Bonnie Carroll: The Fine Art Of Fighting Fair – March 9, 2011

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

On Valentine’s Day, many couples make a little extra effort to be nice and to treat each other special. But now that the day is past, the work must continue on mastering the art of maintaining a healthy relationship, getting along and learning to handle conflicts in a way that helps to improve your relationship rather then weaken it.

Mythology and management

One common myth of the elusive “great relationship” is that couples get along nearly all the time. The reality is that conflict is part of every relationship. Healthy conflict resolution will build trust and enhance and deepen the intimacy and connection in the relationship.

Resolving conflicts in a healthy manner requires emotional maturity, self-control, and empathy. Conflicts can be complicated, frustrating, and even scary at times. You can ensure that the process is productive by developing and sticking to established ground rules when a conflict arises.

It is important for a couple to discuss and agree to the ground rules when they are both calm and getting along well.

The ground rules for a fair fight can include no name calling, no diagnosing, no comparing your partner to other people, sticking with the current conflict and avoiding bringing up past grievances, and steering clear of generalizing behavior (“you always do this or that”). Be careful around highlighting areas of personal sensitivity for the other. Highlighting the issues that your partner is particularly sensitive about will create an atmosphere of distrust, resentment, and vulnerability.

The ground rules should also include being specific about what is bothering you. Vague complaints are hard to work on. It’s good to remember to use “I” statements and own your own thoughts and feelings. Try to stay focused on the issue at hand. Make sure that your love and care about the other is always tapped into and communicated during the conflict. It is also helpful to remember and share the positive things about your partner. It is easier to hear criticism if it’s blanketed in compliments. A good ground rule is at least two positive observations for every negative one.

You may also want to agree that only one person can go crazy at a time. If your partner is having a bad day, instead of matching that energy, take time to supportively listen to their story and try to understand what is really upsetting them.

Crucial communication

One of the keys to a healthy relationship is communication. Communication can be a problem when one is unable to hear and understand what the other person is trying to say. These misunderstandings can lead to hurt feelings, anger, the withdrawal of love, feelings of rejection, a sense of isolation, and shame.

In order to facilitate clear communication, it may be helpful to restate what you have heard, so you are both able to clarify what has been understood thus far. This will allow the other person to know if additional information is needed.

Another key to a good relationship is to avoid keeping secrets from your partner, even if you’re trying to protect them. These unsaid truths can build up to create fissures that will break down your connection, trust and intimacy.

People often try to suppress or ignore irritations or frustrations. These little annoyances can explode into an outburst that doesn’t seem to match the seriousness of the trigger. But the outburst is often not just about the trigger; it is a result of building frustrations. To avoid the build up of these frustrations, you want to communicate about your little irritations. When you start to feel your frustration level rising, your body will let you know when it’s about to blow if you pay attention to it. You can feel the frustration and anger start to build in your belly and rise up through your torso as you become more and more close to the exploding point. To alleviate this rising pressure, you can begin to use “I Statements” about what is frustrating you. For example, “I feel frustrated when the dishes are left on the counter.” “I feel upset when you stay out late with your friends.” “I feel annoyed when the towels are left on the bathroom floor,” etc.

While it’s important to communicate about little frustrations to avoid the build up of anger, it is also good to pick the battles that are really important to you. Conflicts can be draining, so you want to consider whether the issue is really worth your time and energy. It’s a balancing act between picking your battles and not letting frustrations build up.

Body language also communicates some of the most important information during a conflict. This nonverbal communication includes eye contact, facial expressions, tone of voice, posture, and gestures. When you’re in the middle of a conflict, paying attention to your partner’s nonverbal communication may help you figure out what they are really saying. This will help you respond in a way that builds trust and gets to the root of the problem. Other nonverbal signals such as a calm tone of voice, a reassuring touch, or a concerned facial expression can go a long way toward defusing a heated exchange.

This ability to control yourself is built on a foundation of emotional awareness. Emotional awareness is the key to understanding yourself and others. If you don’t know how you feel or why you feel that way, it will be difficult to communicate effectively and smooth over disagreements. Although knowing your own feelings may seem simple, many people ignore or try to sedate their strong emotions like anger, sadness, fear, and shame. Your ability to handle conflict depends on being connected to and owning your feelings.

The pauses that refresh

Whenever either person is feeling angry or out of control, the couple should agree to take a time out to calm down and then return to the discussion when they are in a calmer state. Resolving a conflict when you are calmer will prevent overreaction and create an environment where you are both able to hear and understand the other person’s point of view.

Although it is important to take time outs, a different issue is using the silent treatment as a weapon in a conflict. The silent treatment does not lead to positive conflict resolution. It often results in unresolved conflicts and can leave both people feeling frustrated, angry and resentful.

It is also good to resolve conflicts before going to bed unless both partners agree that it is ok to “sleep on it.” For many people going to bed angry and aroused from the unresolved conflict will led to a disturbed or sleepless night which may exacerbate the conflict and an agitated state of mind the following day.

It is important to be able to forgive your partner for mistakes made. Truly resolving a conflict and moving on is impossible if you’re unwilling or unable to forgive. If you hang on to a need to punish your partner for a perceived transgression, it will only lead to fissures in the relationship and further deplete and drain both your lives.

It is important to know when to let something go. If you can’t come to an agreement, agree to disagree. If a conflict is going nowhere, you can choose to disengage and move on. But this will only work if you can both really agree to let it go and not resurrect it during the next conflict.

Fun and flexibility

For some people, the use of humor can be a helpful tool to communicate about things that might otherwise be difficult to say without creating conflict or resentment. However, it’s important to use humor in a sensitive manner. You have to avoid humor that may hurt your partner’s feelings, be embarrassing, or lead to feelings of shame for them. Also be careful to avoid humor that is really masking aggression or anger. When humor and play are used appropriately, they can reduce tension and anger, reframe problems, and put many situations into a lighter perspective.

Another key to healthy relationships is being flexible enough to make sacrifices for your partner. Once you understand what your partner needs to be happy and emotionally healthy, you may discover that some of your needs and desires conflict with theirs. It’s important to examine yourself to see what needs and desires you can sacrifice to help the other have their needs met. A healthy relationship usually includes some sacrifices from both parties.

Once you’ve mastered the art of fair fighting and communication, you are on your way to clearly understanding and empathizing with your partner: where they are coming from, what they are thinking and what they need.

Having fun together is a very important part of a healthy relationship. A healthy relationship may not be able to survive if it’s all work and no play. Moreover, people grow and feel good about themselves when they have new and inspiring experiences and share laughs with their partner.

Make plans to do activities together that you both enjoy at least once a week. Other times it may be good to set aside your own preferences and do activities that your partner enjoys.

Desire and diligence

One important aspect of a healthy relationship and deepening sense of intimacy is sharing positive sexual experiences with each other. Research shows that couples with a healthy sex life tend to be happier and healthier. If there are barriers to a healthy sex life in your relationship, work on breaking them down. If you need help, contact a trained sex therapist. For many people, a healthy sex life is based on a positive emotional and intellectual connection and taking care of each others needs. Foreplay starts outside of the bedroom. This may include helping with the day to day task of running and supporting the home. If one partner is left doing most of the work, it may reduce their sexual desire. It is also good for both partners to be focused on the needs and satisfaction of the other.

Remember to notice the good things your partner does and see the beauty that is within them. It will be helpful to tell them the positive things that you appreciate about them.

All relationships have ebbs and flows. Patience and diligence in working on your relationship can carry you through the ebb and back to the flow.

If you think it would be helpful to see a therapist to assist you and your partner in working on your relationship, the North Coast Association of Mental Health Providers has a fairly comprehensive list of local therapists. Visit its website at to search for a therapist that will be a good fit for you.

Bonnie Carroll is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker with a counseling practice in McKinleyville. Contact her directly at