Healthy conflict is part of any close relationship and happy couples are not couples that don’t fight. Rather they are couples that fight right. Couples are eager to display their fighting skills during couples counselling. After they start to blame, criticise and mirror back inadequacies and imperfections about each other, their default primitive fighting style emerges. This deficit in conflict resolution skills threatens the very existence of their relationship and the reason the couple find themselves in couples counselling.
Couples justify fighting when they feel their underlying needs are unmet or disregarded. The further apart the couple moves from meeting each other’s needs, the louder the fighting becomes in an attempt to focus attention to this need. This volume is then proportional to the intention to increase the mutual understanding. As the couple then becomes preoccupied with abandonment, they experience intense emotions and focus excessively on their own unmet needs, then stop listening and then start to fight unfairly.
Fighting right in situations of conflict requires considerable care and thoughtfulness. Growing up, few people are taught how to communicate effectively in tense or provoking situations. Developing these valuable communication strategies of fighting fairly requires a good deal of motivation, patience and practice.
Some fair fighting strategies to consider:
- Fair fighting needs rules. If couples negotiate rules of engagement the road map is set for what is appropriate and inappropriate during fighting. Destructive behaviour such as verbal abuse, character assassinations, silent treatment and passive-aggressiveness during fighting needs to be ruled out. Rules on how to deal with emotions during conflict should also be negotiated. Not to invalidate, discount, belittle, minimise, ignore or negatively judge feelings. If the alternative to dirty fighting is stipulated then conflict becomes a respectful, structured way of confronting issues.
- Dealing with anger. There is a difference between discussing feelings and venting anger. In couples counselling the aim is to develop skills to express and talk freely about feelings. This is a skill that involves a description of feelings and not the opportunity of venting anger.
- Plan and use strategic timing. Heat of the moment arguments are often destructive and resolve nothing. I often advise couples to plan the discussion of sensitive topics in advance. The couple then agree on an appropriate time and a topic is introduced. Couples then have time to prepare and consider their feelings and responses. Planning to discuss topics, one at a time, during scheduled time removes spur of the moment heated arguments. Couples are then advised to stay with the topic and to resist the temptation of bringing up old issues.
- Pressure on solving the issues is often the issue. Conflicts are generated by a misperception or misunderstanding of the facts involved. It’s important to resist the temptation to offer premature solutions and to suspend problem-solving mode at first. This is a commitment to the process of discovering the real problem rather than to find immediate solutions. In couples counselling, a couple is skilfully lead into exploring underlying issues rather than focussing on solutions. If this process is followed, finding a solution flows naturally. This forms the core of conflict resolution therapy. Often conflict is not about resolving misconceptions, but understanding them.
- Unrealistic expectations of compromise. Couples often have an unrealistic expectation that their partners should compromise, failing to understand that there could exist a good reason why their partner doesn’t want to compromise. Trying to understand the resistance is more valuable then compromising itself. The expectations of compromise are often an expression of failure to understand the resistance of compromising. Unrealistic compromising of deep seated issues, values and norms often leaves couples feeling resentful.
- Withdraw and avoidance of conflict. In principle, conflict is healthy and it may promote closeness as a couple has the opportunity to expresses their thoughts and feelings. If couples believe that by addressing conflict they are creating conflict, they may try and avoid conflict all together. Tension then rises, resentments fester, an opportunity for growth is missed and a much bigger argument eventually results.
What qualifies as fighting fair in couples essentially comes down to how each partner is left feeling after the conflict. In reality, not all conflicts in couples can be resolved or avoided. Accepting that some issues can’t be resolved or avoided keeps our energy focussed and our boundaries clear. Not to avoid conflict but rather to adopt a healthy approach to fair fighting offers couples the opportunity to experience the real value and growth of constructive conflict resolution.