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  • Writer's picturePaul Lavella Jr.

Relational Disputes 101: How to Fight Fair

In a time heightened stress and uncertainty, our relationships are our social lifelines. Let's be reminded of how respect our significant others when we're not seeing eye-to-eye. #relationships #communication #counseling #njraw

Tensions running high? Tensions running high at home with your partner? As we’ve all been asked to go into lockdown mode due to the Coronavirus pandemic, we’ve needed to consider many changes. Yes, of course, there’s the social distancing practices, shelter in place mandates, instantly learning to become homeschooler of the year while trying to adapt to a productive work-from-home routine or mitigating the anxieties associated with unemployment due to recent lay-offs… Yes to all of that. Another considerable change many of us have experienced is how we are relating to our significant others. 

A funny social media post from a friend brought on a good laugh, and a good point [side note - these meme’s have been fantastic if you need a healthy, light-hearted distraction]: Y’all married folks holding up ok? I haven’t seen “I’m so blessed” or “He’s my everything” in a while… Every piece of humor has some truth in it, right? And this sentiment, or observation - really, wasn’t alone in a vacuum...

Y’all married folks holding up ok? I haven’t seen “I’m so blessed” or “He’s my everything” in a while…

In watching Trevor Noah’s newly organized Daily Social Distancing Show, one of his routine correspondents, comedian Desi Lydic, quipped about loving being with her family - when it was only for an hour a day. Yes, this segment was a bit for a comedy filled news show, however Desi and Trevor do touch on a reality that many are experiencing. We knew how we interact with our significant others when we had a different routine. Our interactions were typically buffered with the business of our lives and in an “absence make the heart grow fonder” type-fashion we rejoin and reconnect when we get back together after the day has concluded. 

In our new reality, we’re being asked to remain in our homes with very limited exceptions. In this reality, we are significantly altering how we interact and relate with our significant other. Intimate relationships are dynamic and ever-changing. We ebb and flow, we groove with each other. Whereas relationships that struggle demonstrate insecurity and preoccupation, strong relationships show respect for each member as an individual and honor the joining of these individual parts. Regardless of the type of relationship you are in, we are going to have disagreements.

When we’re around each other 24/7, adjusting to a new routine (if you even have one yet), with uncertainty and anxieties likely on high, we are bound to not be our best selves - and most certainly not our best selves with others. Disagreements are going to happen, as they always have and always will, however how we argue may change based on our stress level

If you’ve been noticing an increase in the frequency of your relational conflicts and  a similar increase in intensity, it’s useful to be mindful of how you’re feeling day-to-day, and lay some ground rules for disagreements. We need to remind ourselves how to fight fair.


Lay off the Insults

First thing’s first - if we’re going to fight fair, then we have to keep it clean, right? Earlier said than done, clearly. When we’re emotionally charged, we are putting passion behind our words and from time-to-time can lose sight about what we’re doing when we’re expressing our views. What can start off as a simple disagreement or misunderstanding between you and your other can turn flat out hostile when we get aggressive in our choice of words.

Name calling, belittling, minimizing… Whatever you want to call it,  it detracts from the conversation at hand and adds in unnecessary tension. So why do we do it? Simple questions at times have the most nuanced types of answers… Of course there are many potential motivations behind this foul ball, but a few notables include protecting our ego and distraction.

Name calling and other insults create a distance between people, separating into an “us and them” type system. If you don’t understand me or dont agree with my position, then you must be a - fill in the blank. In other words, you’re not like me. Because, you know, there’s no way we can be civil and have differing views… To defend ourselves and our fragile egos’ (this is not an insult, rather a fair statement as our egos are a bit fragile), we compartmentalize the threat as a them and hold them at a distance. Insults are just a way of doing this with words and usually comes out in anger or dismissiveness, giving our ego a little boost by knocking others down. 

Conversely, sometimes insults are used to throw our fencing partner off balance and distracting them from the topic at hand. If you won’t agree with me or see my point of view, then I must be fighting a losing battle, but if I catch you off guard, then I may win just yet! An insult can be used covertly as a way to distract our other, if they react to the insult, the initial spat tends to get lost in the detail of the new argument where insults are thrown like daggers. 

Point being, insults are low blows and whether they come up intentionally or unintentionally, need to be recognized as fighting dirty, called out, and avoided. You care for the person you’re disagreeing with. Insulting is not an act of caring.

Stay Present - This Argument is not Every Argument

Another way we easily fall off balance during a disagreement is by bringing up previous spars. We tend to do this by referencing past disputes where either we were right or they were wrong. It’s as though there’s some bookie keeping a scoreboard of victories and the more positive marks we have (or negative ones they do) counts as evidence that our perspective has more clout. Fighting fair means staying in the moment, keeping focus on the current situation at hand. Referencing former woes takes us away from that. 

Similar in process, this tactic is aimed at crediting ourselves or discrediting the other, again creating a distancing or separation between us. Interesting note, when we’re fighting fair we’re not distancing. We may not be moving closer together, but we aren’t putting barriers between ourselves and our others. Keep this in mind. While we’re going back and forth with our “I’m right and you’re wrong,” squabble, anything used as ammo to knock the other person down or elevate our own position is divisive. If a person did wrong or was hurtful in the past, does not mean that it holds bearing now.

Keeping the focus on the current interaction keeps things fair and may involve you identifying why - in the here-and-now - you hold the position you do.

There’s No Need to Recruit Troops

Yet another divisive measure is the "strength in numbers" approach. You know you’ve been there, at least on the receiving end. Just ask so-and-so… Even what’s-his-name agrees with me. Recruiting or referencing others to take sides is another method to strengthen our position that inevitably creates distance and often begets defensiveness. 

Consider it as though you’ve just come to awareness that there has been a slowly amassing army of people who are against you. Are you more likely to lower arms and join forces, or strengthen defenses and hold the line?

No only does recruiting troops add to distancing in your relationship, it may also contribute to unnecessary strain in other relationships as well. Staying within the boundaries of an argument, we need to keep the focus on who the disagreement is between. Bringing others into the mix takes it out of the here and now and can distract from the central purpose of understanding. In essence, it demonstrates our commitment to not understand, rather to convince why our other should join our ranks.

Be Mindful of Remote Detonators and Landmines

We all have buttons and if we’re astute enough, know how to identify others’ buttons as well. When we’re having a disagreement with someone else, we may overtly or covertly, - intentionally, unintentionally or unknowingly - push another person's buttons. Once that button has been pushed and we’re already in a passionate stance of asserting our position, duck for cover… you’ve activated the remote detonator.

You know what I’m talking about… When you say something that rubs your other the wrong way and you receive the explosion in return. Now while it is true, you are not responsible for other people's emotions or their responsiveness / control of their emotions, if you’re aware of another person's soft spots and know what you’re doing when you give that jam - that’s not fighting fair. If anything, it just positions you to throw your hands up and discredit the other person for being unreasonable - because they got reactive to your distraction.

Key takeaway here - if you are aware of triggers for your other, it wouldn’t be fair to use them as weapons during a disagreement. Just the same as your triggers would not be fair to have used against you. 

When you're on the receiving end of having buttons pushed, it can feel like walking over a landmine when emotions swell and reactivity takes over. When we encounter a landmine, we tend to react in anger. And of course, when others experience reactivity, they don’t hear what we’re saying, the point we’re trying to make; they only see the anger and dismiss us as being irrational.

If you’ve just walked into a landmine, it is your responsibility to temper and regulate these emotions, regardless of the trigger being intentional or unintentional.

Respect the Need to Take a Break

Although we may have the need to be heard and to have our point understood, we also have a need to know when we need a time out. When our passions get the best of us, we lose our cool and can no longer have a productive discussion. We need to know when to say I’ll be right back

The point of taking a break is not to avoid or dismiss the conversation or push the buttons of your other who may be seeking resolution; the goal is to take a pause for recomposure to more effectively continue the discussion. More often than not, breaks are often used to avoid the experience of losing a fight. And just as often, a person's need for a break is not respected due to the other’s need to win.

Both of these scenarios are examples of not fighting fair. Using retreat and avoidance to exit a discussion serve as an ego defense mechanism and do not validate any understanding of each other gained in the dispute. Likewise, aggressively pursuing someone after being asked for a break disrespects their need for recomposure; they’re already in a weakened state and this pursuit acts as kicking them while they’re down. 

Respect the relationship by respecting the need for a break and respecting the need for closure. And put down that chalk - there’s no scoreboard to tally.


When we set and respect boundaries on how we conduct ourselves when we fight, we honor and respect our relationship. We also may have a better chance of hearing each other out. Attempting to understand and be understood does not necessarily mean that anyone's view is going to change, however it does invite opportunity for joining as opposed to creating distance in the relationship.

Maintain these boundaries. It may be helpful to talk openly with your partner about where your disputes tend to fall off the rails and become hurtful or aggressive. Remember, you are a support for each other and now more than ever, we can use all the support we can get!

If your relationship could use some coaching in navigating tense interactions or you feel there's a need for counseling to get things back on track, there's support available. NJ Recovery & Wellness has licensed professionals who can navigate relational conflicts, and help teach you how to fight fair. Call (973) 944-0225 now, and ask how counseling can support your relationship.


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