All couples fight! But do you know how to fight fairly? It can be the key to a long happy relationship.

Facing challenges in your relationship in a contained and respectful manner can help transform your disagreements from fierce arguments to an opportunity for developing greater understanding and intimacy. What do your current arguments look like? Are they full of high drama with shouting and door slamming? Or does one partner withdraw sullenly? Do you react defensively to your partner's concerns or are your arguments strewn with criticism and counter-criticism? All of these actions prevent you resolving the differences in your relationship and over time increase the likelihood of divorce or separation.

In fact, the Gottman Institute in Seattle identified four key behaviours in couples that were high indicators of divorce. These are

  • criticism
  • contempt
  • defensiveness
  • stonewalling

Each of these behaviours sends a message to your partner that you do not care about their concerns and feelings.

The first step to developing a more intimate relationship is to put some limits around your fights that allow you to move towards a more problem-solving approach to your conflicts. These five rules for friendly fighting will help you develop a more focused and respectful method of resolving the inevitable conflicts in your relationship.

1. Define the issue at hand

What is your complaint? Be specific and stick to the point. For example, if you want more help with the household chores state that clearly and stay on point. Don't get drawn into attacking each other. Using "I" statements helps you make your point without sounding blaming. Instead of "you haven't done the washing up, you are so lazy" try "I feel frustrated and unappreciated when you don't help with the chores".

2. Choose the time and place 

Picking a suitable time and place to state your grievances ensures that you have space in which to resolve the problem. Don't pick a fight late at night when you have been drinking or when one partner has their attention elsewhere. 

3. Listen to your partner 

Give your partner the time and space to express how they feel on the matter. Even if you disagree with their point of view be respectful of how they feel. Do not talk over each other. Instead take time to validate their concerns before you respond. Literally take it in turns to speak. 

4. Do not drag up the past 

This links to the first rule about sticking to the point. So often partners confuse the issue by bringing up past events and grievances. Focus on the point in hand and how you can both resolve the issue going forward. 

5. Stop and use time-outs if necessary 

If you feel that the discussion is getting heated agree to take a time-out and continue the discussion when you both feel calmer. Normally a 20-minute break is enough to calm down. It is ok to agree to disagree.

Start by taking some time to discuss these rules with your partner and put them in place for your next argument. It will probably take a few attempts to implement these rules properly so don't worry if you don't get it right straight away. 

As your fights begin to feel more manageable you can start to improve your listening skills. Really take the time to understand your partner's point of view, even if you disagree with it. 

The more you are able to empathise with your partner the more you will develop understanding and intimacy. This will help lay the foundation for a deep and lasting relationship.

Further reading

Relationship therapy saved our marriage

Being lost together might save your relationship

Why do I repeat the same relationship mistakes?

How to cope when life interrupts your relationship