John's Blog

The Blog of John Gibson, PhD

Fair Fighting

The Art of Having a Dispute with Your Partner

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Sooner or later, all couples experience conflict. That you have conflict does not make you exceptional; how you handle it, however, just might. Because there really is an art to it.

If your partner brings you a complaint or an issue, you want to be all ears. You want to hear them out. This does not mean you automatically agree with your partner’s point of view, it simply means that, out of love and respect, if something is not working for him or her, you want to know what it is.

And if you are the person who is voicing the concern or the complaint, your job is to express it in a way that your partner can hear it.

I’m convinced that if couples can master this skill, they are well on their way to having a successful, satisfying relationship. It doesn’t mean that all disputes will be easily solved--of course they won’t--but it does mean that you have a ground rule that says you will take each other seriously and do your utmost not to hurt your partner unnecessarily.

Complaints are not the same as criticisms. According to John Gottman, a complaint addresses the specific action that your spouse or partner failed to take. But a criticism is more global; it’s an attack on your partner’s person or personality. It’s one thing to say, “Honey, it bothers me when you leave your clothes on the floor.” But it’s another thing entirely to say, “Why do you always have to be such a SLOB? Why are you ALWAYS like this?”

When a complaint deteriorates into a criticism, it’s like having somebody throw bricks at you. Either you want to throw bricks right back, duck, or run. These responses are sure to make a dispute go awry. But if your partner takes the time to think through an issue that’s bugging her, and she take pains to describe it to you in a way that you can hear it, and you do your very best to listen with your head and heart even though you may not agree; well, you’ve just given each other the gift of love.

Criticism leads to hurt feelings and aggressive responses. Complaint lead to spirited but loving discussions. Which camp do you want to be in?

P.S. Everything I know about so-called “fair fighting” comes from John Gottman’s longitudinal research on marriage. For information about his one of this, taken from one of his excellent books, click the Resource page.

(above image credit: Ajda)