How To Fight Fairly
The purpose of a fight between loved ones
Think about your last fight or two and answer the following question before reading further. What was your main goal when you fought with your spouse? Your child? Your friend? The most common answer I hear when I ask this question is: "For the other person to understand why I did what I did." Other common answers I hear are: "To win" or "I don't know--it just happens. It's not like I plan to fight" or "I never thought about it.”
The first thing you must understand is, the purpose of having a fight in a loving relationship is to learn more about how your loved one feels. Your goal should be to understand the other's feelings and have compassion and empathy for them. For a fight to be worth it, the two people should come away closer than before.
The rules of fighting fairly
1. Focus on Feelings, not Facts. When two people disagree enough to cause a fight, one of the common reasons is that each person sees the facts differently.
For example, if a husband and wife are fighting about how much the husband helps around the house and specifically the previous weekend, the wife might say, "You didn't help at all. We had guests coming Saturday night, and I cleaned the whole house myself, cooked everything, cleaned up afterwards and you just got to have fun when everyone was here." He says, "That's not true. Friday night I went out and bought the new grill. Saturday, I put it together and on Saturday night, I was the one outside grilling the meat. I also helped with the dishes." She says, "Yes, but while you were buying the grill, I was feeding and bathing the kids and putting them to bed. Also, grilling the meat is the easy part." He says, "That's not fair. I helped. If you wanted me to do more on Saturday, all you had to do was just tell me." She says, "I want you to figure it out yourself to do more. I don't always want to be the one giving you assignments. I am not your mother (yelling)." He yells, "Then stop acting like it!"
They disagree vehemently on how hard they each worked and whose job it was to determine the assignments. If left on their own, this couple will deteriorate into more yelling and possibly name calling (You're lazy! You're controlling!). However, if this couple had focused on their feelings, it would all be so much simpler. They each want to be appreciated for their contributions, and for the most part, a little appreciation would go a long way.
The Fix: If this couple had focused on feelings rather than facts, the fight would go like this: She says, "I worked really hard this weekend, and I really need some acknowledgment and appreciation from you." He says, "I also worked hard this weekend, and I need the same."
2. Listen with Empathy. Everyone believes they know what listening is, but statistically, most people do a poor job of it. When it comes to fighting, people are at their worst in terms of listening. Each person is so eager to be heard that they don't listen to the other person. If you are forming your next thought while the other person is speaking, you are not listening. If part of your mind is elsewhere or you are on your iphone, you are not listening well. Good listening requires 100% attention. Just give the other person the same attention you want for yourself. Empathy means you leave all of your needs and feelings to the side and imagine what it feels like to be the other person. You try to put yourself in the other's shoes and walk their walk. Most people struggle with empathy.
The Fix: In the case of our fighting couple, if she fought with empathy, she would be able to feel that her husband must feel picked on, unappreciated and treated like a kid. If he fought with empathy, he would know that his wife feels burdened, unappreciated and in need of care-taking.
3. Direct Communication using reflection. The next rule for a fight to go well is for each person to communicate to the other that they truly heard them, understand them, and feel empathy for them. This is called reflection and it needs to be direct and obvious. You say back to the person what you heard them say so that they feel listened to.
The Fix: For our fighting couple, if she would say, "I understand that you don't feel appreciated. I get it, because if I were you, I would feel the same way." He needs to say, "I hear that you felt like it was all on you. I understand how burdened and unappreciated you feel."
When people receive this kind of reflection, they walk away from a fight feeling cared for and understood. Does it matter if you agree with their perspective? I often hear people say, "But, I don't agree that she was burdened, so how can I show empathy for that? I did a lot, so she can't feel burdened." Feelings are not to be examined for truth or agreement. No person can help what they feel. We have no control over our feelings. When you understand that, then you will accept your own feelings as well as everyone else's feelings. What we can control is our behavior. We control what we say and what we do, but not what we feel. If the woman in the above couple cannot control how she feels and her husband understands that, he must accept how she feels. She feels burdened no matter what he actions he performed over the weekend. If he argues with her that she should not feel that way, there is nothing either of them can do to change her feelings. She feels what she feels and either she experiences her feelings alone or she gets understanding from her husband and feels less alone. So, he needs to understand her feelings and share his empathy and compassion with her. Conversely, she needs to do the same for him. Feelings are not to be argued with, only facts can be debated.
4. Apologies matter. It is important to apologize to your loved one for hurting them, whether or not you did something wrong. Most people believe you should only apologize if you are objectively wrong. The point of an apology is not to admit you are wrong. It is to express remorse for causing someone emotional pain. If a person does absolutely nothing wrong, but it hurts someone else, the compassionate thing to do is apologize for hurting them. A heartfelt apology makes all the difference in resolving a conflict. Without an apology, the person who feels hurt will not be able to fully let go or forgive the other person. With an apology, forgiveness is much easier to come by.
5. Forgive and let go. Studies show that in marriages where people forgive each other after a fight, both people report feeling happier and much closer to their spouse. Part of fighting fairly is getting over the fight and moving on. If there has been an apology, the next step is forgiving and getting past the conflict. It does nobody any good to hold on to pain. However, if you find that you or a loved one are doing this, you probably have some part of the fight that remains unresolved. You may have to go back and work through it. Another key point is that part of fighting fairly is not bringing up past fights or emotional injuries in a current fight. Stick with the present and let go or forgive the past.
It is important to fight in relationships. Contrary to many people's perceptions that fighting is bad, it is not true. Fighting is actually necessary for conflict resolution. There are many conflicts that happen in different relationships that are never discussed. One person gets hurt or is angry, but never tells the other person. They hold it in and it is always between the two people. There is no opportunity to fix it, so eventually it pushes the two people farther and farther away. If there are numerous and/or significant issues in a marriage like this, the couple may end up being so distant that an affair or divorce can happen. Remember that the key to happiness regarding fighting is always to fight fairly.