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Can Couples Really Fight Fair?

Updated: Nov 13, 2019

Why is it so important to have mutually agreed upon ground rules when it comes to disagreements between couples? - 35 years of research by John Gottman, PhD, the country's leading relationship researcher, shows one big


thing: Problems/Arguments do not end relationships, TENSION does. In order to fight fair, you have to find small ways to avoid the tension that can come up during bad fights. Feel free to get angry with each other, but just don't do the 4 things I outline below.

What are the most important ground rules to establish?

There are 4 main styles of fighting to be avoided, which when accomplished, will lead to a 'fair' fight. Couples need to avoid criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and "stonewalling".

  1. Criticism is any talk that involves blame. The way to avoid it is to talk about what you want, not what you don't want, and talk about yourself, not that infamous "you" word directed at your partner.

  2. To avoid getting defensive, the antidote is to find something, if only a small piece, of what your partner said to validate. Validation is not agreeing; it's saying "I can see how from your perspective you would want _______".

  3. Contempt is name calling, belligerence, or any kind of moralistic stance toward your partner. It has a 94% correlation with divorce, says Gottman, and should just be avoided at all costs.

  4. Stonewalling is an act of passive aggression when you put up a wall to your partner. You stonewall when you hang up the phone, walk out of the room yelling "I'm fine, no really I'm FINE!!", or wringing the newspaper in your partner's face, pretending to be invested in your reading material.

The biggest reason to avoid these simple 4 things is because they have been shown to escalate tension in an argument. Anger is not the issue; it's these 4 things that get couples in trouble.

How will these ground rules positively affect the outcome of the argument and the emotional health of the couple?

When couples abide by these ground rules while arguing, all the sudden arguments become more productive. Imagine that. You will actually come to solutions from your conflicts, at least ones that you can try out temporarily, and then reevaluate later if needed.

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