How to Fight Fair

Stay focused, avoid extreme statements, lay off the character assaults, and remember the toothpaste.

How to Fight Fair

by Erik Newton

photo courtesy of Studio Firma

filed under Advice, Fighting

Fighting on some level appears to be unavoidable, and in fact crucial to human relationships—conflict creates depth. Maybe in your relationship you refer to fights as “squabbles” or “disagreements.” Regardless of how you think about the occasional bursting forth of anger, it almost certainly happens in your life.

But why does conflict often present so destructively when it comes out? If the goal is to create depth, isn’t there a more effective way?

My general view is that fights are an expression of anger, and that anger is an expression of something else: some fear. That something else is the real trigger that sparks the fight, and it’s also where the deepest opportunity for growth occurs if we can bring it to light. The challenge is that we often have a hard time seeing through the drama of the fight to the core trigger below.  

This is why I employ the method I shared in my last post on fighting to understand what’s going on below the anger. Once I’ve got it figured out to the best of my ability, I share the whole messy thing with my partner.  

One valid criticism of my method is that it takes too long in the midst of a fight. If you have to go off and process all these thoughts and ideas, you might be pissing your partner off even more by refusing to engage. Good point.

In my relationship, when Aubrie wants to engage, any delay feels like avoidance and abandonment to her. So it’s important for me to stay present with her and try my best to process if possible, even if it’s uncomfortable and I’m lacking answers.  That is challenging for me, but it’s the right direction to stretch myself for the sake of our relationship.

During these times, I’m often pretty angry myself. When the adrenaline is flowing, it can be hard not to say something that makes matters worse. And that’s when I try to remember this simple truth from a sagely coffee shop owner in my hometown. “Words are like toothpaste.  Once you squeeze them out, you can’t get them back in.”  

It’s a simple truth with profound implications.  Be careful of your words. They have lasting impact. Avoid intentionally harmful statements; there’s simply no need to cause damage in a fight since what you’re really aiming for is a positive change. Don’t make “always” or “never” statements. Rather, stay focused on the issue at hand. Avoid criticizing your partner’s overall character—it’s simply too harmful to hear and it’s probably not true. Instead, focus on the specific action that you’re unhappy about and that you’re trying to change.

These are all tips you’ve heard before, but they can be hard to remember in the midst of a fight.  So when the adrenaline is pumping, if you can’t remember anything else, just think of toothpaste.  


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