All couples (whether the partnership has ADHD as an issue or not) have disagreements. There can be distinct differences in intensity, with some fights seeming to be extremely unproductive, verging on very destructive.
On the other side, there are some couples that say that they never fight. In those cases, the question becomes are there issues and feelings getting buried that ultimately cause harm in other ways.
Fair fighting is a way of interacting with your partner so that both sides are considered, and the best possible resolution is found.
How to fight fairly*:
1) Start with a complaint, not a criticism:
- A criticism is directed at the person and usually starts with “you did this,” or ”you didn’t do that…”
- A complaint is “I’m frustrated that the garage is so filled with stuff that I can’t park in it.”
Criticisms are harder to hear because they put the recipient on the defensive and give the message that “You are wrong,” or “You are bad.” Notice the “I” language of a complaint vs. the “you” language of a criticism.
2) It is important to start “softly”
In this phase, it is important to be respectful, and begin the conversation without attack. This part is more about observation and the feelings of the person delivering the message than the behavior of the person receiving the message. The following are some examples of hard starts vs. soft starts:
Hard start: You never clear the dishes from the table. It drives me crazy.
Soft start: I’m feeling like there’s so much for me to do around dinner time. Clearing the dinner dishes just seems like that one extra thing that’s just too much.
Hard start: You never take me out anymore.
Soft start: I really miss the fun times we used to have. I’d like it if we’d make an effort to go out more.
3) Use non-threatening language and never bully your partner.
Having an argument is not an opportunity to create a show of power in the relationship. Using threatening words, or an intimidating physical stance is a definite no-no if the objective is to keep the relationship working. Any time threats or power plays are used in arguments, these tactics will undermine the relationship and cause resentment.
4) Make sure to be specific about your meaning
You may know what message you are trying to convey, but depending upon what you say, the message may come across in a way that is confusing to your partner. For example, saying “There’s no romance in our relationship,” is a very different statement than, “I’d really like us to go on a date once a week to give us an opportunity to spend some real ‘we’ time together.” The first one may give your partner no really good place to start to try to meet your needs. The second is a specific request that can be so much more easily responded to.
5) Talk calmy
This is such a critical ingredient of a fair fight. When there’s a lot of emotion and intensity, it can be very difficult for your partner to really hear what you are trying to convey. When the volume goes up, often the other person’s brain shuts off. Being calm and reasonable gives you more traction in getting your message across.
6) Be respectful
No matter how upsetting the situation is, your partner is always deserving of your respect. ALWAYS!
7) Time out
If, despite your best efforts, the conversation escalates, and tempers heat up, declare a time out. It is good to have an agreement that this is something that you will resort to, if need be, when things do not go smoothly and one, or both of you gets very upset. When you have an agreement between you in advance, then no one is surprised, if the need to take a time out arises.
Time outs can be appropriate and should be used, if the above list of fair fighting suggestions is challenging to follow, and one or both of you cannot maintain calm and respect.
Time outs should be taken in two separate locations (although it is important that no one drives if tempers are really high), and should last as long as it takes for both parties to become calm.
Once the time out is over, you can decide to reconvene the discussion, or table it for a time in the not-too-distant future when you are both more relaxed and less triggered. It would be good to establish when that will be so that negative feelings don’t have an opportunity to build up again.
It is important to keep in mind that arguments are not about someone “winning.” That should never be the goal. A better goal would be, can you hear and come to some understanding of your partner’s point of view even if you don’t agree with them? It is valuable to accept where they are coming from, with compassion, rather than feeling the outcome needs to be “your way?” Can you make adjustments in the way you relate so that everyone can feel satisfied with the results? That would be “winning” for everyone concerned.
Some other suggestions for Fair Fighting:
- Look your partner in the eye: This establishes you are in communication with one another.
- Do your best to find some common ground. Look for places where you have similar points of view.
- Ask open-ended questions. It shows inclusion and open-ness to ask “What do you think?” and really listen to their point of view.
- Sometimes humor can be helpful. This does not mean laughing at your partner. It just means adding lightness to the conversation that might be just what is needed to break the tension.
John Gottman, a psychologist, and relationships expert, suggests that it is not about whether a couple argues or not that determines the health of the relationship. It is how they repair after the argument that counts. Fair fighting is a way of coming to resolution that takes both partners feelings and perspectives into account.
Of course, if these suggestions don’t work for you, it would be valuable to seek professional advice.
*Many of the ideas here are adapted from the recently published book, A Couple’s Guide to Thriving with ADHD, by Melissa Orlov and Nancie Kohlenberger.