Fair fighting is fighting with principle. It’s strong advocacy tempered with care and concern. We humans do a lot of fighting. It’s a natural and big part of life. Psychology has been slow to recognize this. And it’s been slow to concern itself with how we fight. That’s unfortunate. You see, how we fight makes all the difference in our relationships. Fair fighting rooted in principle seeks only to build, not to destroy.
Many couples have sought my counsel over the years. And most of them were dealing with conflicts they couldn’t resolve. Like all intimate relationship partners, they fought from time to time. But how they fought only made their problems worse. One partner might fight underhandedly. Another might be so determined to win that they’d fire a “low blow” when losing. Still another might refuse to engage at all, only further frustrating their partner’s attempts to resolve an issue. Sure, it would be nice if we always saw eye-to-eye and there were no conflicts. But conflict is the inevitable reality of life. And that means a lot of fighting. Still, how we fight makes all the difference. Fair fighting can build a stronger, healthier relationship.
One Woman’s Noble Cause
A woman we’ll call “Esther” came to see me at her wits end. (As always, potentially identifying details in this example have been altered to preserve anonymity.) Her husband was a good man. But he was never there. He meant well. He just wanted to provide well for his family. The way he was raised, he felt it his prime duty. So he put in long hours on the job. And whether he meant to or not, in the process, he was neglecting some other important things.
It wasn’t that Esther wasn’t grateful. And she knew that “Henry’s” heart was in the right place. He was a man of faith and conscience. But she knew she still needed to put her foot down. After all, she didn’t work so hard to find a faithful life partner only to be left alone. And she knew her children weren’t being well-served by barely even seeing, let alone knowing their father. So she simply had to confront him. The only question was how to do it. So she chose joint counseling as the proper venue. And fortunately, Henry was willing to participate.
The Constructive Path
I often marveled at Esther’s determination and tact. She knew her cause to be noble. And she was willing to do whatever it took. Moreover, there were so many courses of action she could have taken. And many of them could have easily destroyed. For example, she could have beaten Henry up with guilt. (Using guilt as a weapon is a common manipulation tactic.) (See: p. 125, In Sheep’s Clothing.) To do so would have been to fight underhandedly, covertly. Or, she could have expressed her displeasure by withdrawing from him and withholding affection. To do that would have been to fight passively. Instead, fortunately, she chose to tackle the issue head-on. And she did so without reservation, while taking care not to do unnecessary harm. (See, also: Principled Fighting Defines Assertiveness.)
Esther could have used her children as shields. But she didn’t. Instead, she spoke for herself. This empowered her. (See: p. 155, In Sheep’s Clothing.) She told Henry directly what she wanted from him: time. She spoke frankly about her emotional needs. And she expressed appreciation in advance for his willingness to hear her out. I could see Henry struggling with some defensiveness at first. But in the end, Esther’s tact was too disarming. She told Henry what was important to her. And he knew she sincerely meant it when offering to sacrifice some material comfort for more time with the person she loved.
Happily, what could have become a contest for personal vindication instead became a frank and open discussion. Ego battles always destroy. But this couple destroyed nothing. Instead, they built a stronger foundation for their relationship. (See also: Learning to Confront Benignly and Effectively.)
Revisiting the 8th “Commandment”
We’ve been discussing the 8th “commandment” of sound character growth. The commandment recognizes that fighting is an integral part of life. So, it matters how we do it. We can fight selfishly, merely to have our way. And we can fight in many unscrupulous ways. Moreover, we can fight to win at all costs. All such fighting is destructive. But some things are worth fighting for. And when we fight for principal, and with care not to injure, we inevitably build instead of destroy.
To recap, here again is the 8th commandment:
Neither anger nor aggression are inherently evil. But fight only when necessary; fight fairly; and above all, fight constructively , taking as much care as possible to make things better while respecting the rights, needs, and boundaries of self and others.
This article concludes our discussion on fair fighting. Next week we’ll begin discussing the 9th commandment. And as we have been, we’ll be looking at it from both a spiritual and psychological perspective.