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Fighting Fair. How to Not Punch a Relationship Below the Belt.

Updated: May 11, 2021


It is one of those inescapable facets of life. We find it both terrible and entertaining. We would like to avoid war at all costs but we find constant entertainment in the bloodiest war films. We hate to be in horrible relationships ourselves but we enjoy watching couples fight on television. Most video games, board games, movies, and TV shows need to have some form of conflict to keep people interested.

It would seem that society has a conflicted relationship with conflict.

But what separates boxing from an all out street fight? Why does society condone two people beating each other to a bloody pulp in one situation, but not the other? The answer is simple. One has rules, regulations, and a referee; the other does not.

Is All Fair in Love and War?

For Week 3 of February's Relationships and Rapport, Lisa Finck (A.C.C.), Brooke Adair Walters (M.C.P.C.), and Jerome LeDuff Jr (M.C.L.C.) bring our discussion a bit down to earth and a bit more personal for the average person. We ask: How can we fight fairly in our relationships? How can we prevent a minor conflict from turning into outright warfare?

The First 3 Minutes

Did you know that you can predict if a newlywed couple will end up getting a divorce within the first 3 minutes of any fight? That's right. Researcher John Gottman of the Gottman Institute with the help of fellow researchers studied how couples fought and were able to accurately predict if they would go on to be divorced.

The study and following article, Predicting divorce among newlyweds from the first three minutes of a marital conflict discussion, used hundreds of newlywed couples and analyzed both Positive and Negative data points to predict who would get divorced. So what were these Positive and Negative factors in a fight?


  • Joy

  • Humor

  • Affection

  • Validation

  • Interest


  • Contempt

  • Disgust

  • Defensiveness

  • Belligerence

  • Stonewalling

  • Dominance

  • Anger

  • Whining

  • Sadness

As you can imagine, the couples who had more negative than positive factors within the first 3 minutes of a fight did not last for long. If you begin to notice that your fights start out ugly, then perhaps what you need are rules and a referee.

Rules of Engagement

1. Define the problem

Why are you fighting? What is the source of conflict? What needs to be resolved? Both parties should be on the same page as to why a fight is occuring. It does not help if only one person believes there is a problem and the other doesn't. For example:

Your spouse has started a fight about you coming home on time for dinner. You told her you would be out with friends, she could have just put your food in the refrigerator. You don't think there is a problem. You start stonewalling, she starts name calling, it's no good.

Here's what's wrong in this scenario, you may not believe that you coming home late for dinner is a problem, fair enough. What should be your problem is that your spouse is angry or disappointed with you and you need figure out why. For the spouse, clearly defining why this is a problem can help to resolve the problem.

Saying, "I'm happy you were able to have fun but we agreed that having dinner together was important and it hurts me when my efforts go to waste" goes a lot better than, "you asshole, you always do this!"

2. Set Expectations & Boundaries

This is important for both preventing and working through fights. A couple might curse and call each other names on a day to day basis and have it mean absolutely nothing but once a fight starts they have 1 rule: We can't call each other names.

More possible boundaries? Don't bring arguments to the bedroom. Don't go to sleep angry. Give compliment sandwiches. Don't involve the kid, etc etc.

Setting these expectations is one of the best ways to build trust between people and it demonstrates that no matter what, there is a common set of rules to work from. Each person's boundaries are important and should be established before, not during, a fight.

3. Compromise

Most fights are not going to be about clear cut facts. If you are fighting about the answer to your kid's math homework, most likely there is only one right answer (or you could be both wrong).

But most fights are not so concrete. They are based on the values of the individuals involved where there is wiggle room for compromise.

Compromise does not mean conceding or giving up. Quite the opposite. Compromise should mean that both partners are happy with the outcome and are mutually benefiting.

The Referee

This is an objective 3rd party who knows the rules of a fight and will work with you to make sure there is fair play. No, this is not your friend from college you vent to, this is not your parents or sibling. This would be a disinterested professional such as a life coach, therapist, or relationship counselor.

Having a referee is one of the most important factors in resolving communication and relationship problems as they would be unbiased and educated in how couples can best resolve conflict. These professionals can help you set boundaries, define problems, avoid negative communication, and encourage positive growth.

It's only a metaphor

"We were at each other's throats"

"We got into another fight"

"I'm going to kill him!"

"Why are you being so defensive?"

"She recruited her mother..."

We often take the metaphors we use for granted. They are often so ingrained in our speech patterns that we don't ever think of them as metaphors but they certainly are, and they very much affect the way we interpret the world around us.

The idea of these hidden conceptual metaphors comes from Lakoff and Johnson's Metaphors We Live By. The most common example used?


Your claims are indefensible.

He attacked every weak point in my argument

His criticisms were right on target

I demolished his argument

I've never won an argument with him

You disagree? Okay, shoot!

If you use that strategy, he'll wipe you out

He shot down all my arguments" (pg 4).

It is clear that the way most of us think of arguments is in terms of a battle, in terms of aggression and winning/losing.

The next time you get into an argument think about how you can change this metaphor. What if an argument was like a dance instead? Like solving a puzzle? Or building a house? There are plenty of metaphors out there and arguments need not be fights.

Thank you,

Lisa Finck, Brooke Adair Walters, and Jerome LeDuff Jr.

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1 commentaire

Great techniques! And yes, there is a difference between compatibility vs chemistry (but not many people are aware of it.)

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