As I tuned into a basketball game this weekend and watched the referees enforce the rules of the game, I got to thinking about the fact that relationships have rules too – and they are just as important to enforce. In the same way a basketball game without rules would quickly descend into chaos, a relationship where the rules aren’t enforced when an argument gets heated, can quickly go downhill.
1. Call a timeout when necessary.
I’m only 29, but when I look back on the relationships in my life, I have regretted what I said much more often than what I didn’t say. When you are too angry, stressed out, or confused to talk to your partner with a clear head, it’s OK—and usually better —to call a timeout.
Try saying “Can we come back to this in an hour?” Or, “It’s been a long day. Let’s talk about this tomorrow.” Of course, those can be a lot of words to say calmly when you’re angry, so try choosing a code word that you both understand when it’s time to pull the plug, immediately. My Husband and I used to have the code word “blue hen”. The advantage of a word like that is, it sounds so ridiculous that it often made us both giggle and diffused the tension in the room.
It is also good practice not to begin a topic that could result in an argument when you are hungry, angry, lonely, or tired. If any of these symptoms present themselves, call it. In other words, HALT!
2. Come to the table (or come back to the table) at an appropriate time.
Recognize that a difficult conversation is best begun when both of you, not just one of you, are ready. It may be helpful to ask, “I want to talk about the family finances, or the way we have been disciplining our toddler, etc – when would be a good time for you to talk?” That way, your partner doesn’t feel ambushed. This is one of the many reasons my husband and I do family meetings, with an agenda somewhat agreed upon in advance. The conversation is less likely to feel like an attack this way.
3. Solve the underlying issue.
Most petty arguments are really about an underlying issue, if not solved, it will just come back with another petty cover in front of it. If a spouse forgets to do the dishes, and it causes an argument the spouse apologizing and doing the dishes may temporarily diffuse the tension. But if the real cause of the argument is that the other spouse doesn’t feel listened to, or doesn’t feel that housework distribution is equitable in general. If not dealt with these issue will come up again in the form of another argument. It’s worth training yourself to recognize when an argument is really due to a broader issue rather than its immediate cause, and asking your partner for time to address it when both of you are calm.
4. Ladies: Keep it Clear.
Many women, including myself, often beat around the bush, or expect something to be done without asking. While it is nice to have a man read your mind and anticipate your every need and desire, it simply doesn’t work that way. Sometimes, we do have to ask directly and with no nuance.
A good example of this can be found in a scene in the The Break-Up, where Jennifer Aniston is imploring her boyfriend, “I want you to want to do the dishes!!” And the boyfriend, played by Vince Vaughn, looks at her in disbelief and says, “Why would I want to do the dishes?” You can’t make anyone want to do the dishes. But that doesn’t mean you can’t ask them to do the dishes. I have found that so many arguments can be avoided if the woman in a relationship asks for what she needs in plain terms.
I think in the end, fighting is inevitable and no fighting at all is probably unhealthy. But fighting fair is so critical to the success of a long term relationship, that it’s worth devoting the time to work on it.