Saturday, July 26, 2008

Dismaying Story #126: He Won’t Fight Fair

Dear Andrew,

I've been married for three years. In many ways, my husband is a funny, kind, and thoughtful man. However, should I become upset about something he takes it as a personal attack. His response? He fights dirty.

I never hear him say, "I'm sorry, but I really didn't know that would upset you," or anything resembling an apology. He goes for the jugular. He lists off a series of adjectives to describe me: a nag, a control freak, a manipulator, someone who is not transparent....I don't think I'm any of these things (and I say that after a lot of introspection and talk with family and friends). His tone in these arguments is very acidic. His words are dripping with sarcasm. In a nutshell: he's mean.

I have such a hard time recovering from these arguments. I often find that I'm not just mad at him, but I actually don't even like him as a person. Sometimes those feelings linger for a few days.

My guess is that he uses personal attacks to put me on the defensive so that argument is no longer about what he's done to upset me, but more about me trying to get a handle on why he would accuse me of being manipulative. After our last argument I told him point-blank that he was very mean, and that disagreements didn't have to be like this.

Are we at our worst in arguments or is that behavior indicative of our true beings? Is my husband a mean person, or is he just highly dysfunctional when it comes to conflict resolution?

Signed, Wanting to Fight Fair

Dear Wanting to Fight Fair,

We all have our personality traits. For instance some people are quick to anger, whereas others find it easier to remain calm. When I talk to folks who have trouble staying cool in conflict situations, sometimes they will claim, “That’s just how I am. I’ve always been that way and there’s nothing I can do about it.”

Sorry, but that’s baloney.

Clearly our personalities influence our behavior, but they do not have to determine it. We can all learn life skills and strategies to cope effectively with others.

Are you a great negotiator? Most of us are not. But do you believe there are negotiation experts out there who could teach you some tips and approaches that would improve your abilities in that area? Sure there are. The same is true with all sorts of life skills – public speaking, managing finances, work/life balance ... and yes, how to have an argument with your significant other so the conflict is resolved without damaging your relationship in the process.

Dr. Phil has some great advice for couples in this regard. Here are Dr. Phil's rules for fighting fair, which I copied from his website:
  • Take it private and keep it private.
    Fighting in front of your children is nothing short of child abuse. It can and will scar them emotionally — all because you don't have the self-control to contain yourself until you can talk privately.
  • Keep it relevant.
    Don't bring up old grudges or sore points when they don't belong in a particular argument. Put boundaries around the subject matter so that a fight doesn't deteriorate into a free-for-all.
  • Keep it real.
    Deal with the issue at hand, not with a symptom of the problem. Get real about what is bothering you, or you will come away from the exchange even more frustrated.
  • Avoid character assassination.
    Stay focused on the issue, rather than deteriorating to the point of attacking your partner personally. Don't let the fight degenerate into name-calling.
  • Remain task-oriented.
    Know what you want going into the disagreement. If you don't have a goal in mind, you won't know when you've achieved it.
  • Allow for your partner to retreat with dignity.
    How an argument ends is crucial. Recognize when an olive branch is being extended to you — perhaps in the form of an apology or a joke — and give your partner a face-saving way out of the disagreement.
  • Be proportional in your intensity.
    Every single thing you disagree about is not an earth-shattering event or issue. You do not have to get mad every time you have a right to be.
  • There's a time limit.
    Arguments should be temporary, so don't let them get out of hand. Don't allow the ugliness of an argument to stretch on indefinitely.

Your husband is straying from these rules in at least four ways. He uses character assassination as a primary tactic, the intensity of his reaction sounds like it is off the charts, his idea of an olive branch is a blunt club, and you make it clear in your letter that your discussions stray far from the real issues.

I agree with Dr. Phil’s rules, which he proposes for a very good reason – bad things happen if you don’t follow these guidelines. You are living proof of this. Your husband may not mean to drive you away with his tactics, but that is one consequence of his actions.

I suspect the answer to your question is that your husband is not a fundamentally mean person. If he were then this would exhibit itself more generally in various aspects of his behavior. Instead his conflict resolution skills could use a tune up.

So the question becomes how to make that tune up happen.

I suggest you begin by looking in the mirror. Have you been following all of Dr. Phil’s rules? Be honest with yourself now. I know it’s not easy to do, but you are half of this equation so you need to make sure you are not also contributing to the problem.

I’ll give you a hint. Here are the words you said to him: “You are mean.” That may be your true feelings at the time, but it is also a character assassination. It is a comment about him personally rather than about the issue that started the discussion. As you can see, it can be difficult to follow the rules when stress levels are high, and especially when your partner’s behavior is not at its best. When one partner strays from the rules, the other often follows right along.

You need to get him to admit that there is an issue with your arguments. That shouldn’t be difficult. He is certainly aware of the stress in the household.

Then admit to him that your behavior has not been perfect. I’m not saying you are the problem, just that offering an olive branch can be an effective way to begin to move past an issue. Admit your part in the proceedings, remain calm and contrite regardless of how he reacts at first, and then eventually most partners will admit their part.

Then it’s time to break out a copy of Dr. Phil’s rules and suggest to him that you both learn to abide by them. I promise – if you can get to that point you will get past your issues more quickly and with fewer hurt feelings.

Finally, I have posted before on the issue of fighting fair. You will probably also glean some ideas from Dismaying Story #89: Learning to Fight Fair. The challenges faced by the couple in that story are different from yours, but the strategy for moving past them is similar.

All the best,

Last week I put out a request for people to send in new questions. A few people responded ... thanks! I could still use a much larger back-log of questions, though. So if you know someone who could use some advice or even just an encouraging word, please reach out and suggest they write in. I’ll keep the back porch light on for them so they can find their way.


  1. Dear wanting to fight fair : Your husband's character assasinatioons means he doesn't have to be accountable for the specific issue you came to him about in the first place.

    He may not fundamentally be a mean person, but he isn't being effective in solving the problem you've brought to his attention. Almost as though he feels like it is a personal attack and so simply is trying to get off the hot seat and change the focus to you.

    Next time he goes off on his insult tangent, I'd simply tell him, "stick to the issue" and refuse to be drawn into his diatribe. Try really hard not to take it personally - the venom is about him and his inability to face what he's hearing, and not you.
    Just keep saying "stick to the issue". And stay on that one point. Maybe he will learn that his smoke bombs don;t work...

    But if he doesn't, then your choice is simply to state your unhappiness or anger succinctly with what upset you, and walk away. Dont; expect him to respons or think you'll have a meaningful talk. Just expect to be able to say a few sentences and then knowe you've put it out on the table.

    People don't usually like to change or admit when they are wrong.
    I hope he can see that saying "i'm sorry" or listening to you and thinking about what you have to say, and keeping a point focused is an effective way for you both to communicate with each-other when something bothers either one of you...
    I said hoping. Soen epople would just rather yell. At which point, do you want to stay married to him if this doesn't change ? Depends on how much of a deal breaker this is in terms of the overall picture, especially if you two have children in a few years, and they are subject to the same kind of tantrums from him...

    Good luck, though. I hope Andrew's advice - and everyone else's - will be of some help.

  2. I've been married for nearly twenty years, but I remember those first few years of marriage and how every fight was a huge, big, scary thing because it so often felt like we were fighting for our marriage as much as we were the issue at hand (both of us came into this with divorced parents). Take heart, some of this is just working out the kinks in your communication style. If you let it, confrontations can serve to grow you both up.

    A well-known Christian marriage counselor by the name of Gary Smalley once wrote about the difference between men and women's fighting styles (I do not remember which book--I read a lot of them). Roughly it went like this: "Women generally fight for compromise. They want harmony and are usually willing to meet their mate somewhere in the middle. Men generally fight to win." Very often, unintentionally, men bring their competitive nature to the table when involved in a confrontation with their mate. You see it as a negotiation; he sees it as a boxing match. So you have to find a method of diffusing that tendency.

    You've already been given some great advice here. Let me add a couple more points that might help.

    Sit down together. Don't stand and fight. It's a psychological trick to keep you both calmer. Standing offers too many variables and it's easier for him to unconsciously use his size to intimidate you (my husband taught me this trick: it works great with teenagers too).

    When you're communicating, try to avoid phrases beginning with "You" when you're talking about a sensitive subject. Use inclusive language like "We have a problem. Here's where I'm contributing to it . . . here's what I'd like to see change . . . How can we fix this?" Instead of leaving your mate feeling cornered and attacked you're offering up a problem to be solved instead.

    Any negative behavior that's repeated to the detriment of a relationship or someone's own well-being poses the question of "What's the pay-off?" What does he gain when he behaves this way? Do you back off? Apologize? Rush around afterward and try to make peace by doing for him? Sometimes if you stop feeding into a behavior it extinguishes. When he does "stay on the subject" say something to the effect of, "Thank you so much for being honest with me. It's a huge relief to know that I'm not alone here." In other words, reward it.

    If after you've taken steps to diffuse the confrontation, he continues to use the same style of arguing (personal attacks), then you may need to face the fact that you need some outside help to resolve this. Sometimes people use their anger to control others--to frighten them into giving them what they want or to distract from the issue. Chances are this is a learned behavior and he doesn't know how to change it. Chances are also good that you've got some things to work on too (don't we all?) and a counselor may be able to help.

    Best of luck!

  3. I can't add anything to the very good advice from Andrew and the comments above.

    Just one thing might be worth mentioning though. It's said that when we object strongly to something in another person, it's often because it is a reflection of something we dislike in ourself. Not always - of course, and perhaps not in your case, but it still is worth honestly, clinically analysing your own approach and attitudes when arguments begin - and identifying their root cause, deciding whether there is a little bit of what you find so objectionable in your husband's attitude in your own approach.

    From the way you've written, I doubt it, but only you can decide, and it can do no harm to think on this.

  4. Hi Andrew,
    I am glad you are back. By the way, i sent you an e-mail with a question, hope you get it.

    My input on this topic:
    Dear Wanting to Fight Fair,
    I had the same problem with my X, and after marriage counselling did not work, well, he is on his third wife tell your "beloved" about me. I hope your resolution is more satisfactory than mine.

    cheers for now,

  5. Anonymous4:15 PM

    Hey Doc! I'm finally catching up. This is a great post. I have found that when me and my man get into a fight, he sometimes does the same thing. But, it is really just to get a rise out of me. We have both become very good at communication despite the bloody battles. We never let an argument carry over and we always end up apologizing to each other.

  6. In theory, Dr. Phil's rules are good ones. In practice, you can't make someone do what they don't want to do.

    What's worked for me in the past is to look beyond the emotionality. Something inside her husband triggers the name-calling. My guess is the moment he feels out of control of his, or her emotions, he goes there. That's when she has to ignore the emotional blackmail, which he knows works, and get to the root of the problem. Okay, why is he saying these things? Because he believes them? No. Because he's got to find some way to balance the power shift in his own mind.

    What else? What's he really saying? Is he saying "You're not listening to me, so I'll make you by treating you this way?" In most cases, people say what they mean, but it's hidden among the emotional language. Instead of reacting and getting hurt, ask him what's really bothering him. Give him a platform to speak his mind. He may just want to be heard.