Ok, now you’ve done it. Despite all your best efforts, the inevitable conflict with a partner has arisen, and the fight is on. The question is, are you engaged in healthy conflict that will help everyone involved get what they need and be happy? Or are you dancing on the rhetorical battlefield, using your words to score points and share the pain?
This article will help you stay in the realm of the former and avoid the latter.
By way of a quick introduction, I’m Lusty Guy, co-host of the long running Poly Weekly podcast where my partner, Cunning Minx, and I give relationship and communication advice. These tips and tricks are the result of lessons learned from over 30 years of my own non-monogamous relationships and taken from the class Minx and I teach, “Fixing Things When They Break.”
Let’s start off by getting the big assumptions out of the way, namely that you are in a relationship that is not marred with abusive behavior. These techniques assume that everyone involved wants to respect each other and work things out. If you are experiencing abuse, please throw all of these rules out the window and prioritize your own safety first.
I am also assuming that everyone involved is a reasonable adult with enough personal insight to own their poo, respect their partners, and feel in emotionally complete sentences. If you still don’t understand at all why you do what you do, start there before you move on to these ideas.
The Big Picture
Stop for a moment and consider this question, “What are your goals when you fight?” Really think about it with honesty and candor. When I ask this question during our workshops, the answers tend to include the following:
- To be heard and understood
- To be correct
- To make everyone else as mad as I am
- To express/vent my feelings
- To gain an expression of apology
And related ideas. At the top level, I am going to invite you to set all that aside and consider that the goal of a conflict with a partner(s) is to attain a shared state where:
- You all agree on a summary statement of what happened.
- You all agree on the contributions everyone made to the conflict.
- You all agree on what steps can be taken to minimize future occurrences.
If, before your next argument, you can all agree that making those three things happen is the goal of the argument, you will find it goes much smoother. Don’t try to make that agreement while you are arguing; never try to learn how to read the map during a storm. But do come to that shared view while you are enjoying everyone’s company and talking about your relationships.
And now we get to the nitty gritty. If your strategy is to achieve those agreements, what tactics will get you there? Here’s a list of some, but not all, fighting fair behaviors.
- One topic at a time. Don’t you hate it when you are trying to talk about the dishes and your partner(s) bring up that time when you forgot to clean the floor? It is never helpful to pile on. Deal with one and only one point of conflict at a time. Table any others that come up for later.
- One aggrieved party at a time. We all start out feeling like we’ve been wronged, and that that wrong is the source of the conflict. When everyone argues about who has been wronged (or more wronged), no one is addressing the actual topic in question. If everyone feels they are the aggrieved party at that time, take a break until someone can let the issue be about the other parties involved.
- First mover gets the floor. If you have more than one topic, start with the one that was first brought up. First in, first out, for the gamers among us.
- Talk about behaviors, not others’ feelings. “You think I am a secondary,” is not as useful a statement as is, “When you take calls from her when you are with me, but don’t take calls from me when you are with her, I feel less important to you.” The second example gives information about specific behaviors that can inspire agreement for future behaviors. And notice that all important, “When you do X, I feel Y” phrasing.
- Let everyone be the expert on themselves. Don’t tell your partners how they feel, (“You are so jealous!”), and do believe them when they tell you about themselves.
- Own your poo. It is almost certainly true that everyone involved with the current conflict has made a contribution to its existence. If you can say, “Yeah, I did that part wrong/made that mistake,” on your own, you’ll save your partner(s) and yourself much aggravation.
- Repeat before responding. Before you respond to a point, repeat it back to the person who made it until they agree that you are responding to the point they made.
A Quick Example
Minx and I are both nerds and followers of progressive issues. Recently we were discussing the issues of racial appropriation and color-blind casting through the scope of superhero movies. Things got a little heated, as they can do, but as we began actually applying the techniques above (rephrasing specifically), we realized that we were talking about two entirely different movies!
Once we had established that, we were quick to agree on what happened and that we had gotten into an argument because we hadn’t established clear communications. We then identified where each of us contributed to the disagreement and how we could avoid it in the future (rephrase before responding!).
But all of that was possible because we had previously shared the common vision that the goal of a disagreement is to achieve a shared summary of what happened, a shared view of how everyone involved contributed to it, and how to avoid it in the future. If you can all adopt that perspective and put it into effect, you’ll be fighting fair.