How to Fight More Productively

I spend my life surrounded by attorneys. My father, brother, and sister-in-law are lawyers, and I have managed a mid-sized law firm for the past 9 years of my life. People have tried to set me up with attorneys repeatedly over the course of my dating life, perhaps thinking being surrounded by litigators 50+ hours a week wasn’t punishment enough.

I’ve learned quite a bit from my chosen profession: most lawyers never see the inside of a courtroom; new attorneys spend more time buried under books than fighting for their clients’ rights; contracts are some of the most boring writing ever put to paper and fly directly in the face of the very useful business advice that “brevity is key.” I have also picked up some useful hints about arguing one’s case. However, it was growing up in a house full of the type of people who would be drawn to the legal path where my true education lay. As a whole, we like to argue, my clan; loudly, passionately, and intimidatingly ferociously for the new and uninitiated. Many a boyfriend left the first family dinner with a look of terror on their face, worriedly wondering how upset I was with whomever I had engaged with that evening. Upset? Hardly. Invigorated? Much more accurate. One of the many things I adore about Jon is his ability to engage in these debates with my family in the same spirit with which we all do so- for the sake of arguing.

Why do I lay this all out in an article about fighting fair? Mostly because I realize that as a person who has been married for 8 months, it is laughable that I would think I have a right to dole out advice on fighting in a marriage. We have no children and our life, while not without its struggles, is pretty nice; we don’t really have much to fight about and for that I am extremely grateful. Neither of us are big yellers and we try to have really open and honest communication, which also helps keep the fighting at bay. We argue, for sure, and those arguments can get heated enough that my sister (who lives with us) will storm upstairs to her room, calling out as she goes, “I hate it when mommy and daddy fight!” but those arguments are typically about current events, such as women in comedy or the Wikileaks rape accusations. Yes, my husband and I, who are about as similar in political beliefs (bleeding heart liberals) as two people can possibly be, can spend hours arguing about the patriarchal structures and privilege that color the media’s portrayal of these topics and how the different types of media the two of us consume can cause us to come to completely different conclusions on the exact same topic. Arguing for the sake of arguing. But there are also some basics of fighting that I follow as strictly as possible and see many others in my life ignore completely, and I’ve watched it destroy relationships and marriages alike. These are the things I’d like to put forth to you, my dear Persephoneers, in the hopes that they will prove as useful to you as they have to me. Plus, I like to win, and these strategies help me reach that end.

Use “I” Statements

Yes, I know, this sounds totally trite, but honestly, few things are more effective when trying to start a calm, rational discussion. For example, if you say “You never help me with the housework,” you immediately put the other person on the defensive, which is the quickest way to escalate an argument. If you say, “I feel like I’ve been doing more than my fair share of the housework lately, and I could really use your help,” you are taking the accusation and anger out of the equation and making it about having your needs considered. Your partner cares about you and wants you to be happy. If you explain what your needs are as opposed to going on the attack, they are not only more inclined to listen but also to do what they can to find a solution. Also, avoiding words like “never” and “always” is a good rule to follow. Using such definitive language is off-putting and also discounts all the times the person has not done said thing. If you say, “You’re always late” when the person is, in reality, just late more often than you would like, you run the risk of having them decide that they may as well be late in the future if you aren’t going to give them any credit for being on time. Yes, that would be a spiteful and childish decision on their part, and one that would most definitely create more fights going forward, which is why we are exploring ways to minimize these outcomes.

It is truly amazing to see the difference an “I” statement makes. My best friend will often call me before having potentially fight-inducing discussions with her boyfriend to go over her “script” for the conversation. She is a firecracker, that one, and has been known to get a little rage-y on occasion. She will go on about what her boyfriend has done, how insensitive he’s being, how his behavior has caused this tension between them. Then I, sounding like every therapist I have ever seen, will respond, “But how does that make you feel?” Her response to that question is typically the start of the discussion- “I feel hurt because…” There is no lashing out, no attacking, just an honest, upfront and straightforward statement about her feelings and needs. There is a reason it is a classic therapy line. Once you can focus on your own feelings about a certain situation, you are better equipped to address what needs to be fixed.

Keep it on Topic

This means no bringing up issues from fights six months ago or that you have silently seethed about without addressing but have no relation to the current situation. This requires a substantial amount of restraint, trust me, I know, but we are looking at fighting productively, and nothing will derail an argument faster than this. If you and your partner fought about something six months ago that you both came to a conclusion about, it is time to let it go. If you chose to forgive them for something, you need to forgive them and can’t keep throwing it back in their face when you are angry. Way easier said than done, I realize completely, but there isn’t really another option. We all have things that our partners have done that have hurt us, but by choosing to remain in the relationship, you made the choice to move on from the hurt. Continuing to bring it up and rehash it will keep a relationship stunted and leaving you both unable to communicate the current issue effectively.

This also means deciphering where your partner may be coming from if they are the one that started the argument. For example, one point of contention between Jon and I has been the garage. When we got back together, he was living seven hours away in a huge artist’s foundry that he helped build from the ground up with some business partners. He had a studio apartment above an almost 10,000 square foot, state-of-the-art workshop where he could create his large scale sculptures unencumbered. When he moved in with me, he had no work space whatsoever. His parents offered him the majority of their 4-car garage to turn into a shop, but first he would have to clean out mountains of stuff that had been piling up in there for years. At our house, we have a two-car garage which I park in and had used the other half for storage, mostly of items for a garage sale or Craigslist, should I ever find the spare time to make such things happen. The lack of a space to create was really, really hard on him, and slowly it built up into resentment and anger. He would be so frustrated by the sheer volume of unused “junk” that he would lash out on occasion, declaring that he wanted to take everything to the dump and be rid of it.

At this point, I could have gotten angry that he would assume any rights to throw away perfectly useful items of mine that resided in the garage of the house that I paid the mortgage on, and trust me, that was my initial reaction. Instead, I tried to understand whether or not all of his frustrations were really with me and my stuff, or if it was a culmination of other issues he was dealing with that he was projecting onto me because, as his partner, I was the safest person to lash out at without a lot of repercussions. And so I swallowed my pride, my desire to be hurtful back to him, and asked him. I asked if his frustration with all the work he was doing at his parents’ was behind a lot of the ways he was feeling about our home, and if he thought it was fair to compare some boxes and small items of furniture in our garage to decades worth of craft supplies, tools and home decor crammed in at his parents’. And yes, I realize it sounds like I am writing a revisionist history of how this all played out, with me being all calm and introspective in the face of super-grump, but this is honestly how my brain works. I majored in Communications with a minor in Family Counseling, so often I sound like a therapist when I interact with people. Like I said, I like to argue, and I like to win. This approach works, I promise. By forcing Jon to examine his motivations, we were able to get the discussion back on topic, back to a point where we could isolate our actual issues from the bigger picture, and find a solution from there.

And Finally, Choose Your Battles

This is effective in every relationship in our lives. It is often heard coming from parents discussing the things they allow their child to do because it is exhausting to monitor and deal with every single thing every single day, which is absolutely true. This is why I don’t understand why people don’t apply it to the other interactions they have in their lives all the time. For example, Jon doesn’t load the dishwasher the way I do (read: the right way). I could tell him this, perhaps show him how I would do it. Or, I can shut up and thank him for loading the dishwasher. The first option will probably lead to him feeling a little resentful that I don’t think he, as a grown man, has the ability to load a dishwasher. The second option will lead to him saying, “You’re welcome.” Which is the better outcome? Do I still cringe a little every time I open it and see things crammed in awkwardly? Of course, I’m a control freak. But I also remind myself that It. Does. Not. Matter. It does not matter in the slightest how the damn thing gets loaded, and by restraining myself from nit-picking about his methods, I am able to avoid what I have done in past relationships, which is complain about inconsequential, petty little things that build up and begin to erode the respect, love, and compassion that partners are supposed to cultivate, not hack away at.

Choosing your battles doesn’t mean ignoring actual issues for the sake of keeping the peace. It is also about figuring out a way to have a conversation about something that is bothering you in a way that won’t turn it into a fight. Again, for example, I was beginning to feel resentful about the amount of housework I was doing on the weekends while my husband and sister spent their days doing things they enjoyed. And by resentful, I mean pissed. I wanted to yell, I wanted to rage that they were having fun while I was scrubbing toilets. Instead, I sat down and made a list of the items that needed to be done on a weekly basis and then called a family meeting. I told them both how I felt and that I needed more help around the house from them. I needed them to pick the chores they would like from the list and make sure they were done every week by Sunday. If they didn’t want to do these chores, the two of them could work out how to split the cost of someone to come in and help with the housework. They chose the former. Now I am less taxed and everyone does their share.

I know that every relationship is different and every situation is unique. I also realize that, in the heat of the moment, when tempers are flaring, it is hard to take a step back and try to move a fight to a more productive track. However, the more you practice these tricks, the more naturally they come to you in a crisis. They are also incredibly helpful in dealing with family members, friends and co-workers/bosses(the best people to practice on, actually). Some have said that some of these tricks seem a little manipulative, to which I say, “You say that like it’s a bad thing.” Yes, they are manipulative, in the sense that they manipulate a potentially toxic fight into a thoughtful discussion, which is manipulation I can totally get behind.

Happy fighting, y’all!


9 replies on “How to Fight More Productively”

My mom used to tell us to stop “awfulizing,” which somehow reflected back onto not using “always” or “never” statements in arguments. At some point I couldn’t remember the word and I told someone to stop “alwaysing” and that stuck. I’m mostly past the point where I fight with my parents (I don’t live very near them and can just not talk to them when I’m angry, ain’t that neat) but whenever I’m in an argument I hear the voice of a family member telling me to “stop alwaysing!”

I love both! That is such a good way to get the point across. My husband and I are both such sticklers on this. It is the easiest way to bring a discussion to a boiling point. “Oh, really? I always do that? I never do this? What about…” and then whoever did it has to back out of it super quick to get things back on track. I am totally going to start saying “stop alwaysing!!”

Thank you; you are awesome. And I love your housework examples. What the hell is it about housework that makes mostly reasonable people to go completely nutso? I have the two pronged problem of feeling like I do a majority of the work (of course I do!), and when he does it, it’s not the way I like it (he does it wrong!). Joking aside, it was his idea to hire a housekeeper to come periodically to take the load off. I really appreciated that he acknowledged that it’s a lot of work and he didn’t seem inclined to jump in and scrub the shower. But we never actually did it, so now I want to buck up and take your advice on a way to broach the topic again. Remember those ‘I’ statements, scarletwine.

Great article! My boyfriend and I are both law school grads currently studying for the bar, and we’re also extremely similar in political ideology, but we still argue over privilege and what is the exact legal basis for abortion rights, because we are huge nerds. Based on that experience, I agree with everything you said.

I truly believe that how you argue with someone you’re dating is a huge indicator of the likelihood of success for your relationship. Before my current boyfriend (we’ve been together a year and a half, so by no means am I an expert, but we have seen some pretty sticky situations and managed to pull through) I was dating another law student. We dated unofficially for three months, and it was HELL. We were on opposite ends of the political spectrum and had completely different argument styles. He would launch right into what his stance was and then whatever I said after that was wrong. And while I was trying to tell him why I thought what I did, he criticized my experience and my syntax, and my favorite time, he tried to tell me the 19th Amendment was not ratified until the 1950s or something and I had to go get my pocket Constitution to prove him wrong. If I disagreed with him, he was adamant that I was completely wrong. We were never able to agree on even a basis for why something was a problem. Most of the time I would end up in tears and spend the whole next day crying to my best friend about how can I be in a relationship with someone who believes the Constitution should be thrown in the trash. In the end, I felt like he didn’t respect me or my opinions because my status as an upper middle class woman was never as important in the context as a minority as his status as an upper middle class half Native American (this was the worst discussion I ever had. Thinking about it makes me want to puke). I believe the lack of respect was the problem in our arguments and the downfall of the relationship.

Oh, I feel for you so much! I hate when people bring in totally irrelevant things to try to make their “point” or to win. It is the classic argument derail because then you have to totally switch gears and defend something totally off-topic, then trying to get back to the point can be impossible, particularly with someone who you differ with so greatly in the basics. I am so sorry you had to go through such a tumultuous relationship. It can be so deflating and esteem killing even if you aren’t in something long-term. People who attack like he did, who seem to take pleasure in being cruel, are just toxic to have in your life. Ugh!!!

I’m so glad you found someone to have rousing, educational arguments with! Even when they are frustrating, you feel like you come out of it with at least a different perspective. It is awesome to find someone who can challenge you without resorting to jerkiness!

That’s the litmus test, though, right?

Does the person want to win or understand. I find personally that’s how you know if you’re talking to a person who “fights” fare.

I have a distinction in my mind between debating and arguing. I love to debate but I don’t like arguing!!!!!!

Oh geez, this is the worst, and a problem I have definitely experienced, particularly in my last relationship before my husband. He really liked to derail arguments by saying I was being “irrational”. I am many, many things, but irrational is not one of them. This is probably one of the hardest things about fighting fair- when you are trying to an the other person refuses- but my best suggestion is to say “Look, I feel we are both too worked up right now to continue this conversation. I need to take a little time to compose myself because I don’t want to say something hurtful that I can’t take back. I need you to respect that I need a little time.” And then leave- go for a walk, retreat to another part of the house- but just go. Some people have never learned that sometimes, an argument needs to stop for awhile so both people can collect themselves. Even though it’s really hard, you need to demand your space and your need to compose yourself.

In the case of my last relationship, I eventually had to admit that the guys lack of ability to argue productively was a deal breaker for me, because it displayed a fundamental lack of respect for me as a whole. However, there are a large number of people who have really just never learned how to be respectful in arguing, typically because their parents weren’t and so they had no good models of behavior. This can be overcome, but it requires a lot of work during the times people aren’t fighting, where they sit down and discuss the things that were hurtful or unacceptable during the last argument so they can work on avoiding them in the future.

Sorry for the super long response, but hopefully it helps?

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