Episode 31: Fight Fair: 5 Strategies to Argue More Productively

by | Last updated: Oct 14, 2023 | Podcast

Arguments between partners are completely normal, even necessary within intimate relationships. If you’re not arguing (at least occasionally!) you’re not talking about the important stuff.

The problem is NOT that we argue with our partners… the problem is that we never learned how to argue.

If you’re in a committed relationship, you’re going to experience disagreements and arguments. This episode will teach you how to have them.

Listen to the Full Episode:

What You’ll Learn In This Episode:

  • 5 strategies to help you “fight fair”
  • How to get your partner’s attention (without yelling)
  • How to remain on the same team… even when you’re arguing

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Book a Truth & Clarity Session with a member of my team. We’ll discuss where you are in your marriage and explore if there’s a fit for you and I to work together so you can make - and execute - the RIGHT decision for YOU and your marriage.

Welcome to The Loving Truth podcast, where it's all about finding clarity, confidence, and peace in the face of marriage challenges. And now, your host, relationship expert and certified master life coach, Sharon Pope.

Hello, loves. This is Sharon Pope, and this is The Loving Truth. Today we're going to talk about arguments and how to fight fair, because the reality is that we're going to have arguments inside of our most intimate relationships.

I feel like the closer our relationships are, we're going to rub up against one another's soft spots once in a while. The problem is we don't really know how to do it well, and most of us don't really like confrontation, so we avoid it at all costs. Now, let me just say, you know those couples that are like, “Oh, we never argue.” I never trust that those couples who say they never argue are really happy. And the reason I say that is because I feel like if you are not arguing once in a while, you're not talking about the really important stuff. You might talk about kids, you might talk about work, you might talk about the weather, but you're not talking about the things that are required in the deep end of intimacy.

So we can stay down here in the shallow end where it's safe, but it's pretty uninspiring conversation. So there's going to be disagreements. And it's really about, how do we handle those disagreements? Do they bring us closer together or take us further apart from one another? And I think most of you might agree that most arguments inside of most relationships take us further apart from one another.

But the way that we handle those arguments will dictate the emotional health and stability and longevity of a long-term relationship. So think about what your pattern of arguing is like; what happens when you find yourself in an argument with your spouse? Is there yelling? Is there anger or rage? Is there name-calling and personalization? Is there sarcasm and eye-rolling and defensiveness?

Or are you one of the magical unicorns on the planet that just stays really calm and consistent and stays with it? Or do you shut down and do you walk away? Those are the most common sort of actions that we will very predictably take when we find ourselves in an argument. Now, this is the story of lots of my clients, but I'm thinking of one in particular right now who said to me, “I have to walk on eggshells because I cannot shake the beast, which means I cannot bring up his anger, because when he gets frustrated with me, which is whenever I bring up something that I want to talk about that isn't going as smoothly as I might like it to inside of our relationship, he gets frustrated with me. And so therefore, he's sort of trained me to not bring up any issues inside of our relationship because then I get the beast.”

And for her, what that means is she gets defensiveness, anger, blame pointed at her. And if he really wants to get her, he'll lay what is his sort of trump card, which is, “Oh yeah, well, you had an emotional affair,” and that's just supposed to shut down everything else. So he's allowed to do anything and everything. We're not going to talk about anything that he could have done differently or he could have done better because now he has this card that he can play, which is, “Well, yeah, you were flirting with another man.” That sort of thing. Which means, of course, their arguments don't get anywhere productive, right? It's all about protecting him and his ego. And the two of them never really hear one another.

So of course they're not getting closer together. And of course, their arguments, whether they're about something small or something big, their arguments are just pulling them further and further and further apart. And like I said, that's a small portion of one of my client's relationships, but it could be any of my clients to be honest because it is often that men will show anger. And then women's reactions and responses to that are just to check out, to pull further and further and further away.

So let's go through what are some ways, what are some strategies, that can help you fight fair, that can help your arguments, not pull you further away, but maybe even use your arguments as a means to understand your partner more deeply. Now I might be reaching too far there for some of you; that's okay, but at least I can plant the seed or set the vision that arguments give you the opportunity to understand your partner better. But you have to have open ears to listen. You have to have an open heart to be able to receive what your partner is saying, right? And most of us, something that we could be doing better or something that isn't going as well, we often take that as criticism. And we put up our wall, and as soon as we put up our wall, we are not listening anymore, which means we're not learning anything, which means this isn't going to go anywhere productive. All right?

So the first one, and I think it's probably the biggest one, and the one that every single couple can do if they're open to doing it, that is setting ground rules. So when we're in the midst of an argument with our partner and we get yelling and rage or name-calling coming at us, I don't blame you. I wouldn't want to be a part of that conversation either. But we never had a conversation when things were good. We just don't like confrontation. So God forbid we talk about it.

What I'm proposing here in terms of setting ground rules is you realizing arguments are going to happen. We need to set some ground rules in advance during a time that we're getting along fine. We don't have to upset the apple cart. But we do have to have these very real conversations about how each of us want to carry ourselves in the midst of an argument because it's going to happen, but we don't want to layer on more issues that now we have to overcome and resolve that weren't there before. We have enough issues.

Relationships are hard enough, but sometimes the way we argue just creates more resentments and more hurts that then we have to overcome and it's not necessary. So the ground rules are in a sober mind when we're not angry and upset and flustered about something, we come together and go, look, these things are going to happen in our marriage. What are some ground rules that you and I want to set so that we can fight fair so that we can really hear one another and be able to express ourselves without feeling shut down?

So I'll give you some to go from, but obviously your list is going to be very specific to you. And I want it to be that way. So things like no yelling, no yelling at the other person, or no rage being pointed at me. First of all, I'm going to debunk something here for you. When you start yelling at someone, they hear you less. They don't hear you more. We think when I raise my voice, you're going to hear me more because I'm raising my voice, I'm louder. No, any public speaker, any trained public speaker will tell you, you want to get people's attention. You don't get louder, you get quiet. You might even have long pauses because now people lean in when you get quiet.

When you are being yelled at, because we've all been on the receiving end of someone yelling at us, your brain goes into fight, flight, or freeze. You are not hearing them; you're hearing maybe 25% of what they're saying, but mostly you're going into protection mode. What do I need to do to keep myself safe? Because when I'm being yelled at, I'm not safe.

So my friends, if you think yelling creates the opportunity for someone to hear you better, you are just wrong. I'm sorry, you're just wrong. Yelling does not help people to hear you more. It helps them to hear you less. So it's a great place to begin in terms of ground rules, no yelling, no rage being pointed at me. You can be upset about something, but we can still be emotional adults. We can be in control of our emotions and not feel the need to show anger and rage toward the person that we're supposed to love the most.

Fair enough? Another one might be no name-calling or no personalization, no blatant disrespect. We're not going to call each other names. That's not necessary to be able to just get your point across. We're not going to make broad judgments. We're going to try to avoid the words always or never, which are always never accurate because no one always does everything the same way.

So the words always and never get us into a lot of trouble because they're broad generalizations that aren't usually true even though they might feel true. And then another one might be no stonewalling. So stonewalling is a term that's used by the Gottman Institute, which by the way is one of the top four predictors of divorce. And what it means is “I'm gonna shut down and I'm just not going to talk to you about this topic ever again. I refuse to speak to you.” So I'm going to stonewall, I'm going to turn my back, I'm going to walk away. I'm not going to speak to you.

It's a very high predictor of divorce. It's completely unproductive because you're not giving your partner anything to work with. Now I'm not saying when emotions get high that you can't just call a timeout and take a break. Of course you can, but then you’ve got to come back to it when clear heads prevail. But if you just shut down and go, “Nope, not talking about this,” that's stonewalling.

So that might be one of your ground rules. But come up with, what are the ground rules, which are, how do each of us want to carry ourselves in the midst of an argument with each other so that we don't create more problems on top of the problem that we're trying to solve?

The second one to think about is, look, you don't have to agree. I want to put that out there. And I'm not always a fan of compromise. So first let's talk about, you don't have to agree with one another. Sometimes our arguments are about, I need you to see this the way I see this. But that is based on the assumption that everyone sees the world and experiences the world the same way that we do, which is never true because there's not a single person on the planet that will experience every element of the world the same way that you do. They do not have the same lens through which they see and experience the world. So that's not going to be anybody on the planet, much less your partner.

But we do have to be respectful of them being able to have their experience. Because if you want to be able to have your experience, you have to be respectful of other people, particularly your partner, that they're allowed to have their experience. Even when it differs from yours, even if it's in opposition, even if it's the opposite of what your experience is, it doesn't necessarily make it wrong, it just makes it different.

And therein lies the opportunity to understand why your partner sees it differently than you do. So you don't have to agree. And compromise is an interesting thing, right? Sometimes we can just step away and go, you know what? We don't see this the same way, but we do have respect for one another's perspectives, and allow them to have that perspective.

And other times we're like, nope, we’ve got to figure this out. Like we have to come to some conclusion that we both can live with. Now sometimes that can be, who feels more strongly about this particular situation? Let's say it's what time your son is coming home after prom. You may feel super strongly and your partner may be like, yeah, I disagree with you, but I mean whatever. Then okay, you get to win that one. You get to take that one, but then there's going to be another time that you're not going to see eye to eye and your partner's going to feel much more strongly than you and they need to sort of get that win. They need to get their way for that one.

So sometimes it's a matter of who feels more strongly here about the situation. That can be sort of a deal breaker. So the reason I say I'm not a fan of compromise. So let's imagine that there's a couple, the man is from New York City, born and raised in New York City, and the woman is from Los Angeles, and they happen to fall in love and they want be together and they want to live together and all the things.

Compromise would say, let's live in Iowa, right? So that neither of us gets our needs met and neither of us is actually happy. That's not a compromise that's going to work. If they're able to do it, you can do six months out of the year here, six months out of the year in another place, that could possibly work where both people feel like they're getting their needs met, but when the compromise is about where no one's getting their needs met, that's not really all that productive.

So compromise for the sake of compromise. Just be aware that at least one of you, if not both of you – compromise works well when both of you in some small way can get your needs met. So I'll tell you, I have a tiny little addiction to Food Network and HGTV still. I know it's not a new thing, it's just this is what I watch. So I really love watching House Hunters because to see the couples and to see the way that they deal with their difference of opinions, I mean, it's such a study in relationships to me that it's very entertaining.

And I was watching the other night and these both were people, I want to say they were probably around 50 years old. And so this was the second marriage for both of them. The guy was a widow and the woman had been divorced for 13 years. And the guy loved homes that were old and had charm and had character and had built-ins and a story and all that kind of stuff.

She was the exact opposite. She wanted brand new, modern, updated, new-build kind of stuff. So they were on opposite ends of the spectrum. And where they were able to land is they found a place that had been built in like 1873 or something like that, but had been completely updated. And so that was the way that they were able to find compromise where they both got some of their needs met. Not all of their needs, but some of their needs.

All right, the next tool that you should think about if you want to fight fair is not taking everything personally. Look, I know that when we get in arguments, people want to point their blame or their opinion at you or on you. And what I want you to know is almost never is it about you. Even when they're pointing it directly at you and telling you it's all about you. I wouldn't have done this had you never done that. They're saying, “I'm not responsible for my own actions and choices. I only did this because you did this other thing.” So you are now to blame for that thing.

I promise you, even when they say it's about you, it's never about you. We don't have to personalize everything. Most of people's shit is about what's going on within them, their bad day, their feelings of insecurity or doubt or helplessness or frustration; whatever it is, there's something going on within them. It's just coming out and being pointed at you so that then they don't have to look at what's going on inside of them.

So we don't have to take people's stuff that they send our way. I use this kind of gross example with my clients and they always laugh at me, so I'll share it with you. You're welcome. People can throw up on you all day; they can just throw up right there in front of you. You're having a conversation, they throw up on the ground right in front of you.

That's the equivalent of someone telling you about all the things that you should be doing different, that blah, blah, blah, right? They're throwing up. It is not a requirement for you to lean down, clean it all up, put all those rags in your purse and carry it with you. You can just leave it right there and go, “Huh, that's gross. Interesting gross.” And walk away. Let people have their opinion without you making it mean that, oh, this is about me and I need to pick it up and carry it and I need to do something about it so that they can feel better. No, you don't. Not everything is so personal.

And so I want you to remind yourself that sometimes you can just remind yourself this isn't about me. So let's say that your partner has a horrible day at work and they come home and they're really quiet through dinner and then they just want to numb out in front of the TV. We've all been there. But you make that mean he doesn't love and care about me, or she doesn't love and care about me. She doesn't want to spend time with me. All she cares about is the TV. All she cares about is her work. Any of that, right? You're giving meaning to something that actually has nothing to do with you.

It had to do with your partner having a bad day, that's all that's happening. And now they need to wind that down, numb out from it for a bit so that then they can come back fresh to it again the next day. That's all that's happening. But we give all this meaning to it and we personalize it, make it about us. It's not about me. It's not about me. Repeat after me. It's not about me. Okay?

My husband and I, this is number four, my husband and I have a phrase, team Pope. At the end of the day, we're team Pope. And what that means for us in the context of fighting fair is that the issue at hand, whatever it is, the challenge that we're being faced with, is not personal. And my partner is not the adversary.

It's the two of us against whatever this challenge is. And so if we can keep in mind in the midst of that conversation that at the end of the day, it's team Pope, then we can let go of that need to say “No, no, I'm right and I need to get my way.” No, because it elevates the thinking; it elevates the positioning that we take and the approach that we take to the problem because we have that in mind, that team Pope comes first.

That's the priority. Not me getting my way or me being validated, me being right, and any of that. It's just this is the problem. How are we going to come after it and solve it? And then the last thing is I want you to assume that your partner's not an idiot. I know, I know. You're like, yeah, but you don't know my partner. Then give yourself the grace to say, I'm smarter than to choose an idiot, to say I want to spend the rest of my life with you. Let's just assume that you're both smart, well-intentioned people that might just see and experience the world differently. And so this is all about giving your partner the benefit of the doubt.

See, most of the world cannot understand why other people don't see the world the same way that they do. It's so clear to them. And so they think you must be an idiot if you see something differently than I do. Notice anywhere in our world where this is happening right now; it's happening in all different ways, but for sure it's front and center in politics, right? If you don't see the political environment the same way that I do, you must be a fricking idiot. No, your life experience has led you to see things very differently. And it's just that difference; we are not comfortable in the differences.

And so we think everyone should think like us. And that will never ever happen. Never ever, ever, ever will everyone think like us. So we’ve got to give that up. And when it comes to our relationships, we got to give it up there too. We got to give it up on a macro scale. And on a micro-scale, my partner does not have to see and experience everything the exact same way that I do. And when he or she doesn't, it does not make them blind. It doesn't make them an idiot. It doesn't make them incompetent; it doesn't make them blind; it just makes them different.

That's all that's happening. So be curious about why your partner sees it the way that they do. And so I'm talking about not just accepting that, oh, they see this differently than me. Fine. Sharon tells me I have to eat that with a spoon. I don't want to, but I'm fine. I will. No, no, no. Get curious. Assume that there's a really good reason why they see it the way they do, or why they care about this particular issue in the way that they do.

“Tell me why this is so important to you. Help me understand why you see this the way you do. I genuinely want to understand.” When you're listening, you can learn something new. When you're talking, you learn nothing new. All you're doing is regurgitating what you already think or know. But when you listen and you're just curious, now I can learn something new about my partner.

It doesn't mean you have to change your opinion. You might, but it doesn't mean you're required to. Just hearing someone out does not require you to change your opinion or your perspective. But it might help you understand your partner better and that will go a long way inside your relationship. We've got to drop this need to be – you know the saying, you can be right or you can be happy. There's a reason that saying has been around for hundreds of years because if you always have to be right, then everyone around you, everyone you love, has to be wrong unless they are mirror images of you. It's just such a closed-minded perspective that doesn't allow for any sort of creativity or growth.

It's like, nope, we're all just going to stay in this box and think this same thing forever and ever. And if you disagree, now I've got to fight you and I'm usually not gonna fight fair. So that's all ego or need to be right; it’s a hundred percent ego. It's a really, really humble and empowering thing to sit back and go, help me understand why you see it the way you do. I love you. I care about you, so I want to understand you. Tell me what you're thinking. Tell me why this is important to you. Any of those phrases can go a really long way to helping you fight fair.

And like I said, fights are going to happen. Arguments, disagreements, resentments, all that stuff is going to happen in relationships. We've got to get well versed in how to do that well, how to fight fair, how to argue well so that maybe instead of our arguments being another place where we can become disconnected from each other and carry hurts and resentments towards each other, instead we can actually use it as a launching pad to understanding our partners better, and that will serve us very well.

I hope that was helpful. I'll see you next week. Take good care.

If you're listening to this podcast because you're struggling to decide whether to stay or go in your marriage and you're serious about finding that answer, it's time to book a Truth and Clarity session with a member of my team. On the call, we'll discuss where you are in your marriage and explore if there's a fit for you and I to work together so you can make and execute the right decision for you and your marriage.

Go to clarityformymarriage.com to fill out an application now. That's clarityformymarriage.com.


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