Conflict in a marriage is a normal result of two different people living together. Unfortunately, if the spouses don’t know how to fight without damaging the relationship, it is usually a reason for the decline in emotional intimacy between the two partners.

And over a period of years, the resulting accumulated cracks in the unhappy marriage can lead to the crumbling of the marriage and the family.

The good news is that fighting doesn’t have to mean that marriage problems are in store. In fact, if you go by established rules for fighting, then the conflict can actually strengthen the marriage by establishing boundaries that are acceptable to both spouses.

You can take action and ask your spouse if the two of you can work together to develop a list of fair fighting rules that you both agree to abide by. Here are some possibilities for you to consider:

  1. Even when you’re in the white heat of anger, think about the possible damage that you could do if you let your anger out unrestrained. The challenge is for each of you to express yourself without damaging the fabric of your relationship. The fabric of the relationship has to be protected. There’s no place in a healthy marriage for a partner who wants to win an argument at all costs, no matter what he or she has to say or do to “win.” The same goes for a partner who wants to “win” by hurting the spouse as much as possible.
  2. Emphasize showing respect for each other, even if you can’t figure out how your spouse could possibly feel the way he or she does. You don’t have to understand it and you don’t have to agree—you just have to respect your spouse’s right to have differing ideas and opinions.
  3. Ban name-calling, cursing, belittling, sarcasm, mockery, screaming, and pushing, slapping, or other physical or emotional abuse. These actions will only cause division and hard feelings between you and will harm your relationship. They will not help you to find constructive ways to settle your differences.
  4. Avoid using words such as “always” and “never,” such as “You’re always late. You’re never on time for anything. I’m sick and tired of always waiting for you.” The words “always” and “never” are examples of over-generalizing, and they stop communication instead of facilitating it. They also divert the discussion from the real issues and turn the focus onto whether or not the other person can come up with an example of a time when he or she wasn’t late but the partner was.
  5. Keep the discussion limited to the issue at hand. Many relationships have an informal “historian” who can recount every mistake the other spouse has ever made. When this happens, the discussion is diverted from the present issue to an argument about what did or didn’t happen in the past, which greatly reduces the odds that the present disagreement will be resolved. Stick with current events instead of revisiting past history that can’t be changed.

Until you and your spouse can discuss emotional issues and have differing opinions without being disrespectful to each other, it will be impossible to tackle the really crucial issues in your marriage with any lasting success. Without mutual respect and the assurance that you won’t be ridiculed, you will both be reluctant to express your true feelings and show vulnerability.

Question: Which if any of the above listed rules on fair fighting have you or your spouse violated during emotional arguments?

Exercise: Imagine how a fight usually gets started with your spouse. Now think of how your spouse usually acts. Imagine yourself biting your tongue and counting to 10, changing your usually mode of reacting.

Reflection: When you change the dynamic of how you react in the beginning of the argument, you can change the outcome of the argument. Remember, it’s easier to put out a lit match BEFORE you pour gasoline on it, rather than after.

–By Nancy Wasson, Ph.D.