Fighting in relationships is inevitable and, actually, important.
The couples I worry about most are the ones that don’t fight. Because it means it’s harder to get to what’s really going on. Fighting can be what comes before a new level of intimacy, a step toward more commitment in the relationship, a big breakthrough in understanding yourself and healing from the past, negotiating and coming to terms with your differences so each partner can be fully self expressed. But in order for it to build your relationship, fighting dirty has to go.
So let’s talk about what fighting dirty means and how can you learn to fight in a way that is actually productive and produces positive results.
What is fighting dirty?
Dr. George Dimon defines fighting dirty as “… fighting without principle-guided limits and boundaries. It’s placing winning over everything. And it’s using whatever tactics or psychological “weapons” you can think of to secure the dominant position.” (Dr. George Simon, “Fighting Dirty Destroys Relationships”, Dr.GeorgeSimon.com, June 21, 2019, www.drgeorgesimon.com/fighting-dirty-destroys-relationships)
This can include name calling, verbal attacks, not allowing the other person to talk, the silent treatment, bringing up past mistakes, dismissing or invalidating their feelings…and the list goes on.
If you’re reading this, you’ve probably done one or more of these things. It’s OK. I was tempted to do one of them yesterday. You’re here to learn. And once you know better, you have a path forward to do better.
Fighting dirty can happen in any type of relationship whether it is a romantic one, a relationship with a family member or even just with friends. Sarah Lee, Trauma & CPTSD Therapist gives more insight on dirty fighting within the family HERE. (Lee, Sarah [@childhood_trauma_therapy]. “Does your Family Fight Dirty?.”* Instagram, other contributors, November 4, 2021, https://www.instagram.com/p/CV3KiQwsTbd/?utm_source=ig_web_copy_link.)
“Dirty fighting is often a subconscious behavior that is learned in childhood and continues into adult relationships. Many people are not even aware they are doing anything wrong or hurtful when they fight this way. They may see that they are having difficulty resolving relationship disputes, but they don’t connect it to how they engage in conflicts.” (Banks, Bobbi [@heybobbibanks]. “Fighting Dirty in Relationships Looks Like.” Instagram, other contributors, dDecember 18, 2022, https://www.instagram.com/p/CmUEYtGAVwP/?utm_source=ig_web_copy_link.)
Dirty fighting becomes more about winning, not about hearing the other person out and trying to understand how you ended up in the fight in the first place. After a dirty fight, both people usually end up confused, hurt or just worn out from the battle of trying to win.
So let’s talk about how you can break the cycle.
What can you do instead?
So we’ve already established that fighting is normal and necessary; but how can you learn to fight fair? Here are a few tips:
Resist the urge to avoid the argument.
A lot of couples might keep it to themselves when they’re mad at each other because they’re scared of starting potentially relationship-threatening arguments. But a recent study found that avoiding these conversations is actually more likely to harm a relationship than help it. (Syrtash, Andrea, “All Couples Fight: 11 Therapist-Approved Tips to Argue Fairly”, Glamour.com, February 29, 2020, www.glamour.com/story/how-much-fighting-is-too-much-in-a-relationship)
So don’t avoid the fight, trust one another to handle the conflict and fight in a way that is fair and helps you move your relationship forward.
Slow down and think about what you are going to say before you say it
Getting caught up in the moment and blurting out things is not a healthy way to express your frustrations with your partner. If you are upset and trying to hurry up and say your piece then it usually ends up coming out wrong or sounding insensitive, even if you didn’t mean it that way. If you just pause a moment and think it through a little more you can hopefully say it in a way that allows them to understand why you’re upset, and not just feel like a complaint.
Stick to the issue
Bringing up past mistakes or character flaws is just going to fan the flames and keep you going in circles with an argument that has no end. Whatever the disagreement is or whatever situation has led to the argument, discuss that and don’t bring in other issues. If you don’t stick to the issue that got you to the argument then you can get so far off track that you get confused about what you are even fighting about and your feelings of anger or hurt will then be multiplied.
Establish some ground rules
Obviously this will have to happen before an argument starts, but if you can both agree on how you will handle arguments in the future and then stick to the rules you set, you can fight in a more fair, “healthy” way. Some examples of ground rules may be: never call each other names or attack each other’s character, commit to practicing using “I statements”, agree that you can tap out if it becomes unproductive, but always commit to coming back to the conversations. These are just a few ideas but no matter what your rules are, it can help you to feel safe to express your feelings and know that you are both committed to fighting fair.
Conflict in a relationship is inevitable. But it’s comforting to know that if you put in the effort to manage conflict in a positive way it can strengthen your relationship and bring you closer to your partner instead of tearing you apart.
If you or your partner frequently resort to fighting dirty and you want help learning how to fight fair, contact us, we can help.