Fighting Fair

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“I am soooo sick of picking up after you!” I said through clenched teeth at my husband, Tom. “You just leave your stuff everywhere like I’m your maid or something!” I had just picked up from the floor his umpteenth pair of dirty, balled-up socks where he left them — next to, but not in, the hamper.

He looked at me in wide-eyed disbelief. “Laurie, there are many mornings where I come out to the kitchen and do the dishes from the night before that you decided weren’t as important as watching a movie! And how about your endless projects on the dining room table?”

Every couple does it… you and your husband and me and mine. While we may not be proud of it, our differing points of view can lead to arguments. But arguments can be constructive if you stick to some rules for fighting fair.

In one of my first fights with Tom — I don’t remember what it was about — I broke most of the rules for fighting fair. I manipulated the subject away from myself and my responsibility and piled it all onto him. I called him a name. I left the house and stomped down the street. I used the “nuke him before he gets me” approach. It left him with a tight knot in his gut and me red-faced with shame. Looking at our different upbringings, it’s easy to see why our approaches differed so much.

My father was a lawyer. Differences of opinion were welcomed in my family, and an opportunity to prove your point was seen as sport. If you couldn’t give a passionate argument about your point of view, it meant that you really didn’t care or it wasn’t that important.

Tom came from a quiet home. His father pastored a small church in a rural community. Tom never heard a discouraging word. His parents were always positive and rarely raised their voices. Differences of opinion were settled by low-key discussions.

Upbringing may determine initial approaches to arguments, but it doesn’t have to enslave us. We can learn how to come to a mutually satisfying conclusion. While arguments are a normal part of life, continual feelings of animosity and alienation are not.

Have F.I.G.H.T.S.

Tom and I still argue at times, but we try to stick to F.I.G.H.T.S. — our rules for fighting fair. The results have been shorter fights and happier endings. They might just work for you.

Face each other. Look each other in the eye as you discuss problems. This is particularly difficult for those of us who have learned guerrilla warfare – shouting some nasty comment, slamming down the phone or slamming a door – which leaves no room for discussion because the other person is absent. Two people can be in the same room, however, and still be absent. If one person has his nose stuck in a newspaper or glued to the TV, he might as well not be there. Set it down or turn it off and come out of hiding.

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Ignore distractions. Stay on the subject. When the facts start pointing to my being at fault, I resort to “rabbit trails,” those side issues I bring up to throw the pursuer off the subject. While rabbit trails may save me from facing the facts, they guarantee that the same argument will resurface at a later date. I’m just causing myself more pain by avoidance. It’s a temporary solution, yet it is easy to be lured down a rabbit trail. Leave those distractions alone and resolve the one at hand. The benefit is this may be the last time in this territory!

Guard your tongue. Avoid name-calling. James knew what he was talking about when he described the tongue as a fire in James 3:5-6.

Once I called my husband “jerkface.” This, to me, was a nice alternative to what I was thinking. I silently congratulated myself on having such self-control. He didn’t see it that way. It hurt his feelings. I thought it was kind of a silly, funny thing. He asked me how funny I would think it if he called me “thunder thighs.” I stopped smirking immediately.

Name-calling is like swearing; it shows you don’t have anything intelligent to say. More important, it attacks the other person’s character. Once name-calling enters the ring, the other person won’t hear anything you say, no matter how right you might be. He becomes too busy thinking about how to defend himself instead of listening to you.

Halt the history. Although my siblings and parents joke about it now, “You always . . .” “Why can’t you ever . . .” and “You never . . .” were often preambles to the reasons why things weren’t going well in our family. This is called history, and history doesn’t belong in arguments. Bringing up history communicates to the other person that nothing will ever change and that the past has not been forgiven. This should not be true. Remember, God brings up history to remind us of His unfailing provision and love toward us – not to trip us up and condemn us.

Touch. Hold hands. I don’t know why, but this position softens the heart. It makes us vulnerable to each other instead of making us feel like kung fu fighters. We are more willing to be reasonable and caring than win at all costs when we hold hands. We’ve stuck with the holding hands approach because we like what it leads to: praying together.

Stay in there. Finish the fight. I’m sure during long operations, surgeons would like to quit, go home and sleep for eight hours. But they can’t. The open wound needs to be cleaned out and sewn up to heal. So do arguments. Leaving them open is inviting gangrene into the relationship. You can take a 10-minute breather, but get back to business and sew it up. When I’m in the red-hot zone I ask myself, “How important will this be to me three months from now? Or if I found out I had an incurable disease?” Chances are that the argument is not that important. Don’t go to bed angry (see Ephesians 4:26). Besides, if you go to bed with unresolved anger, you’ll be tossing and turning all night. Get up and get over it.

Thanks to F.I.G.H.T.S., our arguments have been shorter, and we both end up “winning” with a renewed sense of love and commitment to each other.

That’s something worth fighting for.

Copyright © 2000 Laurie Kehler. Used by permission of the author. This article first appeared in the March, 2000 issue of Focus on the Family magazine.

Laurie Kehler is the author of How Do I Love Thee…Let’s Talk About the Ways, a book of conversation starters for romantic moments.

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