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Fight Fairly and Keep the Peace in Your Relationship

7 dispute diffusers and tips for improving the way you argue.
By Diane Lore
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Kimball Johnson, MD

Becky Robbins says she and her husband, Neil -- married for eight years -- rarely fight.

That doesn't mean that there isn't conflict. It's just that she screams "kind of like the queen in Alice in Wonderland," uttering phrases reminiscent of "off with their heads." Neil responds like most guys in marriage fights. He hides in "the bedroom playing video games."

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"Everyone in a relationship argues," Debbie Mandel, author of Addicted to Stress, says. "However, how loudly you scream or how frequently you fight does not predict the outcome of your marriage."

What qualifies as fighting fair in marriage essentially comes down to how each partner feels when they leave the ring. If both are hearty "boxers" who love a few rounds in the ring and then are ready for some make-up sex, the marriage is probably fine.

But if people leave the ring angry, bitter, and resentful, perhaps it's time to re-evaluate, either together or with the help of a therapist or psychologist.

How to Keep the Peace

Experts on wedded bliss -- some with the pedigree of education and others with the scars of experience -- have recommended the following strategies for smoothing things over:

  • Go to bed angry. Several therapists and couples say forget that adage about always resolving anger before turning in -- and let someone sleep on the couch. "We've found that going to bed angry is often the best choice," says Lisa Earle McLeod, author and a 23-year marriage veteran. "It allows partners to clear their thoughts, get some sleep, and make a date to resume the fight (which might seem less important in the light of day)."
  • Take a break. Even a 30-second break can help a couple push the reset button on a fight, licensed clinical counselor Timothy Warneka says. "Stop, step out of the room, and reconnect when everyone's a little calmer."
  • Own up to your part of the fight. Melody Brooke, a licensed marriage and family therapist, says two things derail intense fights: admitting what you did to get your partner ticked off and expressing empathy toward your partner. Brooke, author of The Blame Game, says this can be difficult but is typically extremely successful. "Letting down our defenses in the heat of battle seems counterintuitive, but it is actually very effective with couples."
  • Find the humor. Pamela Bodley and her husband have been married 23 years, "and Lord knows it [wasn't] easy in the early years," she says. "But it's much, much better now. We have a great sense of humor." Her husband Paul has kept the mood light by always saying he knows women keep skillets in their purse. So when he does something wrong, Bodley says, "I just pretend to hit him over the head with a skillet and say, 'TING!'"
  • Shut up and touch. Brooke says there's a point where discussing the matter doesn't help. So couples need to just hold each other when nothing else seems to be working. "Reconnecting through touch is very important."
  • Ban the "but." Jane Straus, author of Enough is Enough! Stop Enduring and Start Living Your Extraordinary Life, says couples often derail a resolution when they acknowledge the other partner's position and then add a "but" in their next breath, reaffirming their own. An example: "I can understand why you didn't pick up the dishes in the family room, but why do you think I'm the maid?"
  • Remember what's important. "We soon realized that we don't have two beings in a marriage," Jacqueline Freeman says. "We actually have three: me, my husband, and the marriage. And we have to take good care of all three. So if we've been arguing about whose fault it is that the house is so messy, I might defend myself saying I was busy working on a project that will bring in more income, and he might say he was busy fixing something on the house that was broken. We used to be able to carry on a conversation like this for quite some time. But over the years, we seem to have developed a 15-minute timer for arguing. [Then] one of us will suddenly remember the key question: What's best for the marriage?"

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