When a friend tells me they want to date someone, I ask them why. They always say "she's pretty, funny, and kind", or "he is handsome, funny, and cares for me". Obviously. Have you ever wanted to date someone because they are ugly, boring, and mean?
So, rather than asking more questions where they will wax poetic about the wonderful qualities of their prospective partner, I ask one simple question:
How do they fight?
Anyone can be nice to someone when they are "in love", or when they feel it is good for them. It takes skill and character to argue fairly, and it will tell you a lot about a person in a very short amount of time. For the same reason you should pay attention to how someone treats waiters, janitors, and others who they don't have to be nice to. It reveals a depth of character that you can't otherwise see.
This list I put down is the rules Kristi and I try to abide by. We don't always follow this list; but we do try. It dramatically improves the quality of our disagreements, helps us grow to love each other even more, and avoids causing damage to the relationship.
Rules for Fighting Fair:
- Don't yell. If you start yelling, call off the discussion and come back later.
- Don't yell. If you yell, they will dig in and fight harder.
- Don't yell. If you yell, you are causing far more damage in one minute than can be undone in twenty.
- Stop fighting, and start discussing. People can discuss things with angry tones and mean looks. Tell the person you were arguing with that you don't want to fight, you want to figure out what's going on and make it right. A discussion can be productive, a fight cannot be.
- Don't be so blinded by the topic at hand that you cannot listen for what heart issues are operating beneath the surface.
Example 1: Her reaction to your feedback on her driving is not about driving, it's about a sense of control, and a desire to not feel out of control. She knows how to drive, but feels like her life is out of control, and your feedback makes it feel like one more thing - driving - is out of her control.
Example 2: His procrastination is not about being lazy, but a deep, deep fear of rejection and a sense of perfectionism, which is motivated by a fear of rejection. You can nag about doing something, or you can help him understand why he is equipped to go forth and JFDI.
- You cannot talk about "heart issues" if you are yelling and arguing. So stop yelling and arguing. You are now talking in normal voices, and discussing.
Reaffirm long-term goals. (Also known as "keep your eye on the prize".) Are you trying to score rhetorical points and tear them down? If so, you are the problem, not them. Are you trying to love them and you want good things for them? Let them know. When you're fighting, it's easy to think they hate you, and that they are a miserable excuse for a person. Inform them that they are wrong. You do, in fact, love them and are committed to them. (That's true, right?)
Don't call them names, or ascribe negative character traits. They are not stupid, they did something that you need help understanding. They are not disrespectful, they did something that seemed disrespectful. Encourage them even in the way you bring up "problems". Give them the benefit of the doubt.
You bring just as many warped perspectives and screwed up ideas to the table that they do. Don't put the blame all on them.
Arguments are frustrating. Verbally "pause" the argument, and ask for a hug. Then keep talking. Or shelve the discussion and come back later.
These are Kristi's additions to the above list:
- Don't interrupt
- Don't yell (Do you see a theme here?)
- Don't make sweeping statements like "never" and "always"
- Phrase things like "this is what I'm seeing" or "this is how I feel" instead of "this is what you did"
- Don't say "why did you do that" say "can you help me understand where you're coming from"
- Genuinely try to put yourself in their shoes
- Give each other the benefit of the doubt
- Never hang up on each other
- Pause - remind each other that you love each other.
This entire list can be summarized in one rule: When fighting, be respectful and loving.
This is a tall order, for the record. We certainly don't have it figured out, but we're working on improving the quality of our fights. Already they are pretty good, and we want them to be better. I would recommend you talk with your significant other regularly about the quality of your arguments. It is time well spent.