Judith Sherven and James Sniechowski, The New Intimacy: Discovering the Magic at the Heart of Your Differences (Renaissance/St. Martin's Press, 2001).
Fair fighting is lovework—a fierce expression of love for yourself and your partner. Given that, there are very specific commitments you and your partner can make, before and during a fight, that will assure that you are doing lovework instead of doing damage. Remember, every fight is like a flare, an S.O.S. drawing your attention to what needs healing.
1. Your purpose is to find a mutually respectful resolution
During a fight, frustrations are high. Voices are loud. Vision is clouded, even distorted. Both of you can feel unseen, unheard, and unappreciated. That's the time to remember you do love one another, that the point of the conflict is to make sure neither of you sabotages your love by putting up with less than your love deserves. The purpose of a fight is to reconcile your differences and dissolve the distance between you.
2. Remember, you're only human
You're both feeling vulnerable. And, no matter how things appear, you both feel threatened, otherwise there would not be a fight. Since you both are feeling very fragile, it is essential that, even when your hot buttons are pushed, you can count on the fact that you both truly care for each other and that your connection is still there.
3. Sometimes a fight is necessary
Fair fighting is always about getting your grievances out in the open. It's a way of saying, "I'm completely committed to our relationship and I won't let this particular problem continue." You're fighting to stay fully alive, to continue to grow and develop with one another. When you both know this, you will know that a fair fight is a godsend -- an alarm calling you to put out the fire.
4. Both of you are being powerful
In a fair fight, no one is victimized. Whether you're yelling or silent, weeping or walking around the room, insistent or seeking—you are exerting a powerful effect on your partner. The fact that the fight continues is proof of your influence. Even though you may not feel like it, you are having an impact. You have to stay conscious of that.
5. Every fight is CO-created
In a fair fight, you both have to take responsibility for your participation in what created the conflict and what you are doing to resolve it. Whether you raised the complaint, or you are feeling defensive, criticized, whatever, it takes both of you to make a fight. Even when you're angry, threatened, shut down, you still make choices. You are always part of the process.
6. Don't harbor discontent
Commit to speaking your desire and need, dissatisfaction and hurt, as soon as you possibly can. What you keep secret acts like rust and fungus, coat hangers and the stuff in your garage. It keeps growing in the dark. It extends its contagion into more and more areas of your relationship until there is no more room for love.
7. Stay on point
Hash out only one thing at a time. Nothing is more maddening, confusing and ultimately enraging than jumping from point to point, obscuring the problem, making it very difficult, if not impossible, to achieve any kind of resolution. Fighting is serious business. It strengthens and deepens your connection. Give it your best effort. It's lovework.
8. Don't drag up past complaints
Since we all have some trouble keeping the emotional slate clean, it's very easy for the small stuff, and even the big stuff, that gets ignored to fester into buried land mines. And then, in the middle of a conflict, you feel desperate and all that old resentment comes flying out with something like, "Well, do you remember when you...?" Unless your spouse is strong enough to remind you that dragging up the past is out of line, suddenly the fight veers out of control and becomes lethal. After a few more do-you-remember-whens, neither of you even knows what you're fighting about. Then you're liable to throw anything into the mess.
9. Stay out of your individual history
As a basic rule of thumb, you can assume that anger has to do with what's happening in current time. In contrast, rage is like old, dammed-up water. When it's triggered by something, when your buttons are pushed, the dam bursts and rage rushes forth seeking revenge.
These are not principles that you drag out in the middle of a conflict. They are to be discussed and committed to beforehand.
© Copyright, June 7, 2002 The New Intimacy Newsletter