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Friday, October 22, 2010

Fair Fighting Rules for Couples by Nathan Cobb, Ph.D

Fair Fighting Rules for Couples by Nathan Cobb, Ph.D

Avoid name-calling, insults, put-downs or swearing. Putting your partner down or criticizing your partner’s character shows disrespect for his or her dignity. In sports there are many rules that prevent one player from intentionally injuring another. In marriage and relationships, similar rules must apply. When you intentionally injure your partner, it’s like saying, “You are not safe with me. I will do whatever it takes to protect myself or to win.”

It’s pointless to blame each other. Blaming your spouse distracts you from solving the problem at hand. It invites your spouse to be defensive and it escalates the argument.For example, if you leave a visa bill lying on the table for your spouse to see, and the bill later goes missing, you might be tempted to blame each other. You might insist that your spouse is disorganized, must have picked it up and put it somewhere else. Your spouse, in turn, might accuse you of being absent-minded and insist that you just don't remember where you put it. But blaming each other will not accomplish anything. It won't help either of you feel any better. It won't strengthen your relationship at all. And it won't help you find the bill.
In situations like this, make a conscious decision that your relationship is too important to undermine it with blame and judgment. Focus on keeping your goodwill for each other intact and finding solutions to the problem instead of blaming.

Yelling only escalates things. Chances are nothing will get resolved when your emotions are running so high. If you’re mad and feel like yelling, then it’s time to step away and cool down (see rule #8).Keep in mind that yelling can be subjective. What is yelling to your spouse may not be yelling to you. Perhaps you are not tuned in to how you sound. Or you may have grown up in a home where family members were loud and passionate, and talking loud when you are upset seems normal.Your spouse's experience is the one that counts here, however. If it feels like yelling to your spouse, then you are at least raising your voice, if not yelling. Make a conscious effort to lower your voice. The meaning of your communication lies in how your message is actually landing with others. If you can’t tone it down because you are too upset, then it is probably best to take a time-out.

Using physical force or threatening to use force (i.e. a raised fist or a verbal threat) in any way is unacceptable. Develop the self-discipline to set limits on your anger and your behavior before you reach this level. If either of you resort to physical force and violence in your relationship, seek professional help.Use of force includes pushing, shoving, grabbing, hitting, punching, slapping or restraining. It includes punching a hole in a wall, throwing things or breaking something in anger. Acting out your anger in these ways violates the other person’s boundaries and sense of safety. Each of us has a right to be safe and free of abuse or physical danger in our relationships.

In the heat of an argument, threatening to leave the relationship is manipulative and hurtful. It creates anxiety about being abandoned and undermines your ability to resolve your issues. It quickly erodes your partner’s confidence in your commitment to the relationship. Trust is not easily restored once it is broken in this way. It makes the problems in your relationship seem much bigger than they need to be.

This rule is about being the expert of your own world, not your spouse’s world. Use words that describe how you feel, and what you want and need, not what your partner feels, wants, or believes. It may seem easier to analyze your partner than to analyze yourself, but interpreting your partner’s thoughts, feelings and motives will distract you from identifying your own underlying issues, and will likely invite defensiveness from your spouse. More importantly, telling your spouse what he or she thinks or believes or wants is controlling and presumptuous. It is saying that you know your spouse’s inner world better than your spouse does.
Instead, work on identifying your own unmet needs, feelings, and ways of thinking and describe these needs and feelings to your spouse.

Stay in the present and resist the temptation to use the situation as an occasion to bring up other issues from the past. It’s discouraging to keep bringing up the past. You can’t change the past. You can only change today. You can look forward to a better future. Try to keep your focus on what can be done today to resolve the issue at hand and go forward from there. If you get off-topic, on to other issues, stop yourselves and agree to get back on track. You can always come back to other issues later.If you do find yourself bringing up issues from the past it is likely because those issues were never resolved in the first place. Things may have happened that you and your spouse never really talked about. Or you may have tried to talk about it in the past but without fighting fair. This rule will be easier to follow, going forward, if you both make a commitment to discuss issues as they happen rather than letting them fester.

Let one person speak at a time. When one speaks, the other should be listening—really listening, not just planning their rebuttal. Take turns speaking and listening so that you both have a chance to say what you need. This goes back to the rules we were taught as kids about respectful playground behavior. Have you ever tried to work through a difficult issue when your spouse was talking over top of you and interrupting you? How did you feel? Consciously remind yourself about this when you feel an overwhelming urge to interrupt or speak your mind.

Violating these fair fighting rules is typically a sign that you have already crossed a threshold physiologically, in which signals from the more primitive, emotional centers of your brain have begun to drown out the signals from the more rational parts of your brain. Stress hormones flood your body at this stage. Self-preservation becomes the focus. In this fight-or-flight state, creative problem-solving and mutual cooperation are unlikely. You end up in an escalating argument that becomes more and more hostile and defensive. In fact, it is impossible to have a rational discussion in a climate of hostility and disrespect. This is when its time for rule #8: call a time-out. A time-out is a short break to cool off, calm down and get perspective. Think of it like pushing the pause button on a video. It’s an opportunity to restore calm and be more reflective instead of reactive. Use the time-out to reflect on why you feel the way you do. Think about how to express yourself in a positive way. Try to think about the other person’s feelings and point of view. Think things through before you speak. Then “push play” again and return to each other to resolve the issues calmly.A time-out should be at least a half-hour long (but no longer than twenty-four hours). It takes at least a half-hour for your body’s physiology to return to a normal resting state and for your thoughts to become less hostile or defensive. It’s surprising how different a person’s outlook can be after they’ve had a chance to calm down.

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