Relationships: Fighting Fair

All couples fight. Some fight in a knockdown-dragout way, some through intensive, long discussions, some through passive-aggressive behavior, and some with pillows.

The pillow fights might be more infrequent, but they should probably be instituted as regular occurrence. Sounds much better than knocking and dragging, right?

Working at The Gottman Institute, I’m surrounded by the topic of couples and relationships every day. It’s great because I have a personal interest in relationships as a whole and I love counseling couples – it’s known for being one of the most challenging populations. Most of the couples we interact with are really struggling to make things work. They are quarreling constantly and they don’t know what to do to solve the animosity that comes up everytime there’s a disagreement.

There is a method to fighting with your partner and fighting fair. I want to debunk the myth that there’s a way to fight and always get your way in relationships, because that’s just not true. Getting your way means your partner’s needs aren’t being met. So if your way is to deny your partner their desires 100 percent of the time in a disagreement, then there’s more that needs to be discussed about how much you value your partner than about how you fight.

So, let’s cover what I feel is essential to fighting fair. I’ve taken Dr. John Gottman’s Sound Relationship House as an approach to solving this issue.

1. Reflect – Before you even start talking with your partner about what’s bothering you, think about it. Try to analyze where this issue is coming from. If you’ve been feeling sad lately, is that your partner’s responsibility to solve or is it yours? If you’re feeling overwhelmed with the kids, have you asked for help from your partner? Now matter how much we wish it was so, our partners can’t read our minds. Very often this issue can be resolved internally and through your own work, with support from your partner.

2. Softened Start-up – This is a Gottman term. Softened start-up is crucial because it signifies to your partner “I respect your time”. When we ask for permission for a discussion, we’re respecting our partners feelings in the moment. If they just walked in the door home from work, the last thing they probably want to hear is, “We need to talk.” Trust me, it will be better to wait until after dinner or even for a day. Ask your partner for a discussion about something, don’t bombard them.

3. Practice Self-Awareness – When you are as emotionally invested as a relationship often requires, having conflict can feel overwhelming. Pay attention as best as you can (it’s a practice, not a competence!) to how your body is reacting and how you are feeling. If you feel you’re flooded – your heart is racing, your blood is pumping, and you feel physically heightened – take a break. Let your partner know you’re going to revisit the conversation when you’re calmed down.

Also, pay attention to the things you’re saying. Use ‘I’ statements and avoid statements which start with, ‘You…’ in an accusatory manner. Attacking your partner as a person is not a likely solution for a positive outcome. Keep an eye out for the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” as Gottman calls them – Criticism, Defensiveness, Stonewalling, and Contempt.

4. Be Prepared for Influence – Practice active listening with your partner – give them nods, mmhmms, etc. When they say how they feel or they make a point and you can practice empathy with that and you honestly see how they could feel or think a certain way, tell them. It’s your job as their partner to be the one person in the world who really aims to understand who they are and what they care about. The statement “I can see how you would feel that way,” can take you very far in conflict.

It’s also known that when partners take ownership of a problem, making it a ‘we’ issue instead of a ‘you’ issue, problems are resolved faster and with less animosity. The problem also doesn’t seem as huge when you have someone working on it with you.

5. Dig Deeper – Most arguments about seemingly petty things or unsolvable issues are really much deeper than they seem. Remember when you reflected? If you figured out that what you are having a problem with goes down to something deeper than what initially bugged you, now is the time to say something. If your worry about your partner never helping you clean around the house is actually a worry that your partner doesn’t respect you or your time, then that’s deeper. That says, “This is more important than vacuuming the rug. This is about how much you value me and my happiness.”

6. Be Flexible – Resolve the issue by finding places for compromise. Figure out your flexible and inflexible areas and find out your partner’s talk about what changes you both will make to accommodate this problem. Make a commitment to be flexible in your approaches to this problem for a while.

7. Dialogue – Don’t sweep this under the rug. Check-in on it. Ask each other how you’re feeling about what changes are being made, how each person is feeling about the solution, and if there are any new ideas for tackling the issue. This is a great opportunity to build intimacy and really learn more about your partner. The silver lining of conflict! You learn more about the person you love.

8. Repair – Always come back to your partner and look for ways to soothe the conflict. Find the situations where your partner tries to help you feel better, apologize, or resolve the problem. Find opportunities to do the same. It can be as simple as a hand on the back, the wiping away of tears, or a gentle joke. You may not be able to always tie a conflict off with a beautiful bow, but you can at least suture the wound.

This is a good standard for fighting in your romantic relationship, or really in any close relationship. I have found these little tidbits incredibly useful over the last few years. When I do these things, I find the anxiety over any problem I’m having – be it with friends, partner, or family – vanishes.

Do you do anything that you feel helps in a disagreement with a loved one that I didn’t list?

[Re-Post] Create Shared Meaning

The final level! Hooray! I thought I’d never get here, be it on the blog or in my relationship.

But I have. I work for The Gottman Institute, I have a supportive partner who enjoys creating shared meaning with me, and I’m still chugging away (albiet slowly) with this blog. Lots of things to be thankful for and feel lucky to have going on right now.

Happy House Building, everyone. Now, go create some shared meaning.

Past Sound Relationship House by John Gottman posts:

Build Love Maps

Share Fondness and Admiration

Turn Towards

The Positive Perspective

Manage Conflict

Manage Conflict: Accepting Influence

Manage Conflict: Repair and De-escalation

Make Life Dreams Come True

Oh my goodness, we are done with this freaking house!

Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love this approach to couples counseling, but I definitely let this one drag out. It feels good to actually finish some series I started.

And with that, we’re on to Creating Shared Meaning.

Sounds kind of ambiguous, right?


It is kind of ambiguous! That’s why it’s the last step in having the relationships Walt Disney teased us about.

Creating shared meaning is what makes relationships thrive instead of survive. It’s all those conversations we wish our significant others would have with us about the future: marriage, babies, holiday celebrations, his and hers towels…

Basically, we are all autonomous creatures who are a culmination of our experiences. Even if we come from the same backgrounds – racially, culturally, economically, religiously – we still have different lives. We have different traditions. We have different narratives for how we want to live our lives.

For example: Jesse comes from a Jewish family. While he doesn’t necessarily practice the religious aspects of Judaism, he feels a very strong relationship with his family and his culture. He is proud to be Jewish and I admire that very much about him.

how amazing is this picture? shout out to Sean McPhee who created it.

I was raised Catholic. I grew up signing the cross every time I prayed, receiving Communion, and trying desperately to understand what the hell Father Pat was talking about (he had a verryyy thick Irish accent). I don’t follow the Catholic faith anymore, but it is a large part of my family’s culture and my upbringing. It has shaped me.

A few months ago, Jesse and I were having a conversation about putting up a tree this holiday. He grew up with a tree in his house since his mother was not Jewish, but he expressed that under no circumstances would he feel comfortable having an angel on the top of his tree. He said he’d prefer a star.

In my family, we had a tradition of putting the angel on the top of the tree every year. I remember what a treat it was to have my dad lift us off the ground and put the angel on the top of the tree. She was battery operated and had a glowing light and actually moved side to side. I loved that angel.

Now, I could have thrown a bitch fit and exclaimed that it was angel or nothing, but I chose not to do that (go me for being a mature adult). I thought about the difference between the angel and the star and the meaning it has to each of us. The angel really meant nothing to me other than that she lit up and moved. It was the tradition of placing her on top of the tree that I loved. I thought about if/when Jesse and I have kids and if this tradition would be something we could do. Yes, it was still the same with the star.

So I agreed to the star with enthusiasm.

Now, the star on the top of the tree will mean something to just me and Jesse. This will be our narrative. The star means acknowledging his culture and understanding that no meaning has been lost for either of us.

It’s the same for everyday things. It’s those little understandings you have with your partner. Do you eat breakfast together?, who gets to eat the last Oreo?, who navigates on car trips?, what does your retirement look like?, how many children to you want?, how to you feel about the first time you both met?, etc.

It’s those conversations about the future that create shared meaning. It’s the intrinsic motivation behind why all of want to have those future conversations with our partner and when we find a partner who doesn’t want to or is scared to, alarm bells go off. Our intuitive understanding of how we want our long-term relationships says, “If we can’t talk about this, how will we know if it will exist?”

The truth is, there is no hard and fast rule to get you to the Relationship Promised Land. The only one I’ve consistently found in all of my experiences and studies is the giant C… communication. You can’t expect to be on the same page with your partner if they either don’t know or don’t want to share. That’s why Creating Shared Meaning is the attic of Gottman’s Sound Relationship House theory. You have to climb those stairs and build the foundation before you ever get to the top.

[Re-Post] Making Life Dreams Come True



Past Sound Relationship House posts:

Build Love Maps

Share Fondness and Admiration

Turn Towards

The Positive Perspective

Manage Conflict

Manage Conflict: Accepting Influence

Manage Conflict: Repair and De-escalation

Okay, I’ve said it before: I am not crazy about what John Gottman decided to name some of the levels of the Sound Relationship House. This level is especially irksome. Making Life Dreams Come True.

It’s just too cute. It reminds me of Disney movies and sets the precedent that at some point, your partner is going to have to figure out how to make you a wizard and send you to Hogwarts because for some of us (and I’m not naming names me), our life dream is to get an owl post. Jesse, are you going to make this happen?


Now, Accio me a Hedwig!

Okay, so maybe you can make some ridiculous life dreams come true in certain ways. My point though, is that this is about something besides nerd fantasies (there’s more to life than nerd fantasies? You don’t say!) and it’s really about knowing your partner.

For example, Jesse had a job interview a while ago. In this job interview, they asked him what he would do with a large sum of money. As he was telling his story about his interview and outlining what he’d spend his money on, I interrupted him his sentence and said, “You’d open a recording studio…”

I said it kind of like, “Duh” because I knew he was going to get to that as the finale on his story (sorry I ruined your epic ending, Jesse <3) but I wanted him to know I knew. It’s never been outwardly spoken in our relationship, but if there’s ever the time and extra money laying around when we’re older, Jesse is getting that recording studio. It will make him infinitely happy and I know that would be his ultimate “My life dream came true” moment. Besides being with me in 50 years. I mean, who wouldn’t want that?

(Ignore the creeper…)

So, it’s really just about knowing what your partner’s ultimate dreams are for the future and working as a team to make that happen. I know that I jump around with my goals for the future, but with every new goal, Jesse is hip with it and knows it’ll be a part of my future. Right now, I’m seriously considering having a private practice. Jesse has been supportive of that idea and we even talk about being a small business owner every once in a while. He works my future into his future. It’s totally rad.

So how do we get to knowing about our partner’s love of light sabers and recording studios?

We ask questions. We act curious. We want to know.

We avoid being those couples we see out at restaurants that sit silently and look around for things to talk about. If we have to, we bring questions to dinner ready to ask our partner. We have to talk about what the other person wants to do in the future. We can’t just expect it to happen. We have to plan our future with our partner.