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Dr. Gail Gross Headshot

14 Tips for Fighting Fair With Your Partner

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There's an old saying: a woman marries a man thinking that she will change him -- and she doesn't; a man marries a woman thinking she'll never change -- and she does. Life is about change, and all relationships are in motion.

There are many trees in our forest. There is the happy tree and the sad tree; the good tree and the bad tree; the generous tree and the greedy tree; the compassionate tree and the rejecting tree. This is what it is to be human, and, as Freud said, "the human dilemma."

When we fight, we typically enter the ring with our child tree. We are angry and we have a loss of control. However, in healthy fighting, we must say to the child tree, "You have no capacity to help me here, so you stay behind and I will step forward with my adult tree, the part of me that can navigate conflict."

Healthy fighting begins with empathy. After all, this is your beloved with whom you are fighting. The empathic process is a positive way to disagree, problem solve and find compromise.

The rules of engagement for the empathic process include:

1. To fight as an adult, we recognize that no one is perfect.
We move our attitude from all or nothing to realistically accepting the foibles and failures of others without trying to convert them. This requires both planning and empathic communication. Yes, I'm actually telling you to plan your fight.

2. Find a neutral spot.
It is important to find a neutral location for this exchange. Do not choose anyone's office space or power place; no one's bedroom or sexually-charged environment. Rather, choose to have your discussion in the kitchen -- the heart of the house, a place where alchemy happens.

Divide your speaking time by thirds, each speaking one-third of the time without defense and with intimate listening, which requires touch -- holding hands, for example. Then, the last third of the time is used for mutual dialogue, a conversation in which problems are solved or compromise is considered. The important message is to never defend accusations from one's partner.

3. Simply and genuinely listen. Be there.
Be present in the moment with interest. Really listening means to open your heart and shut off any inner dialogue that attempts to answer what your partner is saying. Use descriptive language to explain your feelings and never interrupt.

4. Open your heart and be flexible.
Remember that we are a species in evolution and our lives are always in motion. People change. Situations change. It is important to be able to go with the flow. Though we all fear the unfamiliar, by being flexible, we can be available to the change and growth of our partners and ourselves.

5. Be honest. Don't perform for approval.
Say what you really feel, not what you think your partner wants to hear. Value yourself and validate yourself. If you do, your partner will value you as well. Mutuality is essential in relationship. So, listen to your inner voice and be who you are. That is the only way to be loved.

Trust is based on experience. Honesty really is the best policy. Don't keep secrets that are important to the relationship from your mate. If you do, they will ultimately turn around and bite you. It is better for your partner to hear the truth of any situation from you. Once trust is broken, it is very difficult to rebuild.

6. When fighting using the empathic process, it is important to fight fairly.
Never use any information about your mate in a negative way. If your partner reveals something tender, hold it sacred. If in the heat of battle you attack your mate with a shared confidence, you will not be given that confidence easily again.

7. Never fight on an empty stomach, or when tired or distracted.
Discuss with your partner a good time for both of you to engage in the empathic process. You might set up a weekly encounter, which helps to keep the lines of communication open.

8. Never personally attack your mate.
You can criticize the problem, but never your partner. Express your feelings as your feelings, not your thoughts. Don't play the blame game. Own your own feelings and express them in a responsible way. For example, instead of saying, "I think," say "I feel."

9. Don't read your partner's mind.
Don't tell your mate how he or she feels. Listen, and let your mate tell you what is on his or her mind. Never project your feelings onto your partner. That only leads to fights centered on your projected material, and time lost fighting battles that do not exist.

10. Honor the process.
Don't try to make anything happen, but rather see where your dialogue takes you and trust that because you love each other, you are capable of going there.

11. Keep your dialogue balanced.
Don't use this fight to bring in earlier problems and disagreements. Fight fairly by not using ammunition from older hurts and injuries.

12. Stay open to your natural self.
Don't play a role and behave in a way that is uncomfortable for you. If you're sorry, say you're sorry. Be at ease with your feelings. We all make mistakes, but the greatest mistake is to put on a performance for a reaction. If you feel vulnerable, show your vulnerability. Love is a safe place, and you are loved because of who you are.

13. Never save stamps in a relationship.
Don't keep score. Don't keep a running account of hurts and injuries. Keep in mind that the other person is your beloved, and therefore, don't hold grudges.

14. Finally, if the relationship is out-of-control, immediately seek professional counseling.
Many relationships have been lost that could have been saved from the inability to ask for help. Pride has no place in intimacy. We all make mistakes and have misunderstandings. And if the relationship cannot be saved, you are always free to leave.