what are the Queensberry rules of relationship fights
May 8, 2008 11:38 AM   Subscribe

What kind of conflict resolution do you use in your relationship? There are it seems to me at least two types: 1. rules that you agree on as a couple to use during a conflict so as to address the conflict but also resolve it constructively 2. rules/approaches that you use unilaterally to approach a conflict

I sometimes have fights with my SO that I feel that we could handle better; we sometimes end with a kind of stand-off, or with lingering resentment or have issues that are insignificant in themselves that we keep getting back to. I think that we could change these dynamics by changing our tactics, abiding by some shared rules.

I've found these things for now:
1. this CBT like approach Ten Steps that Transform Anger into Compassionate Connection
2. this comment from nebulawindphone that advises to be over-explanatory about intentions for a while, reacting with reassurance at a moment when it's tempting to fight back and just accepting that some things are hot buttons and evading those.
3. when you're angry there's no room for being reasonable. Our brains just don't work that way. So don't try to discuss who's right when emotions are flaring. Just make an 'I feel' statement at that moment and agree to come back to it at a moment of clearer thinking and greater reasonableness.
posted by jouke to Human Relations (22 answers total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
The one thing that has worked the best for me in any sort of relationship is to apologize without qualifications. So, if I did something wrong I'll say "I'm sorry that I threw the mash potatoes against the wall," instead of "I'm sorry I threw the mash potatoes against the wall because you wouldn't stop nagging me."
posted by drezdn at 11:59 AM on May 8, 2008 [4 favorites]

My current relationship is still new enough that we haven't yet had any major wrinkles to iron out. That said, I have one firm rule, instituted during a past relationship and maintained steadfastly ever since: Fights/serious conversations/hashings out are never, ever to be conducted over email.

That may sound obvious, but here's the situation: You had a tiff in the morning or the night before, you're both fuming during the day and wanting to get your points across, and you're sitting at your desk with easy email access. It's tempting to try to solve it right then, via keyboard. But it is a very, very bad idea.

As for #3, I think that's a really good one too. When you're in the middle of a good angry pout, it does no one any good to have the discussion then. So each partner has to be okay with saying (and hearing) "You know, I fell really ______ right now and I can't think about this clearly enough. I'd like some time to process it so I can talk about it without getting [angry/defensive/shrieky/whatever]."

Oh, and on preview, what drezdn says is good too. I'd add to that, acknowledge how the other person is feeling. (Which is one of the things that an apology accomplishes.)
posted by mudpuppie at 12:05 PM on May 8, 2008

We have some things that we've established in something of an ad-hoc way as we've gone along, that each side appreciates and feels is necessary for the conversation to be constructive. It really takes a prolonged and concerted effort to make progress, as most people "argue" with pre-established patterns of interaction that are hard to reprogram.

I think the #1 thing that I've been able to contribute to conflict resolution, however, is to ask (literally) what it is that makes my wife feel bad when we converse, and to do everything in my power to make sure that I don't do those things. For her, it had a lot to do with tone of voice and volume. If I get to pushy in my discussion, this makes her feel that she needs to shut down and retreat.

So one person getting their stuff together (i.e., me) has been more productive than any list of rules for engagement for us. What I realized is that often, discussions go downhill because there are a couple of hot button issues represented on both sides that cyclically feed off each other. For example, I raise my voice, my wife retreats. My wife retreats, and this frustrates me because I feel that we need to have more direct communication to work things out, and I feel the need to raise my voice. The most important thing, in my mind, is breaking cycles like this that are mutually damaging and usually spin the conversation into issues of hurt feelings about how the conversation is conducted, rather than what it was about in the first place. When one party gets their act together (and is willing to stick to it no matter what), it usually gives the other person the freedom to feel like they can be more honest and vulnerable. In other words, it's more an issue of the individual choices at times, rather than a specific method of conflict resolution.

I'm sure this doesn't encompass every nuance of discussion, and rules in general are quite important. But I think that there's something more fundamental that should happen in the decision making of the individual, before the couple sets up guidelines. Namely, looking out for the interests of the other person as the discussion takes place, as if that other person's interests were your own.
posted by SpacemanStix at 12:06 PM on May 8, 2008 [2 favorites]

We have an absolute Rule of Good Faith; we try very hard not to get angry based on motivations or emotions we've attributed to the other person without direct text-based evidence. None of that "You said you were annoyed that I didn't make another pot of coffee, but what you're REALLY saying is that I'm careless and sloppy! You DON'T RESPECT ME!"

This only works, of course, if you trust each other to be very honest and straightforward about saying exactly what you mean all the time. It's a pretty good system, though, because it's self-regulating: If you act all passive and don't bring up the real issue, you've got no right to expect the other person to guess at it.

It makes everything pleasanter, more open, and more comfortable all around.
posted by peachfuzz at 12:24 PM on May 8, 2008 [4 favorites]

I should probably say, we settled on this a couple years into our 5-year relationship. We rarely fought, but it followed the same pattern every time - so we finally made this rule. Neither of us is always great at being completely open, so it was good training that worked - and continues to work - very well.
posted by peachfuzz at 12:31 PM on May 8, 2008

Saying "We're both getting angry. Let's drop it for now and we'll talk later when we aren't so riled up."
posted by Miko at 12:47 PM on May 8, 2008 [2 favorites]

This is kinda a dumb one, but when I can see tempers flaring and fear I might say something I'll regret, I temporarily remove myself from the situation. Usually I just walk around the block a few times.

Of course, it probably helps that I'm physically incapable of holding a grudge.
posted by meta_eli at 1:00 PM on May 8, 2008

I know that we don't have it all figured out (because if we did, we wouldn't have had one of those bitter and nasty arguments the other night for three or four hours). But there are some things we have figured out that are working out fairly well for us.

One is like what drezdn suggests -- being willing to apologize when you were in the wrong. Generally, there is plenty of fault to go around, so it is easy to think, why should I apologize for X when that asshole did Y? But apologizing for X makes it possible for the other person to consider Y, when otherwise they are stuck on your having done X.

Another is to realize that one piece of bad behavior does not give permission for more bad behavior -- these are independent decisions. So if I'm being a jerk, we need to deal with that -- but not by you being a bigger jerk in retaliation.

A really big deal is what Spaceman Six refers to: breaking cycles. Some are probably really subtle and hard to see. But a lot are really obvious, and embarrassingly easy to prevent. If you always have arguments at 5:45pm because your blood sugar is low, adding a 5pm "drinks and treats" ritual will completely prevent the argument before it starts. Or, if the cycle is complaint/avoidance/yelling/shutdown/head-explosion, then adjusting something early in the cycle will prevent the real problems at the end -- change how the complaint is made, find ways to avoid the avoidance, etc.

I'm not sure if JaredSeth was making a joke about the angry sex, but honestly, sometimes having some really rough and tumble angry sex can really change everything. It takes all that tension and anger and redirects it, and afterwards you feel relaxed and more willing to admit to all the things that are good about the other person. I'm sure that sex can be used in really destructive ways, and if what you are arguing about in the first place is sex then the solution may not be as simple as "have sex." But I guess the point here is that you don't have to resolve all the conflict before getting naked, and sometimes the sex will help resolve the conflict.

Finally, I think the biggest part is to work on the positive foundation of the relationship. Find ways -- lots and lots of ways -- to tell your partner how much you appreciate them and what they do for you. This gives a context for an argument, that positions the argument as a small piece of a larger and positive relationship, hopefully. Be explicit and detailed -- tell them what they do that you appreciate. That level of detail lets them know that what they are doing is noticed and valued, not taken for granted. Pay attention to the little stuff, because a relationship is more an aggregate of little things than it is formed from a few big things.
posted by Forktine at 1:05 PM on May 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

Two friends of mine from college who got married had met when a bunch of us were screwing around with wood swords on the green. She came up, interested, joined in, and it turned out she'd been fencing for years. Still, fencing and I-saw-Conan-too-many-times fu are very different.

As they moved from friends to dating, they had some very strong fights from time to time. Eventually, they moved to a way to solve it:

One day we were hanging out on campus - they'd graduated, but we had some undergrad friends, so we were there - and they started to disagree. And suddenly, she said, "We're fighting. Go get them." He nodded, walked off, came back with wooden swords, and proceeded to duel. She won, and he said, "You're right, and I'm wrong."

This may not work for everyone, but it's almost 20 years of marriage, they're still very happily married, and it gets them exercise. And, I suppose, disarms the anger through the exercise.
posted by mephron at 1:20 PM on May 8, 2008 [3 favorites]

Keep your eye on the ball, ie don't get angry in the first place - keep your focus on the causes of the problem and things that might alleviate those causes, rather than reacting to the effects and getting angry. Putting energy into getting back at a partner during a fight is just pissing in the bed that you have to lie in. Put the energy into making the bed, not soiling it.

Be fair. Always. (This is easier when not angry, as per above)

Avoid things getting to that stage - play by the golden rule "If I do something wrong, and you don't tell me, you don't get to be angry about it" and expect the same of your partner. (I'm ok with having this rule a "my way or the highway" non-negotiable part of a relationship - life is simply better that way).
posted by -harlequin- at 1:33 PM on May 8, 2008

Parts from others; good faith in each other's intentions, cooling off if angry. The last not mentioned is to not let issues fester.
posted by nobeagle at 1:41 PM on May 8, 2008

I'm not sure if JaredSeth was making a joke about the angry sex, but honestly, sometimes having some really rough and tumble angry sex can really change everything.

Well I might have been a bit flip (obviously enough so to warrant deletion of my comment) but I was only half kidding. Nothing like a little post-coital bliss to put things in perspective.
posted by JaredSeth at 2:13 PM on May 8, 2008

In five years, I think we've had two fights. Sure, we encounter things we disagree about, but only twice has it moved from "argh" to plate throwing or great big fuck yous.

For me, the rules are pretty clear. Don't argue to win, argue to resolve. And pick your battles: decide what shit you really care about. Sometimes it's OK to just let the other people be wrong.
posted by DarlingBri at 2:13 PM on May 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

I remind myself that there has to be at least one adult in the room at all times. If he's acting in a childish manner (e.g. getting defensive or saying "You always..."), I try to keep my wits about me or I walk away until I can gather myself. There is absolutely no point in responding to childish behavior with equally childish behavior. I also remind myself that you cannot use reason with someone who's being irrational; it's better to just wait until they calm down.
posted by desjardins at 2:18 PM on May 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

This is kinda a dumb one, but when I can see tempers flaring and fear I might say something I'll regret, I temporarily remove myself from the situation. Usually I just walk around the block a few times.

No, not dumb. I think you can have whatever kind of conflict resolution rules you want, so long as you both understand the rules and are okay with them. I generally do a lot of storming out, which I'm sure is against all the recommended fighting rules, but it generally works out fine. I'll go sulk in another room for a little while, then eventually my husband will come in and we'll have a rational conversation about whatever it was. If he felt that my storming out was a serious breach of the rules, then it wouldn't work, but I think we'd both rather have one of us short-circuit the yelling phase.

We also both believe that a lot of life's troubles are caused by basic biological needs not being met: Are you hungry? Didn't sleep last night? Had too much caffeine (which neither one of us can really tolerate)? Lots of times we'll be bickering and one of us will exclaim, "You had caf, didn't you???" and of course it turns out to be true, and the agitated one will suddenly realize that it's the latte making him or her crazy, not the other person. If you can keep in mind that the argument might have a simple biological basis, that can keep a lot of minor things from escalating.
posted by HotToddy at 2:34 PM on May 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

Choose your battles.
posted by wafaa at 2:45 PM on May 8, 2008

I'm not a huge fan of choosing my battles- if there is something that needs to be addressed, not doing so is a disservice to everyone involved. Somehow, deep down, its passive aggressive. Something is either important and needs to be discussed, or it isn't. Choosing your battles is giving in because you have decided to bear the problem on your shoulders rather than solve it.

Beyond that, it depends a lot more on the people involved, I think. I think the "not arguing motivations" thing is the best starting point. And frankly, if you're worrying about motivations, the relationship is in way more trouble than just conflict resolutions.
posted by gjc at 4:56 PM on May 8, 2008

We have a rule that we're not allowed to say "you always" or "you never".

It's surprising how much milder "you SOMETIMES leave your dirty socks on the floor!" is, compared to "you ALWAYS leave your dirty socks on the floor!".
posted by AmbroseChapel at 5:09 PM on May 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

Listen to what the other person is actually saying, not what you think they mean. Projecting what you think someone means over what they said can lead to misunderstandings (and thus, conflict) very quickly.

Prevention of conflict in general is the best medicine; instead of building better hospitals for people who fall off cliffs, build them some fences instead.
posted by justnathan at 5:39 PM on May 8, 2008

AmbroseChapel's advice is spot-on. Our arguments toned way down when we (okay, mostly I) eliminated "always" and "never" from the conversation. Because if I used that word, suddenly I had to back it up with evidence of how he always/never did something, which in turn meant nothing ever really got buried.

For me, it helps to think about what's bugging me before I get into an argument and what could be done to resolve it. Just last week I got really, really angry at my boyfriend when I realized that he'd developed a habit of setting the alarm to 6, letting it go off and then resetting it to 6:30, and then decide that no, he was actually going to get up after I did. And it really bothered me. I stewed about it all day, thought up of a dozen reasons why it was inconsiderate and how messed up it made my day. Once I got all that anger out of my system I realized it was an issue because I didn't like having my routine suddenly changed, and we could solve it by deciding the night before who would be waking up first and sticking to it, but recognizing that a slip every now and then will happen and it wasn't a horrible thing. Not the best example, maybe, but it's the freshest in my mind. (Also, sometimes I'm just in need of a good argument. It helps in those situations to remove myself, battle it out in my head about what I'll say and what he'll say and how I'll respond to it all way through to the end and then I come back. It generally takes a few hours, but by then I'm sick of the issue and just want to resolve it.)

We also do a postmortem on the arguments we have at a later time. "I didn't like how you said x," or "so we agree that I'll do y from now on." "In the future, please don't wait so long to tell me about z." It helps get us on the same page and clears up lingering feelings.
posted by lilac girl at 6:11 PM on May 8, 2008

More on the prevention side: I've gotten much better at watching my own emotions ahead of time. Sometimes it's blood sugar, sometimes it's lack of sleep, sometimes it's hormones, sometimes it's nothing at all that I can pinpoint -- but I really do have moods where I'm much more likely to get into a silly argument. And it's not just that I feel like crap at these times; I may feel perfectly happy until an argument actually starts. But I've learned that if I pay close enough attention, there are signs that I can recognize.

And the key here is recognizing the emotions ahead of time. Then if I find myself beginning to argue, I can remember "oh yeah, half an hour ago I noticed that I was feeling off. I bet that's what's going on here, rather than him being a jerk." If I'm lucky, this is enough to let me step back and not escalate. (Even better, I can tell my boyfriend ahead of time: "I'm feeling off right now". Then he is much less likely to see my attempts at de-escalation as weaseling out of the argument; after all, I've already admitted before the fact that I'm probably going to be irrational!)

Interestingly, since I've gotten good at doing this on myself I find that I can also recognize these types of moods in my boyfriend. The same trick works there -- precognition of likely external factors makes it much easier for me to step back and not escalate a conflict.

This advice is about avoiding silly conflicts. Real issues need real discussions, of course.
posted by wyzewoman at 7:02 PM on May 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

Those who've said that a lot of tensions in relationships are to do with basic human needs (wyzewoman, HotToddy) are smart people. I've been with my partner for nearly 2 years now, and we've yet to have a full-scale argument. We're both not people to hold grudges, so that probably helps.

I think it's mainly because we can see when an argument is brewing. I start thinking of what could be causing the issue, and more often than not it's not what we're getting snippy about, it's the fact that we're tired or hungry. Usually that means we redirect our energy into fixing that issue (Let me fix you a snack while you vent), or if I'm overtired and overemotional, I'll let my partner know (Yes, I'm upset, yes it's about that, but I'll be fine, let's talk about music instead) and then raise the issue the next day when I'm not on the verge of tears, and more capable of holding a calm conversation.

The other technique is based on the fact that we never take anything too seriously, and again if we notice we're bickering, we start going completely over the top in carrying on at each other. Overwrought, soapie-style dialogue and hand-wringing, and suddenly we're distracted by the task of wanting to make the other person laugh instead of arguing.
posted by chronic sublime at 4:35 AM on May 12, 2008

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