A Fair Fight: Healthy Conflict Creates Healthy Boundaries

Until I was about 30, I spent most of my time trying to make sure that no one ever became upset with me. I tiptoed around disagreements, swallowed my opinion, tried to read other people’s thoughts, and ran away at the slightest hint of discord. Not fighting was ruining my relationships.

Arm WrestlingIf this sounds weird to you, you don’t understand intimacy. Conflict in close relationships is not only inevitable, it’s essential. Intimacy connects people who are inevitably different – as the saying goes, if two people agree about everything, one of them is superfluous. Conflict is the mechanism by which we set boundaries around these differences, so that each party feels safe with the other. Whether the fight is an all-out brawl (someone jumps you in an alley and you struggle physically against that person) or the mildest tiff (“What’s with the sexist comments?” “Sorry. Won’t happen again.”), conflict is the way we say, “You may go this far with me, and no further.” Until we know we can make and hold such boundaries, we never become comfortable enough to relax, be our true selves, open our hearts.

Why is conflict management so important? Because many of us, when upset, go coldly silent, flatten into a doormat, or explode like Vesuvius. Even if you never react this way, I guarantee you’ll have to deal with people who do. The only way to keep the unpleasantness to a minimum is to learn the delicate art of managing conflict.

The first step in learning to fight right is a conceptual one: We need to fully understand that conflict is not a rare and evil force but an unavoidable and potentially positive one. Before I realized this, I shared a behavior pattern that is ubiquitous in our culture. Because we assume that “good” intimate relationships will always be conflict-free, we refrain from setting boundaries in order to avoid fights and we withdraw or blow up emotionally when unexpressed grievances become too intense to tolerate.

I can’t count the number of relationships I’ve seen destroyed by this pattern. Addressing issues the moment boundaries need to be set is a much, much better way to build lasting intimacy. In fact, I guarantee that every time you successfully discuss a problem and set a boundary with someone you care about, the two of you will feel closer after the “fight” than you did before it. This is only true if you know what you’re doing. Here’s some advice on how to do just that:

Agree on the Rules of Engagement

No matter what the scale of disagreement, all the parties concerned should sit down—at a time when they’re not arguing—and agree on what constitutes a fair fight. Ideally, the participants will actually type up a list of rules, post it in a visible place, and promise to abide by it. This isn’t something you need to do with every minor acquaintance, but in an intimate relationship, it’s invaluable. I’ve watched seemingly doomed marriages recover and thrive after both spouses collaborated to create and post combat rules, like “No name-calling,” “No threats,” and “Express feelings, not insults.” These rules protect against abusive behavior and force combatants to actually discuss their disagreements and hurt feelings – the process that lies at the very heart of intimacy.

Follow a Strategy

Having a strategy for conflict is a way to keep your own interpersonal battles brief, clean, and useful.

First, vent “hot” anger; act on “cool” anger. Conflict creates anger, and anger creates a strong “fight” reaction. Acting on this impulse will help you avoid ulcers and feel better—but do it before, not during, a confrontation.

Second, tell the person exactly what’s upsetting you. This information must be very precise and concrete. For example, instead of saying, “You don’t respect my individuality,” you should pinpoint actual behaviors: “When I expressed my opinion at the party, you said, ‘You don’t really believe that,’ and went on to tell everone what I did believe – as if you knew better than I did! I felt incredibly devalued and angry.”

Third, describe exactly what you need to feel better. This is the most important part of a healthy conflict strategy, the place where you take responsibility for helping your friend or loved one know how to meet your needs. “Let me be me!” is a useless demand because it doesn’t specify any clear action. Instead, give instructions like “Next time you disagree with my opinions, go ahead and say so, or ask me to explain where I’m coming from. Don’t tell me what I think, especially in front of other people.”

Fourth, explain what the consequences will be if your needs are not met. In case the other person won’t agree to your terms, you must be prepared to do whatever is necessary to meet your own needs without their cooperation. “If you keep dominating me during conversations, I’m going to call you on it, no matter where we are or who’s watching. Then I will walk away.”

It’s important that the consequences you describe are what psychologists call logical and natural. (For example, screaming hysterically at someone who wants to drive drunk is not a logical and natural consequence; confiscating the car keys is.) Don’t make overblown threats, and always follow through. Crying wolf creates diminishing returns – you’ll have to bluster even more ferociously, with less and less success, leading to lengthy, ineffective conflict.

After practicing the fine art of a fair fight, you’ll begin to notice an odd paradox: The more comfortable you become with fighting, the less you will feel compelled to do it.