Fighting Fair in Lasting Love

My emotions were on edge, and it was all I could do to keep from shouting at my husband, “You always do this! You always make me feel inferior!” It felt so true and obvious at the time.

Somehow I had enough self-control to restrain myself, knowing that I would regret saying it later. Because the fact is that even though it felt true at the time, deep down I knew it wasn’t.

Everyone wants to be respected, right? That’s a no-brainer. And perhaps the person we most long to be respected by is our significant other. Not only is mutual respect important for our relational satisfaction and sense of self, it’s also important for the children that we have (or will have someday). But for my husband and me, and I suspect for many other couples as well, it’s often hard to communicate the respect we feel in the middle of a heated disagreement.

One ground rule that we set at the beginning of our marriage was that we are committed to fighting fair. That means that neither of us allows our self to fly off the handle and say whatever comes to mind in the heat of the moment—as tempting as it might be. Because the thoughts that come so fast and furious at the time are often not true at all.

For example, statements that include “you always” or “you never” are very rarely true. And it would be unfair for me to say that he “makes me feel inferior.” I have to hold myself responsible for my own feelings.

So although it was hard to hold my tongue in the moment, I was later glad that I had found other ways to express myself in the argument with statements like, “Right now I feel inferior to you because I haven’t thought through this issue as thoroughly as you have. And I really hate that feeling. I need more time to think about it before we have this conversation.”

shannon and eric
Shannon and Eric

It’s not as impossible as it sounds to use restraint in the heat of the moment, and here’s why: I know he’s doing it too. I know there are a thousand things that he could be accusing me of that he’s not saying. Sometimes I let myself feel like a martyr for holding my tongue, but I so often forget that he is doing the exact same thing for me. Fighting fair only works if both parties are committed to it.

And speaking of being committed to it, does that mean that we always stick to it? No way. Many times one or both of us will say something unfair or untrue during a fight.  But after so many years of practice, we have gotten pretty good at listening to our consciences and admitting that we were wrong. Sometimes we’re able to do it immediately, during the fight. But sometimes it’s not until afterwards that we see it.  Either way, apologizing and asking forgiveness has restored our relationship time after time.

When we exchanged those vows years ago, we said that we were forming our marriage on mutual respect. We’ve learned that those words amount to nothing if we don’t live up to them when it matters the most. The fact that we can fight with strong opinions and still show each other respect in the midst of it proves that our commitment to this marriage is real. It’s not easy, and we certainly don’t do it perfectly, but I’m proud of us for working towards it in every argument.

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