty.


Here's how you and your partner can keep it FAIR:

Fight about what you need to be fighting about.
There's nothing more exhausting and pointless than hours spent bickering about everything BUT the core problems you and your partner need most to address. And the more exhausted and annoyed you both get with the bickering, the more likely you are to spiral into dirty fighting.

Thats why it's important to be as honest and clear as you can with each other about what the fight is really all about. Don't drag in a hundred other little issues or past grievances. Keep it as focused as possible.

In other words, conserve your energy for the important work that can happen during fights. As in, dealing with those top priority problems that put distance between you and your partner, and potentially threaten your relationship.

Attack the problem, not each other.
I'm not saying don't be angry. Of course you're angry when you're fighting. But that doesn't give you license to be disrespectful and rude.

That means no snarky sarcasm, name-calling, or putdowns. Although it can feel so good, in the heat of battle, to say something that will make your partner feel one-upped and defensive, it's a really dumb idea. Know why? Because once that stuff comes flying out of your mouth, your partner probably will never, ever forget it.

And then the damage is done.

During a fight, think of your words as potential darts. When you're not fighting fair, on some level, you know that your words are hitting the target with their sharp, piercing metal tips. In a fair fight, no matter how much you'd like to make your words into darts, you have to figure out how to make them into those ping pong balls covered with self-adhering Velcro instead!

Oh, and it does help to use specific "I" statements during arguments (e.g., "I feel threatened when you yell at me like that," etc.), rather than generalized personal attack statements (e.g., "You're a stupid Neanderthal bastard," etc.).

Speak for yourself.
When you're pissed off and the stakes are high, you're going to have a hard enough time accurately describing your own position. Concentrate on doing that well, staying as focused as possible -- and not going into attack mode. Use those "I" statements, even if doing so seems a little corny to you.

And if you get the desperate urge in the middle of a fight to mind-read what's going on in your partner's own head, stop it! Instead, ask your partner to speak for him- or herself. Then listen without interrupting. And try to understand.

Speaking for yourself also means not dragging other people's opinions into your fight to strengthen your position. That includes opinions of your family members, friends, or therapist -- especially those opinions that conveniently make your partner out to be the only flawed person in the relationship.

News flash: there are two flawed people in every relationship.

Leave some wiggle room.
When you're in the middle of a fight, and mad as hell, you might think that the ultimate goal is to win at any cost. Take no prisoners and all that. But if you value your partner and the relationship, you'll get over that way of thinking!

There are two outcomes to hope for at the end of a fight: (1) Get through it with as little damage as possible and, (2) Effectively attack whatever problem is causing you to fight -- and threatening your relationship.

To achieve those outcomes, there needs to be enough "wiggle room" so that the fight doesn't go past that terrible "point of no return."

You and your partner might want to consider agreeing in advance on a "time-out" signal or code word. If a fight feels like it's getting out of control, the signal or code word allows either person to put the argument on hold for a later, designated time. This is a lot better than one person unexpectedly "abandoning" the argument!


Last but not least, there's nothing like genuine apologies coming from both people to turn a fight into something that makes a relationship stronger.

Being successful at love isn't exactly rocket science, right? But you still need to be smart about it.


After 15+ years of relationship experience - including some bad mistakes - I figured out how to think about love in an intelligent way, without over-thinking it. That's when I stopped wasting my time in relationships with men who were all wrong for me (and me for them...), and fell in love with and married a wonderful guy. Along the way, I also got a PhD in psychology.

When I'm not writing advice for, I'm a Southern California dating and relationship coach for single people. I provide personalized, confidential coaching services by phone and email. And if you don't live in Southern California, no problem; I have a TOLL FREE phone number that coaching clients use.


      2:31 PM, Anonymous technoflutemom
      That is some great and practical advice. I especially like that you pointed out to find someone compatible in the beginning. I have too many friends that spent their courtship fighting and "working on the relationship," then can't figure out why they are still fighting and working at it when they get married! If you have to change someone to get along with them, find someone else! 

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