Family Conflict/ Couples Therapy

10 Rules for Friendly Fighting for Couples

For some people, this is a truly radical idea: There is no need to fight with your partner. Ever. Accusations, recriminations, character assassination, threats, name-calling, and cursing, whether delivered at top volume or with a quiet sarcastic sneer, damage a relationship, often irrevocably. Nobody needs to be a monster or to be treated monstrously. Nobody who yells will ever be heard. In the heat of a moment, it is always a choice whether to go for a run or run your partner down.

On the other hand, no two people in the world, no matter how made for each other they feel, will ever agree about everything at all times. (It would be quite boring if they did.) Couples do need to be able to negotiate differences. They do need to have room for constructive criticism. They do need a way to assert opinions and to disagree. And they do need to have a way to express intense feelings (that the other person may not understand or support) without feeling that they will be judged as lacking for doing so.

A healthy relationship requires knowing the skills necessary for “friendly fighting” — dealing with conflict respectfully and working together to find a workable solution. Friendly fighting means working out differences that matter. It means engaging passionately about things we feel passionate about, without resorting to hurting one another. It helps us let off steam without getting burned. Friendly fighting lets us “fight” and still stay friends.

Couples in mature, healthy relationships seem intuitively to understand the notion of friendly fighting. Some people have been fortunate enough to grow up in families where their parents modeled how to disagree without being disagreeable. Others were so horrified by the way their folks treated each other that they refuse to repeat the behavior in their own relationships. Most couples, though, learn the art of friendly fighting by working it out together and supporting each other in staying in close relationship even when differences mystify, frustrate, and upset them. Most come up with stated or unstated rules for engagement that are surprisingly similar.

Below are some tips to ensure that conflicts will strengthen your marriage instead of harm it.

Ten rules for friendly fighting: or how to ensure that conflicts will strengthen your marriage instead of harm it.

  • Embrace conflict. There is no need to fear it. Conflict is normal, even healthy. Differences between you mean that there are things you can learn from each other. Often conflict shows us where we can or need to grow.
  • Go after the issue, not each other. Friendly fighting sticks with the issue. Neither party resorts to name calling or character assassination. It’s enough to deal with the problem without adding the new problem of hurting each other’s feelings.
  • Listen respectfully. When people feel strongly about something, it’s only fair to hear them out. Respectful listening means acknowledging their feelings, either verbally or through focused attention. It means never telling someone that he or she “shouldn’t” feel that way. It means saving your point of view until after you’ve let the other person know you understand that they feel intensely about the subject, even if you don’t quite get it.
  • Talk softly. The louder someone yells, the less likely they are to be heard. Even if your partner yells, there’s no need to yell back. Taking the volume down makes it possible for people to start focusing on the issues instead of reacting to the noise.
  • Get curious, not defensive. Defending yourself, whether by vehemently protesting your innocence or rightness or by turning the tables and attacking, escalates the fight. Instead of upping the ante, ask for more information, details, and examples. There is usually some basis for the other person’s complaint. When you meet a complaint with curiosity, you make room for understanding.
  • Ask for specifics. Global statements that include the words “always” and “never” almost always get you nowhere and never are true. When your partner has complaints, ask to move from global comments of exasperation to specific examples so you can understand exactly what he or she is talking about. When you have complaints, do your best to give your partner examples to work with.
  • Find points of agreement. There almost always are parts of a conflict that can be points of agreement. Finding common ground, even if it’s agreeing that there is a problem, is an important start to finding a common solution.
  • Look for options. Fighting ends when cooperation begins. Asking politely for suggestions or alternatives invites collaboration. Careful consideration of options shows respect. Offering alternatives of your own shows that you also are willing to try something new.
  • Make concessions. Small concessions can turn the situation around. If you give a little, it makes room for the other person to make concessions too. Small concessions lead to larger compromises. Compromise doesn’t have to mean that you’re meeting each other exactly 50-50. Sometimes it’s a 60-40 or even 80-20 agreement. This isn’t about scorekeeping. It’s about finding a solution that is workable for both of you.
  • Make peace. An elderly friend who has been married for 68 years tells me that she and her husband made a rule on their wedding day never to go to bed angry. They agreed from the outset that the relationship is more important than winning arguments. Sometimes this meant they stayed up very, very late until they came to a workable compromise. Sometimes it meant that one or the other of them decided the issue wasn’t really important enough to lose sleep over. Since they both value the marriage, neither one gave in or gave up most of the time. When one did give in or give up, the other showed appreciation and made a peace offering of his or her own. These folks still love each other after 68 years of the inevitable conflicts that come with living with another person. They are probably onto something.

The following is a great website for some real life dramas that are enacted with solutions that would feel resolute:

The challenge of fathering an adolescent son.

Fathering an adolescent son requires downsizing the dad.

Published on November 22, 2010 by Carl E. Pickhardt, Ph.D. in Surviving (Your Child’s) Adolescence

Fathering a little son who wants nothing so much as to be “just like my dad” is much easier than fathering an adolescent son who wants to follow his own agenda and be his own man.

“Now that he’s a teenager he doesn’t want to do the father/son stuff we used to do with each other anymore,” explains the man, saddened by the loss of companionship with his old buddy. “The things I love to do, that I taught him to enjoy, that we shared in common all those years, they are mostly gone. Now he’s into activities that don’t interest me so we don’t have good ways to be together any more.” This disconnection doesn’t have to necessarily be so. The dad is missing the point.

It can be a hard for some fathers to adjust to the reversal of terms that needs to take place after a son turns adolescent (usually starting around ages 9 – 13) if they are to stay well connected during the remaining teenage years. When his son was younger, the little boy wanted to relate on terms that interested his father because being similar to his father created a sense of closeness to the man he wanted to imitate. For example, because the dad loved fishing, the son did too. When that boy became an adolescent, however, it became time to let go childish things and develop older, alternative interests to claim his  individuality and independence.

Now fishing seems boring compared to skateboarding which is exciting. Instead of sitting still on a boat in the water waiting for fish to bite with his father, the teenager finds surfing urban streets and ramps and jumping curbs with skater friends more challenging to do. Plus the image of the urban sport, and how he dresses for it, has a renegade appeal. He carries his own wheels. Or suppose the son who grew up a fan of his father’s Country music now comes to love Hip Hop instead, a more percussive kind of sound not suited to his father’s taste.

To stay connected at this transition it’s time for the father to bridge adolescent differences with interest and relate on terms that matter to his teenage son. This doesn’t mean he has to buy a skateboard too. However, it does mean taking an active interest in his son’s new interest, being curious to learn about it by being open to be taught. Now their traditional roles are reversed, as he becomes the student and his son the teacher, the young man feeling respected in this new instructional role.

The same holds true for musical differences that develop as the man listens to songs foreign to his ears, has their appeal patiently explained, and the artists described. Again, the teacher/student role is reversed, the father now looking to his son to explain what the young man’s emerging world of experience is like. Even in conflict, the more often the father can treat his son as an informant, and the less often as an opponent, the better off their relationship will tend to be. So the man profits from disagreement by learning more about his son from the exchange.

An adolescent son growing into young manhood is often in a bind with his father, and it is this. The child son wants to glorify the man, but when he does, come time for adolescence, his dad has become such a hero figure there is no way the teenager can measure up to the exemplar he has worshipfully created.

So what is the adolescent to do? Some how, some way, he must cut his father down to human size, but in doing so he loses his ideal, even growing angry at his father for the loss. Now he finds grounds — frailties and flaws and failings in his father — to help diminish the man. Adolescent criticism goes to show his dad is not so perfect after all.

All fathers are destined to be a disappointment to their sons who must blame and finally forgive their dad for failing to perform up to a standard that was never meant to be. To further reduce the discrepancy between them, the son can grow himself in ways his father never did, excelling at what his father did not or cannot do.

In this process of paternal downsizing, a father can help by admitting mistakes, apologizing for wrong doing, declaring his limitations and ignorance, and even putting his own efforts down in a humorous way. He can also upsize his son by complimenting the young man, pointing out what the teenager can do that the man cannot, recognizing his son’s expertise by asking for the help of the young man’s special strengths and skills.

Then there is father/son competition – power tests (which can be good) and power struggles (which can be bad.) Adolescent sons usually need to go up against their father to measure them selves against the man. Power tests of skills provide for safe competition; power struggles for control risk extreme measures that can result in injury. Start with power tests.

When competition is played out through friendly contests, the boy testing his skill and knowledge against the more experienced and competent man, the outcome can be beneficial to the relationship between boy and man. Coaching while they play, the father recognizes and praises the young man’s growing skills, and takes pleasure when the son honestly prevails. “When you win, we both win,” the man says.

Two criteria for healthy power tests are that the son gains competence and self-esteem, and the father/son relationship are strengthened from competition that never becomes so serious it ruins the fun of play. And they compete at what they each are better at — so the man may challenge the son to a game of chess, and the son may challenge the dad to a computer game. In either case, the father must not turn a power test into a power struggle over male dominance.

Power struggles are another matter. When the issue becomes one of control over the son’s life, over the choices he makes like friends or school achievement or future direction, the father may pit his way against his son’s way. Now what matters most to the man is asserting his authority, proving that he is in charge, that he knows best, dominating at all costs, and getting his way. At this point, harsh tactics like intimidation, humiliation, and even punishing physical force can be employed by the man to show the son who is boss.

It’s a contest firmly anchored in the male performance ethic as each refuses to back down. If the father is committed to win at all costs, when he wins, he risks losing on two counts. He may lose love in the relationship that injury from unbridled conflict has caused. And he may lose power through creating an isometric encounter with his son, the young man becoming stronger after each conflict by pushing full strength against his father’s resistance, learning to act like his father, growing equally stubborn to match the man.

The most serious father/adolescent son conflicts I see in counseling are when the father pushes his agenda of resemblance (“My way is the right way”) so hard that the teenage son feels duty bound to resist (“My life is up to me.”) Now the adolescent son will even rebel against self-interest to oppose his father, failing in high school and hurting his future to spite the educational agenda of his father.

Of course the ultimate outcome is always the same. Through active and passive resistance the son ultimately prevails because in the end, when it comes to adolescent independence, parents never defeat the teenager. The teenager always defeats the parent.

For the adolescent son, relationship to his father is complicated because it is so conflicted. He wants to measure up to his father, often wanting to follow his father’s lead to gain his father’s approval through similarity to the man’s wishes; and yet, he also wants to strike out on an independent and individual path, and be defined and accepted on his own male terms. And it can become further complicated should he want to be better or do better than the man, or to fulfill aspirations that his father never could.

Therefore, just as a father should not discount a teenage daughter for not being similar enough to him, the man should not enforce excessive sex role similarity to him by his son. Should the father do so, the young man may pay a high price for independence: “My father treated me as a failure as a son for not succeeding to be a man like him.” This is why the son needs the father’s blessing: “I love and respect the man you have chosen to become.”

For more about parenting adolescents, see my book, “SURVIVING YOUR CHILD’S ADOLESCENCE” (Wiley, 2013.) More information