Every marriage has conflict. As we often point out, it is not so much how often you fight, but rather what you do when you fight and afterward. Do you repair after conflict? Do you work together during conflict to get to the bottom of issues? Today we have 10 Rules to help you fight fairly.
Since we have so much emotionally and relationally at stake in a marriage, I think it is easy to forget that we need to be decent towards each other when we fight.
In the Bible, Proverbs 18:19 says “A brother offended is more unyielding than a strong city…” and this could as easily apply to a wife or husband. As soon as you actually offend your spouse it really entrenches them into their position. We think that if we use stronger words or language they are more likely to capitulate. That doesn’t work.
As always, when coming to this topic Verlynda and I didn’t sit down and just pick 10 things out of the air. No, we asked our researcher to go into the marriage research journals and see what he could find.
He came up with three studies from 1989 to 2016[i] in which married couples were asked to list rules they thought were important dating with conflict. Hundreds of rules were reported and these were then grouped into common themes by the researchers. From these themes, we developed these 10 rules.
When followed by both spouses, all 10 rules will help you resolve conflict between you more easily and will improve your marital satisfaction. They are not in any particular order: you will probably notice that you as a couple already do some of these, but you may hear some that you haven’t tried or don’t use often enough.
Rule #1: Be Respectful
This one is fairly self-explanatory: show respect and love for your spouse even when you disagree. But think about how you do that:
- Don’t be rude
- Avoid name calling
- Try to keep calm
- Don’t escalate things when you feel threatened
Being deliberately hurtful or aggressive makes conflict much worse and creates a like-for-like cycle where both of you just try to retaliate when your spouse upsets you[ii]. Being calm and respectful allows you to resolve the conflict quickly, without it damaging your bond of intimacy.
This theme of being considerate of your spouse, even during conflict, was by far the most important rule found in the research, accounting for 26% of the total variance in whether conflict resolution was successful or not[iii].
It is probably worth asking your wife or husband: is there anything I can do to be more respectful of you when we’re in conflict?
Rule #2: Say What You Are Upset About (Concisely)
Be direct in stating what you are upset about, and why[iv]. Vague hints, passive aggressive comments and saying “I’m mad at you” without explaining why do not lead to effective conflict resolution.
State what the issue is plainly and concisely, eg “when you do X I feel Y”. Many of the couples in the studies thought that being concise and getting to the point was a very important part of conflict resolution[v]. Doing so allows you to get the issue resolved first time, rather than leaving things unresolved and creating resentment. Knowing what you are upset about and expressing that will help you to get to the bottom of things.
Rule #3: No Ultimatums
This is about times when one spouse tries to force another to do what they want, eg “If you don’t do X, then I’ll Y”. But it can also be when one spouse forces the other to deal with an issue totally on their own terms, eg “You have until tonight to deal with X or I’ll be really mad” or “I don’t care if you’re tired from work—we have to deal with this NOW”.
Threats and ultimatums are unfair- they place too much focus on your own needs, while making your spouse feel cornered and forced into doing what you want (rather than actually agreeing with you)[vi]. This kind of behavior destroys trust and intimacy and creates a lot of resentment.
Instead, aim to express your concerns in a way that is firm but still gives your spouse the choice in how to respond, and be considerate of their situation before making demands. You should be aiming for your spouse wanting to agree with you rather than feeling coerced.
Now please keep in mind that this does not stop you from setting boundaries. For example, “Until you are able to speak to me respectfully, I will not continue this conversation.” The difference between a boundary and an ultimatum is that an ultimatum is more about manipulation or control whereas a properly executed boundary is about lovingly advising someone of the terms under which you are happy to be in relationship with them. One is a threat: the other is about respect.
Rule #4: No Bringing Up Past (Resolved) Issues
Bringing up past issues to add to your argument in the current conflict is distracting, makes the issue harder to resolve and often leads to “scorekeeping” where you both list past grievances. If this is happening, you need to work on forgiveness, and on properly resolving issues the first time around (or raising them when they actually happen rather than bringing them up days/weeks later)[vii].
Sometimes this is called sandbagging because you start piling on a whole bunch of issues. The difficulty here is that if you overwhelm your spouse you may win by virtue of having the most weight in the argument but you’ll lose because they can’t possibly dig themselves out of all of that so they’ll just find a way to bail out.
It’s really helpful to focus in on the main issue that you need to resolve at the moment: stay with that, find closure, take a break and then decide if you really need to come back to other issues as well.
Rule #5: Try to Understand
When both spouses are looking at things solely from their own point of view, it’s easy for both of you to think you are being treated unfairly. This often means that the conflict will end with one of you feeling like you have “lost”, leading to resentment.
But if both spouses make some effort to see the situation from their spouse’s perspective, you are likely to be able to be more considerate of their needs and viewpoint. This leads to easier resolution of conflict, and when you see that your spouse is trying to understand your viewpoint, you feel validated and this creates intimacy.
If you want to take this whole idea of rules and really bring it home to your marriage, we created an exercise for you to go through with your spouse so that you can create your own top 10 rules for fair fighting. Post them on the fridge or keep them handy somewhere and you’ll find that because you’ve created these together you’ll both be working much harder to stay on track. So if you’d like to have more productive arguments that actually get resolves, this is a great way to help yourselves move forward. You can get this by becoming a patron of The Marriage Podcast for Smart People.
Rule #6: Avoid Overwhelm
Actually, this rule came out of the research more in terms of the words, “Be rational”. But I wanted to avoid saying it that way because everybody gets upset to some degree during conflict. That’s why it’s called conflict instead of a discussion.
What I think we really need to work on is avoiding overwhelm so that you can stay engaged with your own brain and also stay engaged with your spouse. Avoiding overwhelm is about really moving towards connection (both within yourself and between yourselves).
Staying grounded will help you be clearer in what you say. This can include things like[viii]:
- Not exaggerating how important an issue is or getting overly angry
- Make it clear what the issue is and how it has affected you
- Making sure you are not being influenced by other factors- eg angry about something else, stressed after a busy day etc
- Not arguing for the sake of arguing, or continuing to disagree when you are clearly wrong
Rule #7: Taking Concerns Seriously
It is unfair not to take your spouse’s concerns seriously, even if you do not see them as being important. Acting like your spouse’s concerns are unimportant to you, stonewalling them, or dismissing their concerns are all likely to escalate the conflict by creating a demand-withdraw cycle. Even if you don’t think an issue is important, acknowledge that it is meaningful to your spouse, and try to understand why.
Part of this is giving your spouse your full attention, and conveying that you are listening through body language and nonverbal cues. This is about being attuned to your spouse.
Rule #8: Honesty
Almost all couples from the research valued honesty during conflict[ix]. Conflict becomes unfair and difficult when one (or both) of you aren’t giving the full picture, are manipulating facts to suit your side of the argument, or withholding important info.
Often conflict can be avoided if both of you understand the full picture and have all the same information, so make sure you are being fully honest and transparent. Honestly (but calmly) expressing your emotions is also important.
Another side to honesty is being honest about whether the conflict is resolved to your satisfaction. Pretending to be happy with the resolution, or going along with what your spouse says while secretly resenting them is not fair and often leads to bitterness.
Rule #9: Joint Resolution
Aim for a fair resolution that you are both happy with, even when this is hard to find. Seeing yourselves as together and on the same side, rather than trying to win the argument, is the best way to do this.
Be willing to compromise and put your spouse’s needs before your own if necessary (that is the principle of generosity at work). If you both look at conflict this way, a fair result is much more likely. This joint mentality is also good for increasing intimacy and trust within the marriage.
Rule #10: Saying Sorry… and Forgiving
Admitting when you are wrong is one of the key themes from the research[x]. Continuing to argue and not backing down when you are clearly in the wrong is unfair as it prolongs conflict needlessly. Admitting when you are wrong and apologizing helps built trust, and also makes your spouse more likely to admit their own wrongs as well.
The flip side to this is genuinely forgiving your spouse when they have wronged you. Forgiveness is consistently found to be one of the most important ingredients in a successful marriage[xi].
Are You Agreed on the Rules?
So those are our ten rules. What do you think? Are there a couple of ideas in there that could help you resolve conflict more fairly in your marriage? In the end, I think it’s less about sticking to all ten of these, and more about deciding which ones work for you and sticking to them as a couple.
Having a clear set of rules for conflict can definitely help in resolving conflict fairly and peacefully, but only if both spouses are aware of, and agree on, the rules[xii]. If spouses have different ideas of what the rules are, this can create further complications. Again, today’s bonus content is based around creating a fair set of rules for conflict so be sure to grab this and set a clear and fair rulebook for conflict in your marriage.
[i] Elizabeth Jones and Cynthia Gallois, “Spouses’ Impressions of Rules for Communication in Public and Private Marital Conflicts,” Journal of Marriage and Family 51, no. 4 (1989): 957–67, https://doi.org/10.2307/353208; James M. Honeycutt, Charmaine Wilson, and Christine Parker, “Effects of Sex and Degrees of Happiness on Perceived Styles of Communicating in and out of the Marital Relationship,” Journal of Marriage and Family 44, no. 2 (1982): 395–406, https://doi.org/10.2307/351548; Katlyn Elise Roggensack, “In the Game of Love , Play by the Rules : Implications of Relationship Rule Consensus over Honesty and Deception in Romantic Relationships,” 2016.
[ii] Honeycutt, Wilson, and Parker, “Effects of Sex and Degrees of Happiness on Perceived Styles of Communicating in and out of the Marital Relationship.”
[iii] Honeycutt, Wilson, and Parker.
[iv] Norman B. Epstein, “Following Rules Can Take Edge off Marital Conflict,” Diabetes in the News, 1988, Academic OneFile.
[v] Honeycutt, Wilson, and Parker, “Effects of Sex and Degrees of Happiness on Perceived Styles of Communicating in and out of the Marital Relationship.”
[vi] Epstein, “Following Rules Can Take Edge off Marital Conflict.”
[vii] Roggensack, “In the Game of Love , Play by the Rules.”
[viii] Jones and Gallois, “Spouses’ Impressions of Rules for Communication in Public and Private Marital Conflicts.”
[ix] Roggensack, “In the Game of Love , Play by the Rules.”
[x] Honeycutt, Wilson, and Parker, “Effects of Sex and Degrees of Happiness on Perceived Styles of Communicating in and out of the Marital Relationship.”
[xi] Jose Orathinkal and Alfons Vansteenwegen, “The Effect of Forgiveness on Marital Satisfaction in Relation to Marital Stability,” Contemporary Family Therapy 28, no. 2 (June 1, 2006): 251–60, https://doi.org/10.1007/s10591-006-9006-y.
[xii] Roggensack, “In the Game of Love , Play by the Rules.”