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6 Ground Rules for Fighting Fairly in a Marriage

Keep them in mind when tempers flare.

Maybe you’re the kind of couple that argues without ever yelling at one another. Maybe you’re the passionate kind who talk so loudly that people mistake it for yelling until you actually do yell and then whoa boy. Or maybe you’re the kind whose arguments only take place after a few days of simmering in passive-aggressive silence. Whatever your particular style, fights need to happen. Disagreements are natural and useful. The key isn’t trying to avoid them, but rather figuring out how you’re going to get through them with as minimal damage as possible. And that requires some ground rules. Here, then are six rules to remember the next time you have a big argument.

Don’t Go Low

Don’t resort to name calling or throwing out insults. Not only does it derail the original argument, but it can create lingering resentment even after things have cooled off. “Stick to talking about what you observed and how you felt/feel,” says Mallika Bush, a Bay Area license marriage and family therapist. “Couples should practice speaking observations when they are not in an argument as it’s very easy to fall back into patterns of blame and projection.”

Use “I” and Not “You”

When outlining an issue to your partner, frame it in a way that illustrates how it’s making you feel as opposed to what it is they’ve done wrong. If you’re too focused on assigning blame, you can come across as accusatory, leading your partner to close themselves off from hearing what you want them to hear. “The reason why that’s important is because beginning things with ‘you’ tends be experienced as criticism and elicit defensiveness in your partner,” says Dr. Tanisha M. Ranger, a licensed clinical psychologist in Nevada, “leading to a complete breakdown in communication.”

Leave the Past in the Past

Sometimes a simple debate can flare up into a full-blown war when past infractions begin to get dredged up. Keep the argument on whatever the current issue is. Delving into the past can only drag out the argument and stir up more negative emotions. “You don’t want to label your spouse based upon past mistakes,” says Coach Andi LaBrune, a relationship expert and mentor. “Allow them to change and allow them to be who they are now. If it’s the same offense, deal with this offense now. You can talk about how their current offense makes you feel now, that is totally acceptable and should be conveyed.”

Set Designated “Cool Off” Time

There’s nothing wrong with a timeout to gather your thoughts or let off some steam. Walking away from an argument doesn’t mean you’re walking away from the issue, it just means you’re taking a necessary breather to avoid saying or doing something that could make a bad situation worse. “When we are triggered into emotionally reactive states, we are not able to take in new information or have empathy for the other person,” says Bush, “thus trying to work through an argument with someone who is flooded with emotion will only lead to further hurts and upsets.”

Embrace the Differences

By remembering that your spouse is an individual with their own feelings and points of view can help you to look at the argument from their perspective and maybe understand their feelings better. “They say that opposites attract and that is true in a way,” says Dr. Ranger. “We are attracted to people who complement us, who have strengths where we are weaker. It’s all lovely in the beginning but as the relationship progresses, we start to view differences in approach as deficiencies in our partners. Making sure to nurture our friendship on a day-to-day basis helps to form that habit of giving each other the benefit of the doubt.”

Don’t Be Afraid to Call in Outside Support

Every good fight needs a ref and there’s nothing wrong with seeking out a therapist who can help you peel back the layers of your relationship and get to the core of what’s been bugging you both. “Having a therapist who is able to assist you in understanding each other better, hearing what each of you need and helping you both see where you’re areas of growth can save a relationship,” says Bush. “I’ve seen many couples who come to therapy too late or don’t stay long enough to make a long-term difference in their relationship.”