In Parts 1, 2, & 3 of our 4-part Relationship Communication Series, we’ve covered some serious territory. We looked at why you might be attracted to a specific mate, the phases of conflict within your relationship, and how to bring your A-game as an individual. While experts are divided on their specific communication advice, the moral of the story is the same: If you want your relationship to work, you’re going to need to work on it.

Conflict is inevitable in any relationship, but it’s how you manage conflict that will determine whether you stay happily married or whether you’ll eventually end up signing divorce papers…or living together in marital misery. In a perfect world, we wouldn’t fight at all. Clinical Psychologist Susan Heitler believes that accepting fighting as normal part of married life is simply a flawed perspective that allows you to set unnecessarily low standards for your relationship. Other experts believe that all couples fight and that a cooperative discussion isn’t always a realistic solution when you’re facing strong emotions. So, if you must fight, fight fair. Here are the rules of the game:

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The Rules of Fighting Fairly

Of course, we don’t recommend that you engage in a knock-down-drag-out war with your partner. Yet, it might be more realistic to express your anger in a healthy way than to attempt coming to a side-by-side consensus… at least, maybe, just not yet. When it comes to fighting fairly, John Gottman–a Psychologist at the University of Washington who has studied the role of arguments in relationships–specifically recommends avoiding these toxic behaviors:

  • Don’t be stubborn. This isn’t about you winning, it’s about the relationship winning.
  • Don’t become defensive.
  • Don’t make excuses. Take responsibility for your role in the conflict.
  • Don’t make whining complaints.
  • Don’t focus on what you want your partner to stop doing–instead focus on encouraging behaviors you might rather see.
  • Don’t jump to conclusions about what you feel your partner might be thinking or feeling.
  • Don’t make disrespectful or insulting remarks. Of course, no name calling. Ever.

The American Psychological Association states that “couples that use destructive behavior during argument-such as yelling, resorting to personal criticisms or withdrawing from the discussion-are more likely to break up than are couples that fight constructively. Examples of constructive strategies for resolving disagreements include attempting to find out exactly what your partner is feeling, listening to his or her point of view and trying to make him or her laugh.”

Other ways that you can stop a fight from escalating include paraphrasing what your partner has said and repeating it back to them, looking for a solution instead of disagreeing, and suggesting a compromise. Aaron Beck, a Psychiatrist at the University of Pennsylvania, believes that Dr. Gottman’s study lines up with what he has found in his clinical observations–that certain types of fights do help couples to clarify and resolve their differences.

Beck warns, ”The worst kinds of fights are those in which partners resort to character assassination and blame; it just leads to a dead end. But when you state a concrete, specific complaint, then there is a good chance it will lead not just to a resolution, but to an improvement.”

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The Role of Wives

In Gottman’s study, he found that wives are the “emotional managers” in most marriages. In an article for the New York Times, Dr. Gottman states,”The wife is usually the one who brings up disagreements and makes a couple confront their differences. Our results suggest that a wife’s anger is a valuable resource in a marriage.”

Though, at the time, most of us don’t appreciate our partner bringing up said disagreements, airing grievances and resolving conflict is a necessary evil. When we’re trying to have a nice meal, run errands, or simply enjoy some much-needed downtime, it might put a damper on our good mood, but a female’s ability to address the issues and positively express her anger can actually be incredibly beneficial to the health of the relationship in the long run.

To reap the biggest benefits, wives should bring up topics in a way that won’t drive their partner away. If you express your anger in a way that causes your husband to withdraw or become defensive, communication shuts down. As a husband, it’s important to let your wife know that you’re listening, to be respectful, and to acknowledge that the topic needs to be dealt with. For both partners, it is important to keep the argument (and their anger) within healthy limits. Though anger can be productive, Dr.Gottman states that “fights in which tempers or feelings like fear and sadness get out of hand bode poorly for a couple.”

How do you handle conflict in your romantic relationship? Has the win-win waltz worked for you or do you believe that fighting (fair) is an inevitable part of love and marriage?