Rules for fighting in marriage are research-based and scientifically proven. While most people think a couple fights to problem solve, that happens only 31% of the time. The remaining issues at hand are "perpetual" differences that don't go away, no matter how long you fight about them.
Why fight in marriage?
Is fighting a sign of trouble? Discussing fair fighting rules requires addressing these questions.
Before discussing fair fighting rules in marriage, we must understand that conflict is normal, unavoidable, and sometimes needed.
It's completely normal to have disagreements with your spouse. People often ask how much fighting in marriage is considered excessive or "too much."
There is no perfect frequency for marital conflict. There are no set rules for how often couples should fight in marriage. People often think fights are bad, but they can actually be a sign that someone wants to make the marriage better.
Rule #1: Don't fight in front of your children.
Decades of careful research have shown that fighting in front of your kids is a particularly toxic behavior. New research has shown that even low levels of chronic conflict leave a lasting imprint, particularly on shy, introverted kids.
If you have to fight, do so out of earshot of the children. Children wake up when they hear yelling, so don't fight when they're asleep unless you speak quietly.
Rule #2: Describe your feelings... Don't become overwhelmed by them.
One of the hallmarks of mental health is emotional regulation. It's the essential guideline for effectively managing marital conflict. To initiate an awkward conversation with your spouse, starting with "I feel..." is an excellent approach.
I feel ignored, furious, disappointed, sad, frustrated...etc. Avoid attacking your partner's character.
Beginning a conversation with "you always...you never...why did you...how could you..." make your partner the problem. No one wants to discuss what is wrong with them. If you feel attacked, you are unlikely to remain calm for long.
Resolving the issue requires you to focus on the subject. And discuss one problem at a time. Talk from your point of view. Don't frame it as THE point of view.
Rule #3: Don't fight in public.
Keep fighting in private. When you do it in public, you make others uncomfortable and invite gossip.
When disagreements arise, learn how to fight by tabling the conversation until you are in private.
Rule #4: Remember you are fighting with someone you love.
Politeness and positive regard are fundamental principles for fairness in disputes. Defang your fights by remembering that this is the person you have chosen to be with.
To feel heard, avoid hitting below the belt. Most partners know the words that will wound. Avoid name-calling or attacking your partner's vulnerabilities.
If they hurt your feelings, tell them that and ask them to take a break. Don't retaliate by trying to hurt back. Escalation isn't the road to resolving conflict. In the long-term, talking from your heart and finding common ground is.
Rule #5: No ambushing.
Pick a mutually agreed upon time to fight rather than resorting to aggressive or confrontational tactics. Make sure no one is hungry or tired. Allow adequate time and privacy.
Remember that the aim is to enable both family members to listen and be heard. Don't be the sole person talking. Allow your partner to express their thoughts as well.
Rule #6: Fight about what's really happening.
Gottman's research tells us that most couples have fights about nothing. They are usually a cover for deeper, painful issues below the surface.
If you feel ignored or lonely, say so. If the last conversation hurt your feelings, speak up. Refrain from fighting about shoes in the hallway when what you want to discuss is feeling disrespected.
Rule #7: Set a time limit on your fight.
Fights shouldn't drag on for hours. Try to agree to a 20-40 minute limit for challenging discussions. Couples can follow the fight rules more easily when they know how long they'll be engaging in them.
Start by saying something like this:
"I want to talk to you for 20-40 minutes about where Jillie goes to school next year. I know we see it differently. I'm pretty sure we won't resolve it in this one conversation. But I want to start it and hear what you think about this.
"When 20 minutes is up, I want us to hug. We can think about it and revisit the issue later. Would that be OK with you?"
End difficult conversations with dignity and grace:
"You've given me a lot to think about. Thanks for being willing to talk to me about it. Let's discuss it further in a few days."
Rule #8: Fighting is an intimate process. Leave friends and family out of it.
Establish and maintain firm boundaries in marital communication. Your relationship with your spouse is sacred.
Nobody deserves to know your personal business. Research tells us that poor relationship boundaries will harm the quality of your marriage.
Rule #9: Had an upsetting fight? Do an "Aftermath of a fight."
If all you've done after the fight is calm down, you've learned nothing. Chances are good that you might repeat the same battle again.
Gottman's Aftermath of a Fight allows you to calmly unpack:
- what you felt,
- what you thought, and
- what you did
...paying particular attention to the triggers that set you off.
You want to learn more about yourself and more about your partner so you can handle yourselves better next time.
Rule #10: Take a break when you are getting testy.
Take a mental note of your emotions, thoughts, and actions. Notice specifically what factors caused you to react negatively. The goal is to know yourself and your partner better, so you can handle similar situations better in the future.
Take a break when you sense conflict is about to intensify.
Conflict is inevitable between intimate partners. But when you don't know how to conduct a fight properly, escalation is often the result. Escalation results in flooding, and that's when hurt feelings are most likely.
Are you flooded (heart rate over 85 or 100 bpm)?
Exit from each other's eyesight and earshot of each other. Breath deeply. Tense and relax your muscles. Read something. Gottman's research clearly shows that reading helps prevent toxic rumination.
You want to calm your nervous system down. After 20 minutes or so, reconnect and see how your partner feels about making another attempt at a more courteous interaction.
But remember that time limits on conflictual discussions are another vital way to help regulate your nervous system.
Rule #11: Use repair attempts.
John Gottman introduced the concept of "repair attempts" as crucial tools for resolving conflicts. Repair attempts are verbal or non-verbal gestures that one partner makes to de-escalate tension during a disagreement.
These attempts can range from a simple touch, a gentle joke, or a phrase aimed at diffusing the situation. They help stop conflicts from worsening and bring partners closer together by promoting connection and understanding.
In practice, people use repair attempts as strategies to bridge the gap during moments of disagreement or tension. Either partner can initiate them, and they are meant to signal a desire for resolution and connection.
During an argument, if someone notices their partner becoming upset, they can pause and express their feelings. They can say, "I'm feeling frustrated, but I genuinely want to understand you."
Repair attempts allow you to own your feelings while expressing a collaborative spirit. Implicitly, it says, "We're friends, even when we discuss distressing subjects."
Couples who attend one of our unique Couples Therapy Intensives leave with a customized repair attempt checklist.
Rule #12: Focus on one topic at a time.
Don't combatively throw every complaint you have at your partner. Keep focused on one issue at a time. We call it "kitchen sinking" or "giving your partner a haircut" in family therapy. It is inherently disrespectful, and it never results in helpful conversation.
It often results in flooding and escalation. Patiently tackle one topic at a time. Don't get overwhelmed during an argument, and introduce new threads. If you have to, write the topic down to keep on track.
Rule #13: Watch your tone.
Research indicates that the words our partner uses contribute only 7% to the overall message. Speech patterns and tone of voice convey a significant 40% of the message.
Words that may seem harmless on the surface can become hurtful if spoken with a demeaning, sarcastic, or disrespectful tone. Watch the ecology of how you address your partner. Talk to your partner as if they were someone you loved.
Final thoughts on fighting fair
Accept that most marriage issues can't be solved (69%). This can help you overcome your fear of conflict. Conflict is inevitable.
Avoiding conflict is unrealistic. Conflict can even be a path to intimacy. Good humor, mutual respect, and patience are the bedrock of these rules for fighting fair in marriage.
There is no "perfect" amount of conflict in a marriage. There's a good way to handle conflict that can help your relationship. They also show your kids how to be close.
The best gift you can give your children is the gentle memory of how you treated each other over time. What will they remember about your fighting rules? Research tells us that they will also model that behavior in front of their own children. After participating in one of our Couples Therapy Intensives, couples are provided with a personalized checklist for repairing their relationship.
Step away from each other so that you are out of sight and hearing range. Take deep breaths and alternate between tensing and relaxing your muscles. Engage in reading as it has been proven by Gottman's research to be effective in preventing negative overthinking.
The goal is to calm down your nervous system. After approximately 20 minutes, reconnect and gauge your partner's willingness to engage in a more respectful conversation. However, keep in mind that setting time limits for conflict discussions is also crucial in regulating your nervous system.