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.

Metacommunication and boundary setting

In a previous post I wrote about metacommunication as a concept in communications theory. It’s the idea that every verbal communication in a relationship works on two levels: the message content, and as a means of defining (or re-defining) the relationship. It’s as if every statement within a relationship were preceeded by, “We have the kind of relationship in which I can say to you _____.” This kind of metacommunication starts early in our development. When a rebellious three-year-old says to a parent, “I don’t have to if I don’t want to!” he’s testing the limits, attempting to re-define the relationship as one in which he has the power. When the parent replies, “Oh yes you do!” she’s re-affirming her definition that she, as a parent, has the power in the relationship.

Metacommunication has another meaning in the realm of interpersonal communication. Two people in a relationship metacommunicate when they talk about the way they talk, communicate about their communication. It’s a good way to address boundary issues when they arise, whether with a friend or spouse, or in therapy. “How are we doing?” is an open-ended way to initiate metacommunication in a long-term romantic relationship.  The invitation to metacommunicate by one of the partners in the relationship has led to the early, easy resolution of many a misunderstanding or relationship conflict. When two people metacommunicate in good faith, they usually come out of the discussion with a shared definition, or re-definition, of the nature of the relationship and its boundaries.

Here are some examples of metacommunications: “I don’t feel comfortable when you talk that way.” “Hey, can we come up with a ‘time out’ signal for when we’re both too angry to talk?” “You seem to be easily annoyed lately.” “I wish you’d stick to the issue and not bring up old stuff.” Metacommunications can also be positive: “I really like the way we handled that.” “We’re getting better at avoiding silly arguments.”

The clearer the boundaries in a relationship, the less likely that conflicts and power struggles will come about. Boundaries can involve issues of personal space, preferences regarding communication habits and styles, performance expectations, kinds of preferred touching, standards for personal disclosure, sexual boundaries, and many other issues – especially in intimate, committed relationships. People who can metacommunicate in good faith spare themselves and their partners unnecessary conflicts.

Obviously, some people are better than others at setting and maintaining boundaries. Assertive people can more easily set boundaries and confront people who cross them. People pleasers and shy or passive people might find it hard to deal with people who cross their boundaries. Assertiveness is, to some degree, a learnable skill.

Metacommunication only works to improve communication in a relationship if both parties are honest with one another and sincerely want a positive outcome. The words “always” and “never” are seldom helpful, and the use of I-statements can facilitate the process. Almost anything that can be expressed in a you-statement can be re-framed as an I-statement. Open-ended I-statements  (“I wish we went out more often.”) are easier to take in than absolute you-statements (“You never want to go out anymore.”) I-statements can be used to express anything in a metacommunication: I wish, I think, I feel, I expect, I love/hate, I want/need, I don’t like it when _____.

When people in long-term relationships don’t metacommunicate in good faith, the parties can get stuck in dysfunctional patterns, and problems can stack up. There can be frequent misunderstandings and hurt feelings. Important thoughts go unexpressed, important feelings are repressed, and intimacy suffers. In troubled marriages, learning to metacommunicate in good faith can break up logjams of misunderstandings and hurt or angry feelings. It’s a skill I taught to many couples in therapy, along with “rules for fair fighting.” I’ll cover those in a later post.

 

Communication and metacommunication

This post will explore some of the basics of Dr. Eric Berne’s Transactional Analysis (TA), one of the popular theories in the humanistic psychology movement, and will also briefly cover “metacommunication” as a principle in communication theory. Eric Berne is perhaps best known for his book The Games People Play, which popularized some of his concepts regarding TA – a psychoanalytic theory. Another popular book about TA was I’m OK, You’re OK, by Thomas Harris.

Communication theory posits that every statement made within a relationship works on two levels: the content of the statement, and as a statement about the nature of the relationship. So I’ll start with some thoughts on what a relationship is and the different kinds of transactions that occur in relationships. A relationship can be a casual ongoing series of social transactions, such as your relationship with your postal carrier or a store clerk whom you see from time to time, or it can be something deeper. Dr. Berne listed the kinds of transactions that occur in relationships, from the superficial to the intimate.

The most basic transactions are what Berne called rituals, polite exchanges that superficially acknowledge a relationship, but contain no real, meaningful content. “How are you doing?” “Oh, I’m  fine. Hot enough for you?” The next level of transactions is pastimes, where two or more acquaintances pass the time together, watching TV or playing a game, with no sharing of meaningful content. After that is activities, where people get together to engage in purposeful pursuits, with a goal in mind, without getting past superficial interpersonal exchanges. In the next level of transactions, games, there’s an effort to connect and share meaningful communications, but the people involved engage in inauthentic manipulations. It was this level of transactions that Berne primarily focused on in The Games People Play.  A popular song borrowed its title: “Oh the games people play now/ Every night and every day now/Never meanin’ what they say now/Never sayin’ what they mean.”

TA is a psychoanalytic theory because it re-casts Freud’s superego, ego and id as parent, adult and child, and analyzes games in relationships within that framework. I’ll write about games and crossed transactions in a later post. For now I’ll just say that the highest level of transactions in TA is intimacy: non-manipulative, authentic relating.

Having said that relationships can range from superficial to intimate, now I’ll elaborate on communication and metacommunication. On one level, any statement within a relationship is characterized by its content, whether it’s a “How ya doin?” communication that simply affirms that a relationship exists, or whether it contains more meaningful content. But on another level, metacommunication, the statement is a comment on the nature of the relationship. It’s as if every statement within a relationship were preceded by, “We have the kind of relationship in which I can say to you ______.” If you have no problem with the statement, then you and the person who said it agree on the nature of your relationship. If you find the statement creepy or inappropriate or offensive, there’s a disagreement about the nature of your relationship.

Take the example of a newly-single mother,  the night after Dad – who used to be the sole parental disciplinarian – moved out.  With Dad gone, Mom has had to take on that role. The first time Mom (in Dad’s absence) tells Junior it’s time for bed, she’s saying. “We have the kind of relationship where I can order you to go to bed.” If Junior complies, putting on his pajamas and brushing his teeth, he’s affirmed Mom’s new role. If he replies, “I’m not ready to go to bed yet,” he’s attempting to reject Mom’s new definition of their relationship, implying, “I don’t have to do the things you tell me to do if I don’t want to.” If Mom lets Junior stay up, she’s let him define the relationship. If she says, “Nine o’clock is your bedtime. If you’re not in your pajamas with your teeth brushed in ten minutes, no TV or video games tomorrow,” she’s asserting that she is the parent and gets to define the relationship.

Another example involves a woman who has just taken a job in an office managed by a lecherous boss. If, on her first day of work, he tells her “You look hot in that dress” and she doesn’t object, she’s  communicating that she accepts his understanding that “We have the kind of relationship where I can comment on your body and make suggestive remarks.” If she doesn’t want this kind of treatment to persist, she needs to reject his assertion as to the nature of this new relationship. “Mr. Smith, I know you meant that as a compliment, but I really don’t feel comfortable with you talking to me like that.” In saying that, she’s asserting that the relationship is professional, not personal, in nature.

I’ve found this principle of metacommunication to be very helpful in making sense of the complexities of human interactions. (Or, as Eric Berne would have it, “analyzing transactions.”)  You already know intuitively, from your own experience, the essence of what I’ve written about in this post; I’ve just given you the principle behind what you  know,  and given it a name. The term has another meaning that I’ll get into in a later post: within a relationship, metacommunicating means communicating about how we communicate, talking about how we talk together.