Rules for “fair fighting”

Lovers are going to fight sometimes – hopefully, only with words. It’s inevitable, because no two people in an intimate relationship are a “perfect match” in terms of habits, preferences and expectations. Boundaries have to be set (and re-set) because each of us is unique, and adjustments are inevitable in a healthy relationship. The balance of power is an issue in many or most romantic relationships. Joni Mitchell wrote  (and sang) “You and me are like America and Russia,/ We’re  always keeping score./ We’re always balancing the power,/ And that can get to be a bore.” I know a lot about balancing the power, not only from my own personal experiences, but from years of doing couples’ therapy, as a psychologist.

Knowing that conflict is inevitable in lasting intimate relationships, I studied, and came up with my own set of rules for “fair fighting,” to minimize destructive messages and to keep open the possibility of mutually satisfactory resolutions. Dialogue can be constructive or destructive. Destructive arguments can leave wounds, which can either fester or heal over time. If both partners act in good faith with one another over time and earn to fight fairly, old wounds can heal, and they can avoid lasting damage to the relationship. Here’s my list of rules:

(1) Practice the Golden Rule, and remember that there needn’t necessarily be a Winner and a Loser when you and your partner have a disagreement. The Golden Rule doesn’t mean that you always have to treat your partner the way they want to be treated; it means mutual respect for boundaries. “Okay. I agree to stop bringing up that time you got drunk and cheated on me ten years ago, but you don’t get to shout at me.” Yelling, cursing, and degrading language are all counterproductive to mutual understanding and harmony.

(2) If one or both of you has lost your temper, either of you can call a time out. Stop talking, trying to get the last word in. It’s hard to be rational when you’re angry. You may or may not need to  physically separate during the time out, but don’t resume the discussion until both of you have cooled down. Repeat as necessary. It might help to write down your thought and feelings during the time out, if that helps you to get perspective.

(3) Stay on topic. Deal with one problem/issue at a time. Avoid “and while I’m at it . . .” digressions, and don’t drag in past grievances. Don’t stonewall, i.e. refuse, over time, to discuss a topic that your partner thinks is important. Don’t deflect or pivot: “Let’s not talk about me, let’s talk about you.” Try to avoid blaming statements. Take turns doing active listening and ask for clarification if you need it. Ask neutral questions that elicit feedback, such as, “Does that make sense to you?”

(4) Try not to generalize. Be as specific as you can, and avoid absolutes like “always,” “never,” and “every time.” These generalizations are seldom objectively factual, and tend to elicit defensive responses. Statements like, “We never make love anymore” trigger thoughts counter to that statement, i.e. “We made love last Wednesday.”

(5) Avoid questions-that- aren’t-really-questions – statements phrased as if they were queries, usually starting with “why” or “what.”: “Why are you always on my case?” “Why don’t you act like a real man (or woman)?” “What do you take me for – your maid?” “Why are you such a big baby?” Such statements in the form of questions invite a defensive, and sometimes angry, response. There’s no “answer” to the “question” that would satisfy the asker.

(6) I-statements (first-person) are usually much easier to digest than you-statements (second-person), which can be contradicted, argued over. If you start a sentence with “I feel/want/think/wish . . . ” your partner can’t contradict you, because you’re the final authority on how you feel and what you think. It’s easier to hear and understand, “I wish you’d spend more time with the kids” than ” You hardly ever spend tome with the kids,” let alone “Why don’t you ever spend time with the kids?” It’s easier to hear “I think you’re wrong” than “You’re wrong.”

Metacommunication is talking about the way we talk. Here’s an example: Pat “How do you think we’re doing, applying those fair fighting rules we learned in counseling?” Lindsey “I think we’re doing better, but I wish you’d stop bringing up the past when we argue. How do you think we’re doing?” Pat “Well, we haven’t had a shouting match in weeks, so there’s improvement. I need to work on ‘one topic at a time.’  But I don’t like it when you get angry and keep going on, after I call a time out. We need to stop talking and cool off when either of us calls a time out. It’s just not important for one of us to get in the last word.”

Shakespeare wrote, “Love does not alter when it alteration finds . . .”. True, lasting love involves tolerance. True love will find a way to rise above conflicts, in service of harmony.

The happiest man in the world

I collect stories and used storytelling as a therapeutic technique throughout my career. Stories can be transformative and can trigger insights. Here are my re-tellings of two of my favorite teaching stories:

John was a very sad man. He suffered from what the Germans call Weltschmerz (world pain). The pain of the world weighed heavily upon him. He had a loving family and friends, and made a good living, but nothing gave him satisfaction. He was so depressed, he often thought about ending his life. But then one day he met a kindly old man, who asked him why he looked so sad. John poured his heart out, ending his account by expressing his hopelessness that he could ever find lasting happiness. The old man smiled at him and said, “I know what you can do to cure your sadness. You  need to track down the happiest man in the world and ask him for his shirt. When you put it on, you will know happiness.” “But how will I find him?” John asked. The old man replied, “If I were you, I’d travel to Istanbul and follow my nose wherever it takes me, then ask around. If he’s anywhere near, people will know, and they’ll tell you what they know. Seek him with your whole heart, and you’ll find him.”

John immediately quit his job and sold all of his worldly possessions, other than what he could wear, or carry on his back. He thought he had enough money to bankroll his quest, and booked passage to Turkey on a tramp steamer. When he got to Istanbul, he took a train east, but soon got off, sensing that he had to go the rest of the way on foot. Most people he asked knew nothing of the happiest man in the world, but others smiled, pointed to the east, and wished him well. A few claimed to have seen him, themselves, and gave John their blessings.

After a while John lost track of which day of the week it was, or which country he was in. He was meeting all kinds of people, and learning to make himself understood in new languages. He walked dirt roads through beautiful valleys and walked up and down mountain paths, avoiding cities. But he went on, because he knew he was getting closer to the itinerant man he sought. Now people were telling him things like, “I saw him go through town just last month” and “Two weeks ago he was in my home village, on the other side of these mountains.”

Bandits stole all of his money, and John came to rely on the kindness of strangers as he went on. His clothes were ragged and he had holes in his shoes. Strangers were not always kind, and he didn’t get to eat every day. When people didn’t take him in for the night, he had to sleep wherever he could find shelter. It seemed like the happiest man in the world was always just one or two days ahead of him.

One day John entered a village – he didn’t even know where it was – hungry, weary and raggedy. In the village square he inquired if anyone knew the whereabouts of the happiest man in the world. One of the villagers said, “Oh, he was just here!” When John’s face fell, the man pointed down the road and said, “If you go about two kilometers in that direction, you’ll find him under a big tree off to the right, in sight of the road.” John grew excited and pushed on, despite his exhaustion.

Sure enough, two kilometers down the road he spied a ring of colorfully dressed people surrounding a huge tree, dancing and singing. He ran and joined the circle. There, under the tree, danced a laughing man, who had to be the happiest man in the world. All of his few worldly possessions lay beside him on the grass. And then John noticed that he was shirtless, and realized that the happiest man in the world didn’t own a shirt! And with that knowledge, John knew happiness.


Here’s another (very short) story about material things and happiness: A zen monk lived in a simple hut on a mountainside. He owned only the essential things he needed to sustain independent life – straw bedding, a blanket, cooking and eating utensils, a few tools, and a change of clothing. One day he went down to the nearby village in the valley. When he returned late at night, he discovered that thieves had stolen all of his meagre possessions. But he laughed, seeing that the thieves had left the moon in his window.

Joni Mitchell (my favorite female poet/troubadour) recorded her song, based on this story – “Moon at the Window.”  You might also want to check out “I Got Plenty o’ Nuthin'” on the soundtrack of George Gershwin’s classic American opera, Porgy and Bess.