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The Basics of Fighting Fair
Become a black belt in managing marital conflict in 9 easy steps.


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Learn the basics of your fighting style to help navigate your next conflict.


Once you get into the habit of engaging your full attention on hearing your partnerís side of the story, you find that your opinion isnít the only truth on the table.”
Having an argument with your sweetie can ruin your dayóor even your week. Wouldnít you love to learn the art of disagreeing without hurting each other? You can become a master in managing conflict within your marriage by following a few basic steps with dedication. Occasional quarrels are a natural and healthy part of relationships. Differing opinions are not problematic when managed in a positive, respectful manner. A multitude of conscious and unconscious factors play into each coupleís unique conflict management patterns. While good, clean fighting habits can keep lines of communication clear and open, destructive fighting patterns can truly wreak havoc on a relationship over time. When we donít strive to become more aware and mindful of our habits and patterns, our unconscious behaviors tend to take over and rule our lives.

Itís important to hone in on both the healthy and unhealthy aspects of the dynamics of conflict currently at work in your marriage. This is an important first step in moving closer to healthy communication patterns. By first developing a clear and honest picture of current patterns, partners can begin to create healthy habits that support, rather than damage, their relationship.

The process doesnít have to be difficult or imposing, but it does take commitment and perseverance. By learning to take a step back to look at your communication patterns in a nonjudgmental, objective way, you might even find yourself laughing at some of the dynamics that come to light. While one partner can work on this issue solo, the effects are incredibly effective when a couple works in tandem to learn how to "fight fair." If unproductive, hurtful arguments are harming your relationship, you can learn how to pave the way to healthy communication one step at a time!

Step 1: Learn the Communication Basics

The four basic styles of communication are commonly known as "assertive," "aggressive," "passive," and "passive-aggressive." Assertive communicators tend to speak clearly and confidently with open, self-assured body language. A well-balanced assertive communicator will offer an honest opinion and be willing to respect and hear alternative points of view. The aggressive communicator often speaks loudly, uses overpowering body language, and may utilize threatening or intimidating words or behaviors in order to get a unilateral point of view across. The passive communicator may speak softly and timidly, and the corresponding body language is often submissive and meek. Passive-aggressive communicators may appear accommodating on the surface, yet they resort to expressing disagreement or anger by engaging in subversive or harmful behaviors in an indirect, roundabout manner. Once you know what to look for, it can become easy to identify communication styles. As an example, a passive communicator may not realize that his timid speech, hunched shoulders, and downcast eyes are indicative of a passive communication style. Similarly, a woman who places her hands on her hips and argues with her nose "in her partnerís face" may not realize that these habits indicate an aggressive communication style. Take the opportunity to look at how you communicate with your spouse. Do you tend to be assertive, aggressive, passive, or passive-aggressive? With as much objectivity as possible, make a mental note of the style you tend to adopt.

Step 2: Identify Your Conflict Management Style

Several common conflict management styles tend to arise in relationships. Some styles of handling conflict add to the health of a relationship, while other styles cause either subtle or overt damage over time. Behaviors learned from early childhood through adult life affect how we handle conflict. Over time, various fighting styles are modeled by parents, siblings, and friends; these patterns are unconsciously mimicked and adopted over time. In this way, each individual tends to become accustomed to a certain style of communicating and handling disagreements. Interestingly, a personís conflict management style is not necessarily static and can vary depending upon the situations and people involved. Some of the most frequently observed fighting styles are listed below. As you read, notice if you see yourself in any of the descriptions.

“Interestingly, a personís conflict management style is not necessarily static and can vary depending upon the situations and people involved.”

Abusive Bully: The abusive bully tends to be highly aggressive and confrontational. "It's my way or the highway" is a common attitude for the bully. Name-calling, threats, demeaning comments, and sarcasm are tools commonly used in this style of fighting. The bully thrives by controlling and overpowering others. Maintaining power at all costs is the name of the game for the bully. This style of fighting is terribly toxic and harmful to relationships.

Dominator: Similar to the bully, the dominator wants to silence opposing points of view. Rather than resorting to open abuse, the dominator will aggressively maneuver and compete to ensure that differing opinions are quashed. The dominator utilizes powerful verbal and nonverbal behavior to maintain control in the fight. Compared to the abusive bully, the dominator tends to operate in a smoother, more manipulative manner in striving for power and control. In the dominatorís eyes, the name of the game is winning.

Poor Victim: The victim tends to take whatever is dished out during disagreements. Instead of speaking out or standing up honestly and assertively, the victim tends to fall into a trap of denying, making excuses, or blaming others to avoid personal responsibility. The victim often displays emotions (such as crying out of frustration, sadness, shame, or anxiety), but there is normally a severe lack of appropriate open and authentic reflection and communication. The victimís goal may be to retreat, sidestep responsibility, or gain sympathy.

Silent Sulker: Similar to the victim, the sulker lacks healthy boundaries for managing conflict. The sulker timidly and silently absorbs the heat of the conflict. After an argument, however, the sulker may make his or her displeasure known by refusing to communicate openly and may not speak at all for hours or even days. In order to release anger, the sulkerís general silence may be punctuated by the slamming of doors, clattering of dishes, blaring music, or nearly inaudible muttering. The sulker makes a point by pushing back in quiet anger.

The Kitchen Sinkerator: This style tends to store up past hurts and wrongs over time. When an argument arises, many of the unresolved issues from the past are thrown into the argument. Instead of focusing on the issue at hand, everything but the kitchen sink is tossed into the mix during arguments. The disagreement becomes inflated and the core issue is often completely lost. This conflict style tends to cause confusion, increased disharmony, and frustration. The individual employing this style tends to completely lose sight of the goal.

Compartmentalizer: The compartmentalizer finds safety in resorting to personal logic and facts during times of strife. If an issue canít be rationalized, logically sorted, or assimilated into a preset paradigm, it is put out of sight and out of mind. To avoid dissonance and the anxiety that comes with discord, the compartmentalizer attempts to place conflict neatly away in a box. By avoiding and packing away discord, overt dissension is avoided. Conflict is managed by believing that a matter is either "right or wrong," and issues are often classified into specific, concrete categories. The compartmentalizerís goal is to avoid anxiety and keep the perceived untidiness of conflict at bay.

Avoider: The avoider simply does not like becoming unsettled by any form of conflict. It is common for the avoider to shut down and close off to charged emotions, arguments, and situations that might involve conflict. The avoider strives to avoid open disagreement, seemingly oblivious to the fact that avoidance itself is actually a style of fighting. The avoidance style utilizes myriad tactics to avoid conflict. Whether working late, zoning out by drinking, playing an Xbox through the night, or facing the computer screen rather than a partner, the avoider will do almost anything to avoid overt confrontation. The name of the game for the avoider is to maintain homeostasis by pretending that conflict does not exist!

Passive-Aggressive Player: The passive-aggressive fighter desires power and control but does not know how to obtain it openly. This fighting style often employs a submissive facade that covers simmering frustration, anger, and conflict. The passive-aggressive fighter does not know how to get his or her needs met in a healthy manner and resorts to utilizing a pattern of destructive tactics or vengeful strategies behind the scenes. If left unchecked, the foundation of a relationship can be steadily eroded by the harmful games and stealthy "payback" methods employed. The passive-aggressive player strives to equalize the playing field through retribution.

Open and Accepting: This style of conflict management tends to be empathic and forgiving. A person with an open and accepting style sees disagreements as a time to be heard, yet there is also a desire to hear and acknowledge other points of view. Knowing that open, productive conflict is healthy for a marriage, this style makes room for diverging opinions and conflict. Emotional expressions are honored and seen as normal venting processes. When disagreements and conflict arise, homeostasis is restored by respecting and allowing for differences of opinion. The name of the game for this fighting style is "live and let live."

The Explorer: The explorer is similar in many ways to the open and accepting style. In addition, understanding and growth tend to be paramount for the explorer. The explorer views conflict as an educational experience. Disagreements are seen as vehicles to engender greater understanding within the relationship. Healthy conflict is viewed as a normal and beneficial aspect of partnership. This fighting style appreciates the importance of facilitating awareness and cooperation during conflict. The name of the game for the explorer is utilizing conflict to keep the relationship dynamic and strong.

Step 3: Self-Awareness is the Key

Now that you are aware of the basic styles of communication and conflict, you are ready to move forward into healthier behaviors by consciously increasing your awareness of your own habits! When each partner focuses on his or her own patterns, rather than on what the other person is doing "wrong," the trouble-presenting issues are often diminished automatically. The simple explanation for this rests upon the importance of self-responsibility. When both partners become introspective and focused on self-responsibility, the heat of the battle turns down. The focus of the disagreement shifts from "I am right!" to "How can I communicate my needs or feelings more calmly, clearly, and honestly?"

“Every person has a unique history and vantage point, so it is makes perfect sense that partners might often have different perspectives on one situation!”

Step 4: Learn to Really Listen

Notice if you are preparing counterattacks as your partner speaks. If you are doing this, you are not able to really listen fully and openly. When our mind is busy preparing the next argument, the focus has shifted from hearing the otherís point of view to preparing for the next go-round. If you are accustomed to being on the defensive or the offensive, it can be a bit difficult to learn to sit back and listen respectively. Once you get into the habit of engaging your full attention on hearing your partnerís side of the story, you find that your opinion isnít the only truth on the table. Rarely is there only one "right" or one "wrong." Every person has a unique history and vantage point, so it is makes perfect sense that partners might often have different perspectives on one situation!

Step 5: Understand Your Style

Evaluate your personal communication style. Once you understand the various styles of communication, it is easier to identify the style you tend to adopt. In an open and non-judgmental manner, explore the pros and cons of your personal communication style. A sense of deeper partnership can emerge as you and your spouse develop a better understanding of the unconscious patterns that have been at work. Armed with a better understanding of your personal style and how your habits can be improved, it becomes easier to notice when harmful patterns creep in.

Step 6: Get Clear, Positive, Respectful, and Assertive

Itís easy to misunderstand the idea of healthy assertive communication. An assertive communicator strives to be clear, straightforward, and focused. Unlike an aggressive communicator, a well-adjusted assertive communicator will confidently express thoughts and feelings while also making plenty of room for alternative ideas and approaches. A hallmark of healthy assertive communication is a deep respect for the self, the other, and the relationship. Another key element of assertive communication is its focus on direct and open communication as opposed to indirect, unclear patterns. Even with its many benefits, some people are unaccustomed to or uncomfortable with the idea of asserting themselves.

Although assertive communication is the preferred and most effective method of communication, many people resort to passive or passive-aggressive communication due to unconscious beliefs that assertive people are rude, ill-mannered, unacceptable, or aggressive. In addition, many women avoid assertive communication fearing that they will be seen as unfeminine or impolite. By better understanding the productive and essential aspects of assertive communication, the idea of communicating assertively becomes acceptable and, therefore, possible. Positive, assertive communication pays off by taking the focus off of fighting and shifting it to communicating, understanding, and connecting.

Step 7: Collaboration is the Goal

When disagreements become more about finding common ground and less about making a point and finding differences, communication tends to become much more relaxed and balanced. With an eye toward cooperatively reaching an understanding or goal, defenses come and collaborative energy rises. Assertive communication allows partners to focus on supporting the relationship through a deep sense of cooperation. This is an important element in that the other communication styles (aggressive, passive, and passive-aggressive) are focused on power. Assertive communication rests on habits that are geared toward being partners rather than competitors. By coming to understand the basic styles of communication, the stage has been set for understanding how these patterns affect the fighting styles that arise during times of conflict. Through becoming more aware of fighting styles, couples learn how to direct their frustrations and concerns into habits that promote "fighting fair."

“When disagreements become more about finding common ground and less about making a point and finding differences, communication tends to become much more relaxed and balanced.”

Step 8: Patience is a Virtue

Donít be hard on yourself or your spouse as you learn how to engage in healthier communication patterns. Behaviors that you may have learned in early childhood wonít change overnight. Be patient with yourself and your partner as you navigate the road to healthier communication! With respect, patience, and commitment, your marriage will strengthen as new patterns develop steadily.

Step 9: Notice the Change

Just like when you were a kid, it can feel terrific to get a "gold star" for effort. When you catch yourself or your spouse communicating in a way that feels more positive, take note! For example, you can highlight what is working by saying to partner, "Honey, it felt so wonderful when we took time to talk this morning. I loved the way you looked me in the eyes while I was sharing my thoughts." When you notice that you are communicating more positively, it can be reinforcing to reflect on your own progress. For instance, you might think to yourself, "That felt really good to say what felt hurtful without taking a jab at my sweetie!" Reinforce what is working and strive to do just a bit better each day. Before you know it, youíll have your own black belt in communication and conflict management!

Remember, every relationship is as unique as its partners. The descriptions outlined above are intended to give you an insightful yet humorous look at just a few common patterns that contribute to marital discord. Communication and conflict management styles vary from person to person, so strive for a nonjudgmental stance when evaluating patterns within your own relationships. Rather than honing in on your faults or those of your spouse, take an open and candid look at the habits that are not working for you. By reflecting honestly on how you can improve your communication and conflict management abilities, you support your own psychological health and growthóand that of your marriage. With this in mind, the name of the game becomes "Our Relationship Wins!"

As a clinical psychologist in Sonoma County, California, Dr. Carla Marie Greco maintains a focus on helping clients transform their lives and their relationships. Using a body-mind-spirit approach that underscores the importance of overall wellness, Dr. Greco works with her clients on a highly individualized basis to uncover the core concerns that often manifest as psychological, behavioral, and somatic symptoms. Combining traditional depth psychotherapy with somatic therapy, Dr. Greco offers her clients a specialized approach to creating passionate, joy-filled lives. Working in both individual and group settings, she strives to promote change by increasing her clientsí personal self-awareness and insight. †A devoted writer, speaker, and yoga instructor, Dr. Greco is dedicated to helping others create the lives of their dreams.†California License: Psy25539. For more, visit www.drcarlagreco.com and follow her on Google+.

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