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Fighting Fair

May 9, 2009 | by Emuna Braverman

Five rules on having a good fight with your spouse.

"You never listen to me." "You always take his side." "You never take out the trash." "You always leave your laundry on the floor." "We never do what I want; we always do what you want."

What's wrong with this picture?

There is no marriage without fights, even the good ones. It is impossible for two human beings to live together for years, day in and day out, without clashing. Fights are inevitable.

What we need are tools for fighting fair. The real problem in this example is not the issues, but the style. There was no gradual built up, no preliminary negotiations, no diplomacy; it was war from the get go.

One of the first rules of fighting fair is to start slowly. Don't jump to the highest level of escalation at the outset. Give your spouse a chance. One way to avoid this destructive strategy is through Rule #2: Be specific.

The reason this fight is particularly unproductive and damaging is the use of the words "always" and "never." Them's fightin' words. They are guaranteed to really rile the other party. They are guaranteed to be provocative. They are a broad personal attack (Rule #3: Avoid broad personal attacks!) and lead to a hurt and defensive response.

The more effective strategy is to focus on the particularly frustrating situation. "I was pouring my heart out to you about a disturbing situation at work and you were watching ESPN." "When you take my brother's side against me, I feel unloved and abandoned." "I am so overwhelmed by all my chores and responsibilities that when the trash isn't taken out, it puts me over the edge."

Not only does this diffuse the situation by focusing on a specific need as opposed to mounting a general attack, it illustrates another successful battle tactic. Rule #4: Take the responsibility on yourself.

Your husband isn't bad for not taking out the garbage; you just can't function like this. Your husband isn't wrong for taking your brother's side, but this is how it makes you feel. It's not that your husband shouldn't be watching sports while your heart is breaking...well, I guess this one is an exception. It's like we tell our teenagers: It's not that I don't' trust you; it's the other drivers I'm afraid of.

And finally, rule #5: Recognize that you are both on the same side and want the same outcome. When two countries fail at the negotiating table and immediately end up on the battle field, it's frequently because their goals are diametrically opposed (we want to exist; you don't want us to). In such a situation, the war escalates rapidly. But in our marriages we are not on opposing sides. We are on the same side. We both want a restoration of peace. We both want to refocus on our shared goals and pleasure.

Warring countries ratchet up the hostilities very quickly. Loving couples should try equally quickly to ease the tension.

We need to remember that we are not operating in opposition. We want each other's happiness. It's frequently just a misunderstanding. "I didn't realize how important it is to you that the garbage be taken out immediately" (do you get the impression I'm a neat freak?). "I didn't know my dirty laundry bothered you." (Okay, that's stretching it!) "I'll try to remember to put it in the hamper." "I thought you also enjoyed hiking (yes, if it's along Fifth Avenue!) --what would you like to do?"

With a deep breath, recognition of our share goals, a few easy tools and, as always, the Almighty's help, we won't be able to completely avoid the fights in our marriages, but we can make sure they are fair ones.

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