Rules of Fair Fighting and How To Make Yourself Heard
By Sarah P.
The incredible hulk—what does he have to do with anything? When I refer to the Incredible Hulk, I am referring to the extremely angry feelings that flood us when our unfaithful spouse has no insight into our feelings and refuses to acknowledge our concerns about the affair.
Unfortunately, there are some partners out there who are unable to gain insight or see your perspective (or anyone else’s), even if you wrote the book on master communication skills and practice them daily.
When this happens, anger can take over and sabotage any constructive conversation that you could have with our partner about his or her affair. Fortunately, these people are rare and their lack of insight is almost always linked to a personality disorder such as narcissism. But, since people with clinically diagnosed narcissism are not the majority of the population, the bulk of this article is written for the rest of us.
Communication is best facilitated in emotionally safe environments. Yet, many of us were not raised to know how to create safe environments that foster good communication.
In this article, I will be discussing ‘fair fighting’. That term is kind of an oxymoron because fighting is usually never fair (or even positive for that matter). Still, it is the term that has been widely used by therapists to discuss how to communicate constructively when there is a topic that generally leads to an unconstructive fight.
Fair fighting is actually about making yourself heard, creating a safe environment, and preventing a fight that makes any kind of communication rapidly devolve. So, the purpose of this article is to identify, discuss, and to use these techniques effectively in your own marriage.
Schedule A Time To Discuss It
I know, I know. How on earth can you schedule a time to talk about the affair when you feel lousy every day and just need to vent? When you feel lousy everyday and need to vent, I would encourage you to keep a private journal, write an anonymous blog, or come to this website and get involved in posting and answering comments.
But, instead of constantly venting to your spouse, I would set up a time with your spouse where you both agree to turn off electronic devices, send the kids elsewhere, and talk for a set amount of time about your feelings regarding the affair. Doing this means you will have a greater chance of being heard and it will allow your partner to prepare himself or herself to listen to you. It will also give you time to figure out the key things that are bothering you.
Think Before You Speak
What has triggered your anger this week? Is it something your spouse said, did, didn’t do, or is it your feelings of betrayal bubbling up? Get to the bottom of exactly what is bothering you.
For example, when your husband didn’t say, “I love you” when leaving for work, did it trigger fear or anger? Why did it trigger fear or anger and what ‘story’ are you telling yourself about your husband’s actions?
You need to figure out exactly what is going on in your head and why before you can present your feelings in a meaningful way to your husband. Your spouse is NOT a mind reader and none of us can be. Yet, if we really think about it, how many of us expect those around us to read our minds?
An example: I had a friend during my 20’s who was panicked because she felt her boyfriend of several months no longer loved her. She made up all kinds of things in her head (a story) about what he might be thinking or doing.
By the time she had called me, she was convinced that he was trying to break up with her and she had developed an actual physical stomachache over the whole thing. At the time, I remember asking her to provide some examples that would support the idea that he no longer loved her since her mind reeled with all kinds of things and she was jumping around from idea to idea. So, I asked her to provide something concrete that triggered her.
Here is what she came up with: when they first dated and they went to the local Olive Garden, he would ask her if she wanted the last bread stick before he ate it. On a particular evening a couple of days before, he ate the breadstick before asking her. She identified this as the trigger.
Finally, I told her she needed to talk to him about the breadstick and let him know that while he used to ask before he ate, he didn’t do that the last time they were out. So she did just that when they had a moment of quiet time. Her boyfriend’s answer? He had simply had a long day at work, was distracted, and hungry. That was it—nothing more, nothing less. He apologized and after that always made sure to ask before eating. Don’t let breadstick situations get the best of you. Identify triggers before you speak.
The previous story illustrated how my friend needed to identify a specific thing to talk about before she ever spoke. If she would not have identified in advance what bothered her, she would have thrown a curve ball of unspecific emotion at her boyfriend and claimed that he no longer loved her. She would have been panicked without even knowing why.
Her boyfriend would have been even more clueless and probably would have left the situation wondering why she was so emotional and what he did wrong. Also, he likely would have retreated emotionally and that would have given my friend a real reason to believe he did not love her.
Men, more than women, need specifics. While our girlfriends hear out our emotional ramblings and even understand what we are saying, men (in general) are not this way at all. Men generally need data and specifics. Then, men need to have it explained to them why action X had the emotional consequence of Y. This is what being specific is about and it is extremely helpful in making someone else understand your point of view. I know these things are obvious to us, but sometimes they are not obvious to our boyfriends or spouses.
I will be honest and say that I personally hold a tremendous amount of contempt for my ex-fiancé. Well after we were engaged and I thought all was well, he asked me to leave our mutually owned home and he broke off the wedding for good. He wouldn’t allow me to live there myself and pay the mortgage and would discuss anything with me. In fact, he was extremely cruel during the whole situation and became a Jekyll and Hyde type character.
I had to find out through the grapevine that he had been sleeping with someone and she wanted to move into our home. This was the reason for his behavior. Even though I had all the evidence and there were many witnesses of his actions, he never once admitted it to my face. In fact, months later he would hunt me down at work and try to flirt with me and touch me, even though he as still with the other woman and they were living in our house, which had been placed up for sale.
It has been about 15 years, but, whenever my ex-fiancé crosses my mind, I cannot separate him as a person from the extreme contempt that I feel for him.
Contempt and relationships don’t mix. Where you have contempt, you also have the death knell of the relationship.
If you are familiar John Gottman’s work, you will remember his “Four Horsemen” concept. Gottman has identified four things that are the main destroyers of marriages. Is it any surprise that contempt is one of those four things?
While it is so tempting to speak in a contemptuous way to your partner, it will not help you repair your marriage. When discussing things, try your best not to be contemptuous. However, trying not to be takes work.
In order not to be contemptuous, you have to reframe the situation. Contempt comes from the way you are thinking about the affair, about your spouse, and about how you think of yourself in relation to the affair. Us women secretly make all kinds of judgments about ourselves even if we logically know the affair did not and does not reflect on our alleged deficits. Our bad points and our good points did not cause the affair.
Instead, when you think about your spouse, you need to try to empathize with the place of brokenness, denial, or guilt that he is living in. But, there is one caveat: if he is still in the heat of the affair and does not want to leave his mistress, please instead read my articles about leverage.
Thus, communicating without contempt is most powerful when your spouse is willing to talk about the affair in a more realistic way, rather than when he is still in the fog.
This one is obvious. Yelling goes nowhere and it causes a cycle of anger that feeds itself. If he starts yelling, you need to remove yourself. If you are tempted to yell, you need to stop the discussion and again try later. Feeling the need to yell is also a warning that you are flooding. I will discuss flooding later in this article.
No Name Calling or General Degrading Language
Nathan Cobb, psychotherapist says, “Avoid name-calling, insults, put-downs or swearing. Putting your partner down or criticizing your partner’s character shows disrespect for his or her dignity.” (1) Just as yelling is a no-no, so is name calling and degrading language.
Sure, it would feel absolutely great to hurl insulting language at your partner when you are in deep pain over his or her affair, but once again, it will not help you accomplish your goal. In my opinion, name-calling is off-limits when the person is a spouse, family member, friend, or even acquaintance.
Even though we can be profoundly hurt, it is never okay to call someone a bad word or speak to them in ways that destroy their dignity. Our behavior and our reaction to situations reflects on us, not the other person. We are responsible for how we manage our feelings and reactions. Even if we are hurt, behaving in such a degrading way to a spouse, child, family member or friend can easily become emotionally abusive.
However, some people use degrading language as part of their day. Often people behave this way because they saw this kind of treatment in their families of origin.
One woman told me that her husband grew up in such a family. Her husband’s mother regularly called him (as a child) an idiot, stupid, a moron, or worthless. One time my friend’s husband asked his mom why she treated him that way. The mother told her son, “I only treat people badly when I love them. It’s normal to treat the people we love the worst.” What the…?!!
This fellow believed his mother since that was how he was raised—he had no other example to follow and had taken in this idea as the truth about relationships. When he was angry, he treated his own children that way until his wife put a stop to it.
So, do not ever engage in name-calling and degradation. Name-calling is never acceptable to do to someone we love and/or hope to build a relationship with. Such treatment can easily become emotional abuse and emotional abuse is never acceptable. Don’t ever use degrading language toward your spouse and do not allow your spouse to use it toward you. All relationships must be built on a foundation of love, not anger or fear.
Do Not Stonewall
Also part of John Gottman’s “Four Horsemen” stonewalling is another marriage killer. Stonewalling simply means that you are shutting a partner out. Stonewalling is usually a tactic of manipulation and control and it can include avoiding talking about feelings or listening to the feelings of another, walking out in the middle of a discussion, or refusing to discuss the issue at hand– ever.
Stonewalling can range from refusing to discuss a problem for a brief period of time to completely withdrawing from someone for months and refusing to discuss the other person’s needs. This is a very passive-aggressive technique in which many people unfortunately engage.
Some people use this tactic to silence their partners, to avoid addressing the other person’s needs, or they simply use it as a coping mechanism because that’s how they learned to survive. It’s a tactic that the cheating spouse could engage in, but it’s also a tactic the betrayed spouse could use to punish. Either way, it is a behavior that does not belong in a marriage, unless you want your marriage to end.
Do Not Accept Blame for Another’s Actions
This is a tactic as old as humanity itself. The perpetrator of an action wants to blame something outside of himself (or herself) after he transgresses. This is especially true after an affair has been discovered.
Sherry Meyers, in an article for the Huffington Post, describes the blame cheaters assign to their partners:
“Quite often the men say it’s because their partner has lost interest in them, sexually. Women most often blame a lack of emotional intimacy for why they suddenly became erotically entangled with another man. When infidelity occurs, the cheating partner bears the brunt of owning most, if not all, of the blame. Not only did the cheating partner choose to ignore or downplay the pre-existing problems, behaviors and conditions that made the relationship vulnerable to cheating, but they actively made the decision to betray their partner instead of facing up to those problems and working through them.” (2)
I confess that I am one of those folks that has a hard time each time someone says I am to blame for their own actions. I think part of this is being a woman and trying to please others. When something goes wrong, the first thing I do is look at my part in the situation.
While being aware of one’s contribution is healthy, it usually ends up that people like me take all the blame instead of just looking at my contribution as well as someone else’s contribution. While it is easy for some of us to be led to believe that we are to blame, try to remember that when it comes to an affair it’s easy to be persuaded to take the blame. It’s easy to believe such comments as “well, you were working all the time, so I had to….” or “You didn’t have the same body as when we first married so I had to…”
Knowing me, I would step into apology mode if I heard such things. And that is a really bad thing because, no matter how you slice it, an affair is always a choice and it’s a choice made solely by the partner having an affair.
Since none of us are perfect, a partner can find any number of things to use as an excuse for having an affair. No one woman or one man has it all. There will always be someone younger, smarter, more attractive, better employed etc. But, when a partner brings these things up, they are simply a red herring to get you to shoulder the blame and thus shut the conversation down.
So, when you are discussing your partner’s affair, don’t be sidetracked by comments that would imply that you are the one to blame and thus caused the affair. It’s always a choice your partner made.
Ask Your Spouse to Understand Your Point of View By Speaking in “I” Sentences
Even though this advice has been around for about 40 years or more, it is a technique that does work:
When you do X, I feel like Y.
I feel very (fill in the blank) when you did (specific action).
The reason this works is because you are not saying the other person is bad or passing a judgment on their character. You are citing a specific action of theirs and explaining how that action made you feel. It’s very different than saying “You cheated on me, you $&##!.”
If it doesn’t work, then simply ask your partner how he or she would feel if you did (specific action) to him. Let him answer you and just nod. Don’t say “I told you so” or “You are such a hypocrite.” Just let that knowledge quietly sit with your partner for a moment. Fair fighting is not about a tit for tat. It is about understanding each other and gaining compassion for one another.
But, the most important takeaway here is that all of us need to separate our spouses from their bad actions. We need to hold unconditional love and regard for him or her while still despising their actions. Even though their actions have caused a whole mountain of hurt, it is more effective to approach a person and communication with that person from a standpoint of love and kindness.
Walk Away When the Flood Comes
Flooding occurs when your base emotions, which start in the oldest part of the brain, take over. These are the fight or flight emotions that flood our body with cortisol and actually cause a type of physiological anger and readiness to fight.
These emotions are a lot like the Incredible Hulk. One moment you are a mild-mannered type and then all of a sudden your shirt is ripping at the arms and you are throwing large desks and giant recliners all over the room. Once flooding takes over, it’s time to walk away and cool off.
Here is what the Gottman Institute says about flooding:
“The difference between flooding and more manageable experiences of our emotions is one of magnitude. You reach the point when your thinking brain — the part that can take in gray areas, consider other sides, stay aware of the real state of affairs — is shut out…this emotional hijacking is the hallmark of our nervous system in overdrive. Something happens — and it could be almost anything — in your interaction with your partner that sets off your internal threat-detection system. In this state, you lose some of your capacity for rational thought.” (3)
Flooding is also marked by a change in the parasympathetic nervous system. You will notice you have a racing heart and pulse, extreme, angry arousal, and you will be overwhelmed with feelings that make you want to fight. This would be great if a tiger were threatening your family, but it’s not so great when you are trying to resolve conflict with your spouse.
When flooding comes, you must force yourself to simply walk away and cool off. If you are able to get outside and take a run, do it. That will burn off all of the cortisol and other hormones that are maintaining your feeling of being threatened.
Try Again When Each Person Has Had a Time Out
This is self-explanatory. You may be able to try later that day, or you may need to come back to the discussion in a week. Go into a quiet room and write down what went wrong. Air your own grievances on paper and then write down what could be done next time to prevent a meltdown.
Okay, that is all fine and dandy, but let’s circle back to the beginning of the article. What if you suspect you are married to a narcissist? Let me make a distinction and it’s a very important one. When people are in the midst of an affair or have just ended an affair, they are going to have a lot of narcissist traits. Like Narcissus in the Greek myth, they only see themselves and their worldview is shaped around themselves and their own needs.
Of course, we know how the Greek myth ends—Narcissus drowns as a result of only being able to see himself and falling in love with his own reflection. Like Narcissus, your partner fell in love with whatever story he or she was telling himself or herself about the situation.
After all, the reason most people fall into infatuation or “chemical love” is because someone else is mirroring something back to that person that makes him feel like he is the king of the world. It’s all about the man himself and not about the object of his supposed infatuation. Just like Narcissus, the object of his (or her) infatuation simply mirrors his best self back to him and that is what he falls in love with.
The person having an affair will most likely seem like a narcissist to you, but that is because of the affair fog. Since actual narcissists are a small percentage of the population, there is a good chance that your partner is not a true narcissist and is caught in the affair fog.
Regardless of narcissistic traits, fair fighting principles can work for you. If you do feel like you are married to an actual narcissist, please leave a comment so that I can address this in a separate article in the future.
Fair fighting techniques may not work on the first or second try, but you need to keep using them because they will form new communication habits. Forming healthy communication habits is essential.
So, while fair fighting may not be a quick fix, continually practicing these techniques is essential. Once these techniques become habit, your marriage and your relationships with others improve as a result.
I sincerely hope that these rules of Fair Fighting work for you and that you can get past any communication impasses that you have experienced. Remember, don’t give up and keep trying. But, also know when to walk away when a discussion starts to devolve. Walking away can be just as helpful as discussing things respectfully.
Please let me know if you have come across these techniques before and if they have been helpful. I wish you and your family the best!
Cobb, N. (n.d.). Fair Fighting Rules for Couples. Retreived April 12, 2016, from http://www.nathancobb.com/fair-fighting-rules.html
Meyers, S. (2013, November 11). My Partner Cheated and Says It’s My Fault. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/sheri-meyers/my-partner-cheated-and-sa_b_4320127.html
Lisita, E. (2013, August 3). Making Sure Emotional Flooding Doesn’t Capsize Your Relationship. Retreieved from https://www.gottman.com/blog/making-sure-emotional-flooding-doesnt-capsize-your-relationship/