I’m sure we can all agree—fighting stinks.

But, unfortunately, it’s inevitable in a marriage. You’re dealing with shared finances, heavy work loads, (never-ending) laundry, dishes (ugh!), creating children, maintaining children, not to mention making each other—and yourself—happy.

It’s a lot. You and your partner should be equally prepared to communicate effectively with one another in order to tackle small issues and those bigger, more important issues and decisions that come up.

“Fighting” can actually be productive as long as some general, agreed upon few rules are followed. So, how can a couple really “fight fair”?

Dr. Anne Brennan Malec, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and author of Marriage in Modern Life gave us her best tips:

1. Create a safety zone.

Every couple needs to create a conversational safety zone with agreed-upon rules that both partners try to follow. Set yourselves up for success when discussing complicated or contentious issues by proposing a day, time, and agenda. Make sure that the time and place works well for each of your schedules. First thing in the morning or as soon as your partner arrives home from work may not be the best time. It might make sense to meet for lunch or coffee outside of the house and away from the kids to keep the focus on the agenda.

2. Engage in active listening.

When talking with your partner, engage in active listening, or use what is called the “speaker/listener technique”, which can be very effective in slowing down the conversation and preventing conflict escalation.

The rules are pretty simple. Each partner takes turn being the Speaker and the Listener. Whoever is the Speaker starts by expressing his or her concern in two to four sentences at a time. Then the Speaker checks in with the Listener to make sure that he or she understands what the Speaker is trying to convey. The Listener can ask questions for clarification and should paraphrase what the Speaker is saying. Partners continue in this manner until the Speaker feels heard and understood. Then the partners switch roles and continue the conversation.

By focusing only on what the Speaker is saying, the Listener is discouraged from being reactive or worrying about how he or she plans to respond. Concurrently, the Speaker must organize his or her thoughts and focus on communicating clearly and authentically.

3. Limit the time spent on discussing an issue.

When practicing the “speaker/listener” technique, set a timer, say 30 minutes, and see how far you can get in the conversation. When the time runs out, agree to either add more time or continue the conversation on another day.

If one of you starts yelling or getting angry, table the discussion for another time. Work on managing your anger instead of taking it out on your partner. By stopping the conversation, you are showing your partner that you acknowledge your temper and would rather continue the conversation at a time when you are more clear-headed. Just be sure to agree to a future time and place to continue the discussion before walking away.

4. Don’t drag other arguments into your current argument.

Make sure you stick to the agenda and do not let the conversation drift into other areas on which you disagree. If after engaging in active listening and thoughtful communicating you still cannot agree on a particular issue, it may make sense for partners to take turns in making the final decision, like in the game of basketball when the referees decides which team gets the ball based upon the possession arrow. In order for this to work, it must be fair and the decisions should be comparable in nature.

Dr. Anne Brennan Malec is the founder and managing partner of Symmetry Counseling, a group counseling, coaching, and psychotherapy practice located in downtown Chicago. She has been instrumental in Symmetry Counseling’s growth and success, and what started in 2011 with just six offices and five counselors has expanded to include over 20 professionals and 19 offices in two Chicago locations. Dr. Malec, who had an earlier career in business, made a significant shift in 2000 when she began her training in the fields of Marriage and Family Therapy and later, Clinical Psychology.

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