Why do you need fair fighting rules for couples?
Communication in a relationship is often not easy. Because you often trigger each other, something makes you angry, or you hurt each other. Especially in relationships we are all particularly vulnerable, our deepest fears and worries come to the surface. In such a situation, dealing with each other in a respectful and understanding way during arguments is really not easy. That's why couples often ask me what rules can help them in couple communication. I have compiled a list of 11 fair fighting rules for couples in this blog article that can help you during conflicts.
1. Never discuss conflicts when your brain is in threat mode.
Conflict in relationships is associated with stress for many couples and, speaking at the level of our brain, with danger. Conflict is a danger to our need for security and emotional closeness with our partner. In response to danger, we as humans react with "fight, flight or freeze." In couple conversations, this looks like a partner getting louder and louder, or attacking with words, facial expressions, or emotions. Flight mode shows up in withdrawing yourself in response to the danger posed by the argument. This may show up in you leaving the argument, or becoming quiet, i.e. shutting down internally. If your brain is still in danger mode, then it is impossible to feel curiosity, empathy, and openness toward your partner. But this attitude is necessary to resolve conflicts. So, first of all, this means that conversations are a bad idea if you are both in attack or avoidance patterns, and at least one of you is very angry or sad. You need a break for that.
- Example, "I think we need a break right now. Is it okay with you if we continue talking in 30 minutes? Right now I need some time to calm down."
2. Take breaks to get into the understanding, empathic mode.
If you notice that one or both of you are stuck in danger mode, taking a break from the conversation is quite important. Take at least 30 minutes to do this. Spend time in other spaces, do something good for yourselves, or distract yourselves. For some people exercise works well, for others music, or reading. Figure out what you need to process emotions like anger. When you find that you are ready to listen to the other person, and show empathy and understanding, then you can return to the conversation.
- Try out for yourself the next time you have a heated discussion during a break, what will help you distract yourself and process your feelings.
3. Curiosity for your partner
Discussions are not easy for many couples. You can make conversations easier for each other by adopting a position of curiosity. When you adopt this attitude, try to remember that you never know your partner completely, that there are still things to explore and understand about each other's inner lives. For this it is also important that you manage to keep a distance from your position and want to understand the other completely.
- This can be expressed, for example, as follows: "I would like to understand why ... is so important to you. Can you help me with that? Can you explain it to me?"
4. Remind yourself of your love for your partner
Remind yourself that you love the other person and that this discussion does not fundamentally challenge that. Even if this conflict is difficult for you right now, remember: the other person is someone you value and love. Perhaps you can also recall a specific moment when you felt close to your partner or when you were grateful to your partner. If you'd like to read more about gratitude in relationships, feel free to check out this blog article on gratitude in relationships. Couples therapist Terrence Real talks about how remembering this basic love for your partner can help you present a concern or side in conflict more calmly and with more understanding.
- As an example, you can say to yourself, "Even though this conflict is difficult, I value and love my partner very much." Recall a moment when you especially felt that closeness and love.
5. Understanding and empathy for the other person's position
It is important that you show understanding to your partner in conversation. This is true even if it concerns only a part of what has been said that you can understand. In doing so, you are saying that from your partner's perspective, with their needs, desires, and fears, this reaction is understandable. This is not about whether your partner's feelings or thoughts are right or make sense from your perspective. If you meet your partner empathically, then it is about you putting yourself in your partner's place, and starting from this perspective, understanding. In doing so, you help your partner feel understood and heard.
6. Talking about yourself and naming feelings, needs, and wishes
As a general rule, in conflicts it is important that you always address your positions starting from yourself. It is important that you do not blame your partner or accuse them of their behavior. You can say things like "I feel.... I wish...". Because what you say about yourself, that is your perception, your feelings and needs, your partner does not feel attacked. If you talk about your partner instead, it can quickly seem like an accusation or an attack. When you talk about yourself, it is important that you also address the objective situation, your feelings and needs. This is the only way your partner can understand you thoroughly. Do you have difficulties recognizing your feelings and needs? Then you can find more information in this blog article. If you want to read more about the method of addressing conflicts, you can find it presented in detail here.
- Example: "When we don't spend an evening together during the week, I feel sad because time together is totally important to me. I wish we would take an evening together twice a week."
7. Allow vulnerability and emotional expression with your partner
If something is moving you, showing emotions to your partner is actually a great sign of trust. Does something make you angry? Sad? Then the relationship is also a place to allow and show that. It's important to share your emotions and not just keep them to yourself! So bringing up things with strong emotions is totally okay, as long as you discuss it and you feel safe in the relationship to share those emotions with each other. Of course, this does not mean yelling at your partner, or in any other way directing your anger or sadness at your partner.
8. Staying on the specific topic
It often happens to couples that they switch from one topic to another. However, it is important that you do not generalize, but rather discuss this one situation in conflict. Otherwise, the conversation will keep meandering through topics, and you won't be able to end it well. Therefore, to clarify the conflict, it is important that you do not bring up other situations from the past where similar behavior occurred, but stick to this one situation.
- Instead of "...and last month, and four months ago you didn't have time for me either," rather talk about what just happened: "last week we didn't take much time..."
9. Avoid "never, always"
Also, it is important that you do not use generalizations when addressing something with your partner. If you use these generalizations, then it is very likely that your partner will get into a defensive posture. As explained above, this activates a danger mode, and conflicts cannot be discussed well. Therefore, it is important to stay with the one situation and not generalize.
- Instead of, "You never want to spend time with me!" it is better to say, "This week we have spent little time together. Can we change that together?"
10. Address conflicts openly and create clarity.
In addition, it is also important to have these conversations in the first place. Keeping quiet and letting conflicts bury themselves inside of you is not very helpful. Instead, this only leads to emotions piling up, which then continue to be present under the surface. Then, in the next best situation, they can quickly and easily burst out. Addressing conflicts directly and expressing yourself clearly is therefore very important. Avoid interpretations at all costs! If you are not sure how the other person meant something, then ask. It can also help if one person explains his or her point of view first, and then the other person summarizes it. You can read more about the active listening technique here in this blog article.
- "I'm not sure I heard you correctly. I heard that it bothered you that we didn't spend much time together last week. Is that true or did I forget something important?"
11. Take responsibility and apologize
When your partner is hurt, it is important to acknowledge responsibility for your behavior. It doesn't matter if it was your intention or if (as it is for most people) you didn't mean to hurt the other person with your actions. Nevertheless, it is central that you acknowledge your share of responsibility. (This doesn't apply to situations where your partner is constantly hurt, angry, or annoyed with you, and you don't know why. In those situations, it's better if you/they seek professional help.)
- "I'm sorry that hurt you. I can understand that it made you sad how I acted this week. How can we find a solution in the future?"
Conclusion on 11 fair fighting rules for couples
In this blog article, you learned what rules can help you with fair fighting as a couple. You can discuss these rules together to deal with each other in conflicts in a way that strengthens your relationship. Because you can learn to deal with each other in such a way that your mutual understanding is strengthened and you get to know each other better!
Would you like to work on your couple communication? Then get in touch with me!
- Rosenberg, M. B. (2015). Nonviolent communication: A language of life (3rd ed.). PuddleDancer Press.
- Real, T. (2022). Us: Getting Past You and Me to Build a More Loving Relationship. Rodale Books.
- Johnson, S. (2008). Hold me tight: Seven conversations for a lifetime of love. Little, Brown Spark.