Ask Wendy

How Do I Fight Fair In My Relationship

July 14, 2017
Hey Wendy,

My husband and I get along most of the time but when we disagree about something, boy, can it get ugly. Our fighting can last for days and sometimes we just give up with unresolved problems and more pain.

I keep hearing we should “learn how to fight.” What does that mean and can you teach me how?

Patricia E. - Denver, CO

Hey Patricia,

I don’t fight with my partner, which doesn’t mean we don’t have any problems; it just means we’re kinda weird. We’re both dedicated to harmony and peace in our home, and fighting doesn’t create either of those things. So, the short answer is: asking me how to fight well is like asking the nerdiest kid on the playground how to win a boxing match. To advise us, I’ve enlisted the help of the leading expert of fighting fair, John Gottman. He is a super-smart psychologist and researcher, and (for over 30 years) he’s studied couples and how they communicate. He can predict with stunning accuracy if couples will stay together or not simply by watching them fight.


There are four consistent elements of discord that lead couples to break up based on how they fight. Consider removing these from your repertoire — they’re below the belt:

  • Criticizing: “You’re such an idiot!” or “You never___”
  • Contempt: Belittling, judging harshly, being unkind
  • Shifting the blame and defensiveness: “If you would have ___ then I wouldn’t have ___”
  • Shutting them out: Not talking, shutting down, withholding information


In my experience, there are two reasons that people fight:

The first: Someone did something or didn’t do something that’s in direct conflict with something you need or is an offense to a standard or moral you hold. For example, you need an orderly home, and your standard is shiny clean. Your husband walks into your pristine kitchen, pulls out the sandwich press, bread, and other ingredients and makes himself an epic Monte Cristo sandwich. In doing so, he doesn’t put anything away; he leaves out the dripping sandwich press creating gross grease streaks across the counter, crumbs are everywhere, and bits of melted cheese are oozing into cracks you didn’t even know you had. “What an inconsiderate slob!”

The second reason for a fight is a belief. They said or did something (or didn’t say or do something) because they don’t love you, care about you or respect you. I mean come on; clearly, you must not care or respect me or my time if you’re going to destroy the kitchen that way. Do I look like the maid to you? 

You see it, right?

Okay, married person. Let’s assume you picked this man to be your husband because he means well. And he does love, care and respect you. Let’s hope he’s the type of guy who can say, “Yep, I messed up.” Someone who didn’t annihilate your kitchen out of contempt for you but instead, he was just hungry. He loves, cares and respects you, and the crumbs left behind aren’t against you. Is he that person? Because if he is, you can say…

“Hey, can we just talk about what just went down in the kitchen? Because there’s something I need from you.”

Instead of a response of “But you…” you’ll probably get a, “Whoops, my bad. Sorry about that. I’m on the cleanup right after I finish this delicious sandwich.”

Peace is super boring, but if you’re down for that kind of relationship model, when it comes to fighting, it’s pretty fucking great.

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