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10/20/2014 03:21 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

How To Fight Fair (If You Don't, It Could Mean Divorce)

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Couples fight — that’s normal. But how you argue — especially how you end an argument — can determine the long-term success or failure of your relationship. When you don’t agree and get worked up about it, do you hit below the belt? Call each other names? End up reciting a litany of wrongdoings over the last three decades in an attempt to make your point? Not only is that not productive to the disagreement at hand, but it also could be destructive to your relationship.

"Disagreements are going to occur," says Dr. Phil. "The question is, do you go into it with a spirit of looking for resolution or do you go into it with a spirit of getting even, vengeance, control? You'll never win if you do that. If you make your relationship a competition, that means your spouse has to lose in order for you to win. It's not a competition, it's a partnership."

Follow Dr. Phil's specific rules for fighting fair, and you might find that your differences of opinion can lead to constructive changes in your relationship.

1. Take it private and keep it private.
If you have kids, do not fight in front of them; it’s nothing short of child abuse. It can and will scar them emotionally — all because you don't have the self-control to contain yourself until you can talk privately. When children are subjected to open hostility and fighting between the two people they rely on for their safety, that sense of security is shaken to its core. They often blame themselves for the argument and it erodes their self-esteem and confidence. If they could, they would shout, “Can you people shut up?”

2. Keep it relevant.
Put boundaries around the subject matter so that a fight doesn't deteriorate into a free-for-all. Don't bring up old grudges or sore points when they don't belong in a particular argument. When you fight about everything, you fight about nothing. So set up a boundary and say, “We’re going to resolve this by staying focused on this one issue until we reach a resolution.”

3. Keep it real.
Deal with the issue that is truly bothering you, not with a symptom of the problem or with the little things that irk you daily. “The damn dailies,” as Dr. Phil calls it, don’t take guts to address; it might just be safe ground to beat each other up over. Get real about what is bothering you, or you will come away from the exchange even more frustrated. Remember: anger is nothing more than a symptom of an underlying hurt, fear or frustration. If what you are arguing about is anger-driven, one of you has not gotten real about what is truly going on. Have the courage to give your true feelings a voice.

4. Avoid character assassination.
Stay focused on the issue, rather than deteriorating to the point of attacking your partner personally. Don't let the fight degenerate into name-calling. When you ratchet up the rhetoric, what are you hoping to accomplish? What’s your payoff? Are you just venting your frustration and letting off steam, even though you are not getting any closer to a peaceful resolution? What do you think your partner is saying to himself after you hit below the belt? It hurts — and that hurt can last a long, long time.

5. Remain task-oriented.
Know what you want going into the disagreement. If you don't have a goal in mind, you won't know when you've achieved it. When you’ve got an end game, you won’t go down in the gutter in an immature way; you’ll quit when the time is right. For example, if you’re looking for an apology, you need to shut up when you get it.

6. Allow for your partner to retreat with dignity.
How an argument ends is crucial. Recognize when an olive branch is being extended to you — perhaps in the form of an apology or a joke — and give your partner a face-saving way out of the disagreement. If you fail to allow your partner to retreat with dignity, you are in trouble because that is the number one predictor of divorce. Whatever happens, you must be a gracious winner and allow your partner to walk away with his dignity in tact.

7. Be proportional in your intensity.
Lighten up! Every single thing you disagree about is not an earth-shattering event or issue. You do not have to get mad every time you have a right to be. Don’t go nuclear over little things. Keep your reaction proportional to the level of the grievance. Your partner will appreciate it if you let them off when they know you could have made a bigger issue out of it.

8. There's a time limit.
Arguments should be temporary, so don't let them get out of hand. Don't allow the ugliness of an argument to stretch on indefinitely.

9. 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.

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