Jeff Parziale Ph.D., M. Div.

“It is difficult not only to say the right thing in the right place, but far more difficult to leave unsaid the wrong thing at the tempting moment.” — George Sala

Saying the wrong thing or giving the wrong message, at the tempting moment (wrong time) can chip away the very fabric of what could be a satisfying relationship. Therefore, I have compiled the following guidelines, which I call “Fair Fighting Rules,” that can help you and your partner solve problems more effectively. These guidelines have evolved from years of research and clinical experience. These rules can assist a couple in sharing their feelings and thoughts concerning a tension-filled subject. They are effective in helping couples understand one another and yet avoid destructive and negative communication patterns. The biggest cause of failure in relationships is the inability to solve problems and have healthy conflict.

Rule #1 TIMING is of the essence. Choose a time when an important discussion will not put a damper on other activities. Find a time when there will be enough time. You can ask your partner to suggest a time for the two of you to discuss a particular topic. Choosing a place is also part of the timing decision. It will take maturity and self- discipline to manage this timing element. For example, think to yourself, “Okay, I am upset about this and need to talk about it, but I am going to put it on my shelf until an appropriate time.” It may be then that you approach your partner and set a later date to share feelings and thoughts about the issue. Then when the appropriate time comes, take the issue or concern down from the shelf and discuss it. Don’t try to solve problems when one or both of you is rushed, hungry, tired, sick or irritable—it never works.

Rule #2 NO HITTING BELOW THE BELT. This is obviously a term borrowed from boxing. Just as in the boxing arena there are some places you just do not go if you want to fight fair. Following are some tactics which are considered below the belt (don’t do these!):

1) Direct or indirect name-calling. Name-calling is a low blow and will always bring pain and regret. Name-calling is not appropriate for one another nor is it appropriate to direct such titles to friends or family of the other. No foul language or name-calling.

2) Verbal or non-verbal threats. Threatening anything is a power play and does not have a place in healthy conversation. No threats.

3) Physical violence. Physical violence is a choice and such a choice comes from a fearful heart. This option is never an appropriate tactic. Violence is coercive, intimidating and manipulative; it’s about winning at all costs.

4) Changing the subject when you are losing. Solving problems isn’t about winning; it’s about getting understanding each other. If you are wrong, admit it and move on.

5) Bringing in other topics or people. Stick to the subject at hand. Deal with only one issue at a time.

Rule #3 USE I MESSAGES. These are essential when discussing a difficult topic. An “I” message reduces defensiveness, retains control, shows acceptance of responsibility. Whereas a “you” message promotes defensiveness, gives away power, gives responsibility to the other person. Talk about how you are feeling, not how you think the other person is feeling or “how” they are “making” you feel. No one can make you do or feel anything. Avoid “always” and “never” in you conversations.

Rule #4 SHARING FEELINGS is a vital part of discussing a tough topic. Identify what you are feeling and share your feelings with your partner. The “I” message is a terrific vehicle for this communication. Listen carefully to your partner and give your partner messages of hearing and understanding what you are being told. If you are not sure, check it out. Learn to accept whatever feelings your spouse shares. Feelings are not wrong, but what we do with them can be.

Rule #5 CHECK OUT GRAY AREAS. If you need clarification for what your partner is saying, ask. Mind reading is a land mine in a relationship. When in doubt, ask. Nearly half of all arguments are due to misunderstandings. Relationships should never be “shoot first and ask questions later.”

Rule #6 BE UP FRONT IN YOUR REQUESTS. Say what you want and ask your partner for his or her requests. Be clear about your needs and what you want your partner to do. Give details and get details. Compromise and negotiate when it is beneficial to the relationship.

Rule #7 FAIR FIGHTING MAKES YOU A TEAM. These guidelines are not to be used as weapons or to create win/lose situations. The goal is to strengthen the team. Just as you are yoked together, work together. Just as a team of oxen yoked together must work together as a team to accomplish their task, so must a couple become a team.

Rule #8 KEEP ON KEEPING ON. Do not give up on the relationship. Couples have about ten issues they will never agree on. Some will be serious and some not so serious. Sometimes you will only be able to share your feelings. There may be no change and you will need to accept things as they are and move on.

Rule #9 WHEN IN DOUBT—PRAY. Love like God loves. Love means caring about your partner. Selfishness kills relationships. Let God be your partner.

Rule #10 CELEBRATE. When you succeed in solving a problem —throw a party. Enjoy successes. Learn from the experience.