The Right Way To Fight With A Date

The Right Way To Fight With A Date

Let's get real: All couples argue. Now, here's how to do damage control and keep quarrels from ruining what could be a perfectly good relationship.

By Steve Friedman
It could have been a romantic weekend in Cape Cod, where my girlfriend of one month and I could have racked up some beautiful memories against the backdrop of a windswept ocean. Things, however, didn't go as planned. Here's why.

"Why don't we grab dinner with some friends?" I suggested, assuming she'd be fine with it, given said friends had lent us the beachfront cottage in which we were now residing. She said she'd rather spend time with me alone. I told her I appreciated that, but I didn't want to be rude and...
"Why do you always worry so much about other people? Why can't you stand up for
yourself?" she asked. Mistake number one.
"Why don't you ever think of other people—like those who lent us this cottage?" I asked. Mistake number two.
"Alright, "she said, "I'll go. But I'm not going to be happy about it." Mistake number three.
"You know," I replied. "I think sometimes I'm working a lot harder on this relationship than you are." Mistake number four.
We broke up driving back to the city the next day.
What had happened?
In any relationship, there are bound to be some differences of opinion, conflicting wishes and colliding needs. But when it comes to resolving these quarrels, there is the right way, the wrong way, and the really, really wrong way. Here are some pointers from a guy who (I hope) has learned his lesson and knows a thing or two about how to fight fair:

Rule #1: Know what you're fighting about
If you're angry that your boyfriend was chatting up the tall blonde at your office party, then don't scream at him and accuse him of taking you for granted the next morning when he puts one instead of two lumps of sugar in your coffee. Yes, admitting you're jealous is difficult and painful. But it's honest, and much straighter and truer a path to productive discussions of the topic at hand. Speaking of which...

Rule #2: Don't get personal
I had a girlfriend who was chronically late. No big deal, except when it involved movies, plays, dinner reservations, engagements with friends and just about everything else in my suddenly-unraveling-and-always-tardy-for-appointments life.
"Honey," I suggested reasonably and with great, capacious love. "Don't you think you could be ready on time for once?"
Her response: "You would be much happier if you could relax a little bit."
"Well, yeah, but don't you think you'd be happier if you could be more responsible and actually honor your commitments and..."
The night ended up with us screaming at each other and making up. The last part was nice, but the first avoidable.
The topic at hand was my wanting to see X2: X-Men United. But by using the words "for once" I was basically criticizing her entire previous life. By telling me to relax, she was telling me that my concerns about being late for the movie were unworthy. And suddenly, a discussion about promptness had devolved to each of us listing the other's character flaws. All of which could have been avoided if I'd stuck to the issue at hand: that I'd be damned if I were going to miss the opening scene to X2.

Rule #3: If you're a man, realize that words mean one thing to you, and something else—something deep and emotional and mysterious—to her.
This is a sexist and overtly unfair sentiment that has gained great traction in our society, earned a handful of authors and Dr. Phil about a trillion dollars and, based on my limited experience, happens to be true much of the time. So guys, just because she's saying, "Why can't you remember the fried egg rolls when we order Chinese?" doesn't mean she means "Why can't you remember the fried egg rolls when we order Chinese?" More likely it means "Why don't you ever listen to me/why don't you pay attention to my needs/why don't you love me?" So even though it's best to stick to the issue at hand, it pays to listen closely to your partner and read between the lines. And make a run for those egg rolls.

Rule #4: If you're a woman, realize that your guy's ego is a fragile, tender little beast.
Another sexist and horribly simplistic generalization: Men tend to define themselves by their work and often their paycheck. So ladies, when you say, "I wish we could afford to go to fancy restaurants every once in awhile," or "You know, my ex-boyfriend was in the same field as you and earned much more. Maybe you should ask for a raise," you might be thinking you're just voicing your needs or offering some helpful advice. But you're slicing. You're slicing deep.

Rule #5: Fight fair
If you've been with someone for some time, and if you've been honest and open and admitted your vulnerabilities and become familiar with those of your partner, now you need to be careful. You need to be very careful. No throwing past misbehavior in his/her face. No asserting that his/her anger is because he/she is a deeply twisted human being, and that he/she needs to see a shrink. No threats about how you're going to leave. The advice from the self-help books, as cheesy as it seems, is right: Use the "I feel X when you do Y" construction. "I feel bad when you talk about your handsome ex-boyfriend." "I feel angry when you are late to a movie you know I want to see." You'll never go wrong with that.

Rule #6: Know when to fold...
When you're wrong, or think you might be wrong, or even if you know you're right but just want to get the argument over with, go ahead. Say those magic words: "I'm sorry." I know it's hard, but it's also amazing what these two words can do to defuse the most explosive quarrel.

Rule #7: ...and when to walk away
Some people you'll date will love to fight, and they'll love to fight loud and long and irrationally. That's fine, if you do, too. If not, no matter how fair and sensitive and honest and brave you are, you're not going to change them. That's when you need to utter the other magic words: "Good-bye."

Steve Friedman is the author of seven books, including Lost on Treasure Island: A Memoir of Longing, Love, and Lousy Choices in New York City. More information at
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