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3 Things Healthy Couples Do to Fight Fair

  • Dr. Ron Welch Transformational Marriage
  • 2014 25 Aug
3 Things Healthy Couples Do to Fight Fair

To have a fair fight, there have to be rules. A Saturday night bar fight looks a lot different from a prize fight in a ring. Things get completely out of control when there are no rules. It’s the same in marriage. There are three Rules of Engagement you need to fight fair.

1. Allow Your Partner to Disengage

The first key in this process is for you and your husband  to make an ironclad agreement. Both of you must agree that if one of you asks to stop the discussion, the other will not try to force the discussion to continue. I have worked with couples who have chased each other around the house when one partner refused to let the other take a break. In many cases, this happens because the chaser doesn’t want to “lose” the argument to the chasee.

You have to allow your partner space when he or she says it is needed. I’ve tried pushing Jan to talk when she didn’t want to, and I can assure you it does not work. She knows when she needs a break, as we all do. Trying to force the other person into a resolution simply doesn’t work, as Steve found out when he tried to force Noelle to keep talking.

2. Make the Time-Out Happen

Once you have committed to honoring each other’s request to ask for a break during an argument or disagreement, you need to have a specific process to make this happen. This is harder than you think. The concept isn’t difficult to grasp, but the application is.

I suggest that you start by identifying a “safe” phrase. You can use something as simple as “I need a time-out” or “I need a break.” It doesn’t have to be elaborate; it just has to work. You may want to choose a cute or funny phrase that will break the ice when one of you uses it. Both of you need to agree that when this phrase is used, the discussion is immediately dropped. Neither spouse should try to keep it going, even if the one who asked for the time-out feels guilty about the request. He or she may be quick to give in if the other partner tries to keep the discussion going.

Steve and Noelle had identified a “safe phrase” (I want a time- out), and Steve did eventually honor that (although he should have done so without being sarcastic). You have to be able to stop the argument in its tracks and prevent past patterns from recurring. We are primed to respond in the same destructive patterns that we have always used and we can respond before we are even aware of what we are doing.

Choosing to take a time-out is not as easy as it may seem. You have to take your commitment to honor the safe phrase and time-out seriously. In order to stop the argument and give yourself time, you both must stop talking and not have to get the last word in. Most importantly, you have to give up your desire to “win” the argument and be more concerned with positively resolving the disagreement.

In my marriage, when Jan asks for a time-out, I have learned to see this as an opportunity  to support Jan and show her love and respect. Jan is asserting her control in the relationship by setting appropriate boundaries. In return, when I honor and respect these requests, I show her that I support her in making healthy choices in our relationship.

3. Return to the Discussion

One of the biggest challenges couples face in this time-out process is that the issue gets dropped completely. The disengagement process cannot become an excuse to avoid conflict or quit on the relationship. For some couples, taking a time-out amounts to running away from the issue. For this strategy to work, the couple has to set a time when the issue will be brought up again.

I have four rules that I suggest to couples regarding this “re- scheduling” of the conflict:

  • The person who asked for a time-out must identify a time when he or she will be ready to talk about the problem again.
  • The person who asked for a time-out must identify what was happening that led to the need for a time-out.
  • Both parties have to identify and admit their contribution to the conflict, while also agreeing how they will do things differently the next time.
  • Both parties need to agree that if either is not in the right frame of mind to continue the discussion at the agreed-on time, the discussion will be rescheduled again.

Steve and Noelle did a good job of following all four of these rules when they returned to the discussion. Initially, Steve should have immediately stopped arguing when asked, and Noelle should have given Steve a time when she might be ready to talk again to decrease his anxiety. After that, they did well. When he brought the issue up again, Steve made sure to ask if Noelle was ready to talk about it, and since she wasn’t ready, they postponed the discussion again. Both Steve and Noelle owned the mistakes they made during the initial discussion and they were both in a cooperative, unresentful frame of mind when they did talk.

Couples who follow these steps have had very good success at not letting issues drop and making sure resentment doesn’t build up. You may have noticed that when issues aren’t dealt with in relationships, frustration tends to build up, sometimes resulting in an emotional explosion. It is much better to deal with these conflicts as they arise.

Excerpted from The Controlling Husband by Dr. Ron Welch, (C) 2014 Revell Books (a division of Baker Publishing Group). Used by permission.

Dr. Ron Welch is the author of The Controlling Husband (Revell, 2014) and is on the faculty of Denver Seminary. He has over twenty years of experience in clinical psychology and has extensive experience working with couples and with men with narcissistic and antisocial personality styles. He and his wife, Jan, have walked the road of a controlling marriage personally and live in Colorado.

Publication date: August 25, 2014