Fighting Fair: The Rules of Engagement

Many people go into marriage (and relationships) expecting it to be conflict free. They have some utopian concept that love is some hazy, rose-coloured affair where both parties live in eternal euphoria. Without a doubt, they wake up sooner or later; sometimes much sooner than later.

Any sort of relationship involves conflict. As long as there are different kinds of people with different opinions and expectations about things, there is bound to be conflict. Now, conflict is not necessarily a bad thing. If it is handled well. Depending on how it is handled, a fight can either tear you apart or bring a closer level of intimacy. In the words of Dr. Phil

How you argue — especially how you end an argument — can determine the long-term success or failure of your relationship.

A primary requirement for any fight is to maintain control. You do not have the license to be childish, abusive or immature. If you have legitimate feelings, you are entitled to give a reasonable voice to those feelings in a constructive way. (That includes not being self-righteous or taking yourself too seriously.)

That is the crux. How well do you manage conflict, especially in your relationship? Do you have rules of engagement? One major thought bear to in mind would be to choose your fights. Not every fight is worth fighting. You might indeed have a legitimate case but you need to be clear about what your goal is when you go into a fight.

Are you fighting just to prove you are right? To score one? Or are you trying to foster understanding by setting clear boundaries and ironing out the relational wrinkles? Keep that at the back of your mind when next you are tempted to start (or participate in) a fight.

If you are in a long term relationship, it might be important to get together and set your rules of engagement. This will help when conflict arises. Below are 10 rules to get you started. They could be more (or less). . .choose what works for you.

1. Listen. Let the other person speak and really listen to what they’re saying.

Listening is not just an art, it is a mandatory skill in any relationship. Yet it is the one skill people often find difficult to implement. It takes a lot to quietly sit and listen to what another person has to say, especially in a conflict situation, and not get defensive. defines being defensive as being excessively concerned with guarding against the real or imagined threat of criticism, injury to one’s ego, or exposure of one’s shortcomings. That can most definitely stand in the way of actual listening.

Recently, I read an article about the different types of non-listeners. The article was written by Darren Hardy, the publisher of Success Magazine, and in describing the characteristics of people who do not listen, this particular description caught my attention:

The Blockheads. They spend the conversation thinking about what to say rather than listening at all. They will scan the conversation, lock onto a point they want to make and shut off hearing you at all so they don’t lose their mental point—making it obvious with their facial expressions and body language that they are impatiently waiting for you to (finally) take a breath or end your (dang) sentence. They then respond, and you realize they didn’t listen to you and missed the point completely.

He also mentioned the Offenders, the Intruders and the Egoists. Find out what sort of listener you are and if you fall into any of these categories, make a decision to really listen.

2. Acknowledge the other person’s hurt.

Sure, you are hurt too. But the other person is probably as (and in some cases much more) hurt than you are. Once you accept the fact that whoever you are in conflict with is also hurting, it becomes a little easier to know that it is the hurt that is speaking and not necessarily that person. We tend to say so many things, some of which we do not mean, when we are hurting.

3. Do not call names

Never, never, call names. As soon as that begins, what could have been a simple, resolvable disagreement quickly spirals out of control and goes downhill.

4. Don’t use abusive language;

Agreed, it might be somewhat difficult to be respectful while in a conflict situation but that is no excuse to use abusive language.

5. Do not walk out.

As much as possible, stay and see the fight to an amicable conclusion. I have heard advocates of the ‘walk out’ technique say it enables them calm down when the situation gets heated. Maybe. However what walking out usually tends to do is a) give you enough time to ruminate and then get madder or b) enable you to successfully suppress the anger, which is not healthy at all as suppressed anger generally has a way of rearing its head in the most unimaginable ways. What that serves to do is prolong the drama. What could probably have been resolved with 5 minutes of talking takes a whole day because one person walked out. When there is a fight, try not to prolong it. Talk it out.

6. Never use something told to you in confidence;

This is very important. The bedrock of any relationship is trust and using against a person, something told in confidence is a violation of that trust. In all relationships: lovers, parent/child, friends, teacher/pupil, the need for emotional security is paramount. You need to know that you can trust this person with your heart and your secrets. When that is absent, the relationship suffers and fights turn ugly.

7. Do not refer to a past fight which has already been settled. Don’t dig up old dirt!

If you keep bringing up issues which have already been resolved, you will not move forward.

8. Take responsibility for your feelings and your actions.

Sure, you cannot help how you feel about something or about what someone has said BUT you need to know that regardless of the catalyst, your feelings are yours and yours alone. You feel because you are alive, not because someone else is alive. Stop blaming others for how you feel or for the anger you feel deep inside. You can do something about it therefore you need to own it!

Instead of saying ‘you made me angry’ or ‘you hurt me’, say ‘I was angry because of ….’ or ‘I felt hurt by …..’. Stop the Blame Game!

9. Do not forget that it takes two to tango – therefore admit to yourself that you are partly responsible for the fight.

If you refuse to participate, there can be no fight. Of course, refusing to give expression to your feelings cannot be healthy either. The goal is to do so in a way that will minimize conflict. There might still be conflict but it does not have to be the bridge-burning type.

10. Have enough courage to apologise.

A lot of people have a problem with this. They know they are wrong and maybe they are even sorry. Saying it is like trying to swallow a huge horse; it just does not go down well. Some people are more comfortable showing that they are sorry, which is fine if you are dealing with someone who understands you. However just saying the words sometimes goes a long way to soothe and to heal a possible breach in the relationship. Try and practise it once in a while. It is not hard, look the person in the face and say I am sorry. And mean it.

If you have any more tips for successful conflict resolution in relationships, please leave a comment. I would love to hear from you.

This was originally posted on this blog on May 27th, 2008 as Tuesday Tips: How to Fight Fair. This is a re-worked version.

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