Perfect people never snap, never snipe, never say a harsh word to each other. Yeah, right—and I've got a nice bridge to sell you in Brooklyn. People fight, they argue, they bicker, they scream so loud the veins in their foreheads start to pop. And contrary to our Cinderella-style misconceptions, "fighting is both normal and healthy for a relationship," says Pepper Schwartz, Ph.D., a professor of sociology at the University of Washington and the author of several books, including Love Between Equals. "Everyone has something to disagree about," she says. "If you don't argue and stand up for what you believe in, things fester and resentments build."
But of course there are all kinds of fighting. "Physical fights, abusive frays, petty squabbles, personal attacks—these you want to stay away from," says Schwartz. By fighting, she means debating, arguing, discussing. "The energy can get intense and the volume can get loud, but the fight can still be productive if you always keep your eye on the prize and realize the fight is meant to accomplish something," she says.
Rule : Fight with Purpose.
Most of us don't schedule our spats into our Palm Pilots, but nonetheless, whether you're picking a fight or just find yourself in one, try to pull back and think about what in particular you're griping about. "Fight about specific things," says Schwartz. "Ask yourself, 'What's at stake here? What are we trying to solve?' " If you're p.o.'d because your mate forgot to pick up the dry-cleaning for the fourth time in a row, then focus on her irresponsibility or his tendency to leave the chores for you. Don't call him or her lazy or stupid; just try to figure out why he or she keeps forgetting, express how it makes you feel, and then work on a solution.
Rule : Pay Attention to the Real Issue.
"A lot of times, however, a skirmish is superficially about one thing, but when you analyze the situation, you realize that the fight is about deeper issues," says Schwartz. Whether you're on the attack or on the defense, keep asking yourself what the fight is really about. "Stop the fight and say, 'This isn't really about X. This is about Y.' Then deal with the problem at hand," Schwartz says.
Rule : Don't be Mean.
"You can be screaming so loud it shakes the walls," says Schwartz. "It's not necessarily a bad thing, so long as you're not being contemptuous and nasty and saying things you can't take back." So resist those rage-inspired knife-in-the-back comments. They only feel good momentarily, and such low blows do more harm than good. Be respectful (or, at least, don't be petty) as you're yelling or being yelled at. You can be fired up without being a total jerk. "Don't roll your eyes or act like the other person's an idiot. This will just make them more furious," says Schwartz.
Rule : Mind Your Language
First off, avoid using words like never and always, as in "You never told me you were going to the gym this morning." Says Schwartz, "If someone never does something or always does something, what's there to talk about?" And keep the conversation out of the blame realm. Instead of saying, "How could you spend two hundred dollars on new running shoes and not ask me first?" try to take the guilt trip out of your comment. Schwartz advises turning the accusation around and saying something like "Tell me why you bought these without coming to me first, and let me tell you why it makes me upset."
Rule : Know When You're Losing It.
If you feel yourself on the verge of reaching your boiling point, it's time to back down for a while. "Always watch your body temperature and body language. If you notice your teeth are clenched or your fists are balled, it's time to say 'Uh-oh. I'm about to approach my worst self," Schwartz says. "Before you get to the point where you completely lose your cool and do something irrevocable, take a deep breath and tell your partner that you need to stop the discussion and that you'll resume when you have a clearer head." Then follow through.
Rule : Don't Walk Away
Never turn your back on someone in the midst of a fight. "It's about the most passive-aggressive maneuver you can pull. Walking away is just unfair," says Schwartz. If the fight is getting to a point where you can no longer deal, fair enough; but you must communicate that and arrange to continue the discussion later.
Rule : Accomplish Something.
"If your fight is really about some huge issue—lack of respect, irrational jealousy—the entire problem is not going to get solved in one night," says Schwartz. That said, you should come out of a melee having achieved something and ready to move on to the next step. "In a good fight, everyone's had a turn, nobody should hold a grudge," she explains. "The point is not merely to vent but to get something resolved."