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Couple Therapy Session

Fighting Fair

 10 steps to coming out of an argument unscathed 

Couples Counseling Inevitably, disagreements will arise in all relationships.  Believing otherwise is not only naïve, but it can also leave you and your partner ill-equipped to handle conflict.  If the dynamic of your relationship is particularly hostile and you find arguments tend to be circular (rehashing the same set of issues over and over) and without resolve, then the first rule of thumb is this:  if you feel like fighting, don’t.  Find a licensed clinician who specializes in relationship counseling, and air your grievances in the safety of the therapeutic setting.  The reasoning behind this is that if you want to change the outcome of the spat, you have to alter the approach you take in navigating the conflict.  When time after time the same argument erupts with no agreeable solution in sight, the chances are that one more go-round will not change either party’s perspective.

I encourage couples seeking my help to make a mental note, or even jot down difficulties they experience throughout the week. Rather than confront the situation without the proper skills or attitudes in place, this method allows for a healthy way of managing frustrations in the moment.  With this strategy, the possibility for a fight to escalate is minimized and peace is maintained within the home.  Leaving the negative topics for therapy allows for an increase in positive feelings and interactions in the time spent together outside of session.

However, if you are a glutton for punishment and you just cannot allow the opportunity to throw down with your spouse escape you, at least agree to fight fair.  Here are some rules to keep the gloves on and the pain down:
  1. Evaluate the worth – I often ask my couples in session to consider the worth of the argument.  If your relationship is already in jeopardy, ask yourself, ‘Is this worth losing my marriage?’  Sometimes miniscule issues seem monumental because of the hostile dynamic between spouses.  It’s not uncommon for nitpicking to arise simply to validate a complaint previously made.  If you truly want to change the way you interact with your significant other, be self-aware enough to recognize when pride is getting in the way of your progress as a couple.  Be willing to let go of an issue for the betterment of the relationship.

  2. Remember the goal – Another key component to fighting fair is keeping your eye on the prize.  Specifically, assessing the goal for the conversation as well as remembering the goal for the relationship.  Honestly evaluate whether or not approaching the issue at hand will be counterproductive to the goal you are striving to reach together.  By no means am I encouraging you to sweep your concerns under the rug.  Rather, utilize your next couples session to process and overcome the issue in a safe, constructive manner.  Working through issues in real-time is a major benefit to engaging in therapy.                                                                                               

  3. Mind your manners – Sure, this seems like a no-brainer.  But, do you actually put it into practice?  Many couples find that being respectful to each other is more challenging than with anyone else they interact.  If you are approaching your partner to discuss a hot-button issue, prepare yourself beforehand by making the commitment not to degrade, name call, yell, or intimidate your spouse.  Also, separate the person from the behavior.  In this scenario, your partner is more likely to view the criticism as a request for change rather than internalizing it as an inherent flaw.  Lastly, demonstrate respect for your spouse by considering the external circumstances taking place before verbalizing the complaint.  Contemplate what is going on in your partner’s life at the moment.  Is your partner studying for a big test or preparing a presentation for work?  If so, make a mental note and bring the issue to your next session.                                                                

  4. Use your I’s and exclude the U’s – Unfortunately, starting your sentence with ‘you’ can easily become a habit.  However, this tactic renders your conversation doomed from the onset.  Statements like ‘you always’ or ‘you never’ set your partner on the defensive.  Rather than hearing your statement, processing the information, and responding thoughtfully, your spouse’s silent contemplation of rebuttal will likely drown out any points you might make.  So, exclude the ‘you’s and instead use ‘I’ statements.  Saying ‘I feel’ or ‘I think’ is more conducive to a healthy conversation.  This also demonstrates to your partner that you are genuinely trying to change the way you communicate your thoughts and needs.                                                                                                                                                                          

  5. Keep it a party of two – This concept is simple.  In the midst of an argument, do not involve the kids, family, friends, neighbors, coworkers, or random stranger in the street.  Likewise, have the discussion out of earshot of others.  Not only will this create an environment where you will each feel comfortable to share your thoughts openly and honestly, but the drama and fear of judgment will be minimized.  If you have children, I’m sure you know how detrimental it is to their development to involve them in the dysfunctional aspects of your marriage, so please avoid this at all costs.  Children of all ages are sponges and are looking to you to determine what a relationship consists of, and what is normal, acceptable, and expected.  Discretion is key when it comes to minors.                                                                                                                                                                     

  6. Use a safe phrase – I encourage all of my couples to agree on a safe phrase to use when an argument starts to escalate unnecessarily.  This phrase should be respected by both parties and never misused to manipulate the conversation or get in the last word.  Safe phrases may range from ‘I need a timeout’ to ‘Daffodil’ or anything in between.  Implementing this tactic will help control the heat of the conversation and stop the train before it runs off the tracks.                                                                                                      

  7. Behave during timeout – In conjunction with the safe phrase, I work with my couples to establish boundaries to adhere to during the timeout.  Some important components include: how long the break will be, where each partner will go, where neither party should go, what coping strategies may be used, and how the timeout should end.  Each of these expectations are specific to the couple and should be agreed upon before being implemented.  If this conversation has yet to take place, I encourage you to address the issue during your next couples therapy session.                                                                                                                                                    

  8. Leave the kitchen sink out of it – One way to ensure a hostile encounter with your spouse is to bring up one issue after another in the heat of the moment.  This is completely counterproductive to fighting fair and should always be avoided.  Agree to discuss one specific topic and gently remind your partner should the conversation begin to stray.  Staying on the topic at hand will provide a better opportunity for resolve to be reached, while also proving to both of you that conflict can be overcome when dealt with in a healthy manner.  This positively reinforces the much needed communication in the relationship.                                                                                                                                                                           

  9. End with ‘I love you’ – Respect yourself and your partner enough to own up to mistakes made during the conversation.  Humble yourself and ask for forgiveness if necessary.  Likewise, grant forgiveness to your spouse whether or not it is requested.  Most importantly, affirm your love for your partner in a genuine manner either by stating your love or possibly penning a short note.  This is an excellent way to demonstrate unconditional love to your spouse.                                                                               

  10. Let it rest until session – Fighting fair 101:  Once the conversation has ceased or a timeout has been called, make like Elsa and let it go!  Absolutely no talking to friends or family about the problem, as this is sure to break the all-important trust of your partner.  Do not resume the argument later, either.  Agree to disagree for the time being and take the issue to your next counseling session.  This will be a great opportunity to learn and practice new conflict resolution skills in an everyday situation.

I hope these pointers have been helpful to you and I wish you the very best in implementing the strategies suggested.  If you are currently looking for a licensed marriage therapist to work with, I would be honored to come alongside you during this journey towards change.  I look forward to connecting with you soon.

Jennifer