5 ways to fight fair in a relationship.


fight fair

Learning how to fight fair in a relationship is an incredibly important skill for any long-lasting relationship. It’s a common misconception that ‘happy’ couples rarely or never fight. Actually, most healthy and functioning relationships have regular arguments. It’s not the number of fights, but the techniques used when fighting that really matters, says John Gottman, Ph.D. of the Gottman Institute.

The Gottman Institute has nearly 40yrs of research into relationships, marriages, and divorce, and has some fascinating results that every couple could bear to read. So instead of trying to avoid arguments with your partner (let’s face it, it always bottles up for later), try to use these techniques instead:

1) Start it right

Gottman found that the way a conflict discussion begins determines how its going to end 96% of the time. Meaning, don’t start the conversation with yelling, eye rolling, personal attacks. Take your time, start a conversation gently, and be prepared to give the other person time to talk. If it sounds more like a rant/lecture/soliloquy, than it’s not really a healthy discussion.

2) When you get flooded, take a 20min break

You know the feeling when you just HAVE to get your point across? But your heart is racing, your teeth are gritting, and you just want to shake the other person because they are so frustrating and clearly not getting it? That’s because they can’t get it. And neither can you. Your physiological arousal is so high that your brain is focused on preparing the body to run and/or fight. This inhibits your ability to take on new information and use cognitive reasoning. Gottman suggests that when you notice your pulse rising and heart pounding, to agree to take a break to both calm down. Walk away, self soothe, breathe, and then return. The change in conversation and mood can be amazing.

3) But, no running away

There is a major difference between both agreeing to take a break, and one or more parties running away/escaping/storming out. This can feel very abandoning for the person left behind, which can do more damage than good. For some people, especially if they were raised in an environment with violence or regular distressing conflict, running away is their instinctual response to feel safe. In this case, have a discussion as a couple and agree to what will be done if someone needs to leave. Some couples have a time-out sign or a break word as an indicator that they need to leave. But remember that you will come back and finish the conversation when both of them are calm.

4) Don’t get mean

Healthy marriages that last the distance are able to have fights without getting mean. Set some ground rules with your partner (when you are both calm and in a good mood). For example, no name calling (“you idiot!”), no threats (“if you don’t do what I want I will just leave”), no dismissing (“whatever”), and no sarcasm (“oh because you are just SO perfect”).

Related: The 4 most damaging communication styles.

5) Learn how to repair afterwards

Couples that fight fair, usually know how to repair after a fight or when they have used the above ‘mean’ techniques to hit below the belt. This can happen in one of two ways:

  1. Repairing during an argument. Some couples are able to diffuse an argument by using humour or affection. This is a sign to the other person that they know things are getting out of hand. This is not the same as dismissing or avoiding a discussion, but rather trying to repair with your partner when things are getting off-track.
  2. Repairing after an argument has finished. Once the argument has come to an end (regardless of the outcome, remember its not about winning), try to do something that brings you together as a couple. It might be as simple as a hug, going for a walk, or cooking dinner together.

Remember that no-one is perfect, but the ability to have reasonable and fair arguments is an important part of any healthy and long-lasting relationship.


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*Disclaimer: This advice is for the majority of functioning couples without physical or emotional abuse. If you are in a domestically violent relationship, you can seek help by contacting Lifeline or 1800Respect.






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    1. jessmccallum

      Yes! No need to keep suffering if you can take a break.

  1. The Gottman research is fascinating to read – I love how they can predict if a couple is likely to last or not! From my own experience (married for over 25 years now) I would have to say they are pretty spot on! #teamIBOT

    1. jessmccallum

      I agree Janet! Long term relationships take work, and learning how to have an argument with respect is SO important.

  2. My husband and I are one of those couples that do rarely argue. In most things we see eye to eye. Still I think it would be good to have a discussion about what is frustrating during an argument on the very rare occasions that we do we have them. I just never think to bring this topic up.

    1. jessmccallum

      How wonderful! And as Gottman says, its not about how much you argue, but HOW you argue that makes a relationship work. A clearer understanding of each other’s styles and frustrations would always help in the long term:)

  3. I’ve been married for nearly 31 years now and we argue quite a lot. There are some really good points here that I’ll take on board – thank you!

  4. After 20 years, I think we have our handling of disagreements under some sort of workable control. Having said that, I’m sure the next few weeks of chaos will be trying.

    1. Jess

      The stressful times always bring out our worst habits…mine being a tense, snappy mess of a wife! But clear communication should make it a lot more manageable.

    1. Jess

      Yes, so important! You can make your point without getting personal.

  5. I really really needed to read this today.
    I will definitely try to apply the taking a break to our arguments, I think it would help us greatly.
    Thanks so much for this excellent post.

    1. Jess

      I am so glad that you found this helpful Tory! It can be so hard to take a break when we are wound up and really want our point heard, but it can be much more productive to be able to listen with a more calm mind.

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