How To Fight Fair

Are you and your sweetie arguing? Here, the do’s and don’ts to help you survive spats both big and small.

By Phineas Mollod and Jason Tesauro

egardless of whether you’re a mere orange belt or accomplished black belt in the discipline of love, arguments and fighting are an occasional part of any healthy relationship. Tempers aside, it’s not what you fight about but how you do it that determines whether heated words achieve a breakthrough or are poisonous, hurtful darts. And in the pre-first fight stages of a romance, pay close attention not just to a love interest’s antics under the sheets, but also to how your new sweetie handles getting hot under the collar. To guide your way, we’ll tour some fair-fighting basics and offer insight on what a “fighting spirit” means to a potential long-term relationship.

Rage recon
What if you invest several months of woo only to find out that your darling is a catty so-and-so prone to throwing plates and tantrums? To limit surprise, observe the emotional
Give your mate equal time to express grievances.
makeup of that beau/belle across the table while learning sushi faves and movie tastes during dates one through five. Does her overdone t-bone incite a string of expletives hurled at the server? Does his nightclub testosterone precipitate a string of bar fights? In short, does your sweetie fight clean or dirty?

We don’t recommend picking a fight just to see the response, but how a lover deals with the requisite anger and upset of a squabble reveals much about his or her emotional intelligence. Even small disagreements will reveal whether you’re dealing with: (1) a drama queen who turns on the tears at the drop of a fedora, (2) a stone-faced stoic who can’t muster an ounce of empathy, or (3) a balanced adult who keeps an open heart and a rational mind.

Category five for fighting
From simple disagreements to duels at dawn, all fights can be categorized — not unlike hurricanes — according to their destructive forces. Note, categories 1-3 can almost be cured via tenderness and bedroom reconciliation, but levels 4 and 5 are immune to the healing powers of make-up sex until the issues are resolved. Here, a helpful way to look at the standard five:
  1. Spat: Quick and nearly painless, it won’t even spoil your appetite. The small plates/tapas of fights. This includes the easily forgotten, “why I told you we shouldn’t have paid good money to see that movie” variety of disagreements.
  2. Tiff: Voices are raised and principles are defended in the gnashing of two personalities. Ultimately, the problem is deemed too silly to spoil an otherwise good time.
  3. Quarrel: A dilly of a debate, but you’re back on track within 24 hours. Negotiations are tense but fruitful.
  4. Battle Royale: A blow-out replete with pointed fingers and far-flung profanity. Someone is sleeping on the sofa tonight.
  5. Katrina: With the gloves off, both parties are going straight for the jugular… call FEMA (or not). There are no winners; only heartbreak and broken furniture.
Low blows
In “The Sound and the Fury” (the blockbuster Tyson vs. Holyfield rematch, not the blockbuster Faulkner novel), bald referee Mills Lane asks for a good clean fight, but ends
Find specific words to express your feelings and use examples.
up with a street brawl on his hands, not to mention scraps of Holyfield’s ear. Tyson’s the poster child for dirty fighting, but how many of these illegal tactics do you or your mate employ?

Sweeping generalizations: “You’re impossible” and “You always do such-and-such” might feel good to utter, but they’re unproductive and imprecise. Find specific words to express your feelings and use examples instead of blanket statements. Also, scrap the dime-store psychology and avoid analyzing your partner with terms like “projection” and “passive aggressive” that are often misused or rightly perceived as condescending.

Last word: At some point of maturity, hanging up on someone is no longer satisfying. In lieu of getting in a final venomous word before slamming the receiver (pushing the END button is much less fun), simply state: “I’m getting off the phone before either of us says anything we might regret.”

Ancient history & soft spots: The dragging out of taboo and sensitive topics is a low blow no-no, as is aiming for soft spots, those incendiary trigger points that cause immediate upset. Fair fighters avoid sensitive personal data, epithets cast at other family members, unrelated health issues, and hurtful grand pronouncements (“And you wonder why your father walked out on you and your mom.”).

Profanity & protocol: Although cussin’ is never nice, it can be a middle-ground pressure valve to let off steam if you’re hit with a low blow. The lesser of two evils, it’s better to unleash a four-letter expletive than to throw the skillet through the plasma TV or respond with something hurtful. But remember: Certain rank curse words — said with vigor and aimed directly at your would-be sweetie — are considered unforgivable. You know the ones we mean.

Now that you know what doesn’t work, how about a few fair-fighting tips?

Timing: Be sensitive to when you start an argument. Try not to ambush your partner, and don’t bring up certain issues over dinner, during a major fun time, right before bed, and never when drunk. And when the fight’s underway, don’t hog the mic; give your mate equal floor time to express grievances.

Fake it. In public, make sure all is well… or at least seems well. Keep your upset a private matter, not fodder for passers-by. Besides, why fight in a restaurant when you can wait a while and enjoy the delicious, uncomfortable-at-any-speed, in-the-car fight?

Laughing matter. Though not a substitute for real answers, well-placed humor in the middle of a tiff can break the pall. Perk up your frowning mate with the only kind of punch sanctioned in fair fighting... a punch line.

Now that you know the ground rules, you’re ready to go at it... with the least damage. Which is just what you want when lovers quarrel.

Phineas Mollod traded his J.D. for the editorial life and is often found riding the congested E train with his wife and daughter in New York. Jason Tesauro pushes pen and ink by day and leads the lifestyle seminar series by night, ne'er far from his sweetheart and a Brady Bunch houseful 'o tots in Virginia. Together they are the authors of The Modern Gentleman: A Guide to Essential Manners, Savvy and Vice and The Modern Lover: A Playbook for Suitors, Spouses, and Ringless Carousers.
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