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Want a Better Marriage? Learn to Fight Fair (in 5 Easy Steps)

If you want to make a better marriage, you have to make a better you.
Image: couple kissing behind map on remote road
All couples fight, but those who fight fair are the ones who tend to stick together.Getty Images/Blend Images

For married couples therapists Casey and Meygan Caston, dating was easy — marriage was the hard part. Their marriage began to deteriorate almost immediately after they said “I do” in 2003, according to Casey Caston. It was only when the couple learned to “fight fair,” he says, that they were able to heal their broken relationship.

“I think all the past trauma that we’ve been trying to escape from came right at our doorstep,” Caston tells NBC News BETTER.

Both Casey and Meygan’s parents had divorced and remarried multiple times, he explains.

“We had no example of how to do married life at all,” he says.

When he and Meygan argued, they would quickly escalate from conflict to combat, he says. In the couple’s therapy practice, they notice most couples fall into this pattern when they argue.

“If you want to make a better marriage,” says Caston, “you’ve got to make a better you.”

The therapist says this means learning how to fight fair.

How to fight fair

Step 1: Maintain control.

Your wife insists on visiting her parents, but you would rather stay home and watch the game. Your heart begins to pound. Your palms get sweaty. Your temperature rises.

“We get in a flooded state where you’re moving into this fight or flight,” says Caston.

In this state, the blood begins to leave the part of your brain that regulates emotional control, explains the therapist, and you become flooded with distress.

“Once you’re flooded you literally don’t have the capacity to handle it successfully,” he says.

But maintaining control during an argument is crucial to fighting fair, insists Caston. He says you need to learn to recognize when you’re about to lose it.

“You need to be aware enough to say ‘Hey listen, I need a time out for a second,’” Caston says.

He said couples can use a “time out” word to let each other know when they need time to cool off. The word Caston and his wife use is “Humphy’s Yogurt,” he says — the name of the ice cream shop where they first met.

“It’s an abstract term that actually catches you and it makes you start to think,” he says.

When your partner uses the “time out” word during an argument, it’s a signal for you to give them a break.

Step 2: Never interrupt.

When you interrupt your partner, you are listening to respond rather than to understand, according to the therapist. What’s worse, he says, is you are trying to dominate and control your partner.

“You’re not allowing your partner to express what they need to say,” he says. “You step in and you try to control that.”

When Caston and his wife argue, they use a toy microphone — whoever is holding it is the only one who is allowed to speak. Using an object in this way prevents couples from interrupting each other, he explains.

“It’s just a very tactile symbol for you to have in front of you to remember and remind both of you: ‘When I communicate, I’m the one talking because I have the microphone,’” he says. “‘And when I am finished I will hand it to you.’”

Step 3: Do not bring up the past.

Caston says couples will often bring up their partner’s past transgressions as a way to attack him or her during an argument. If a partner is continuously bringing up old grudges, it means there is an underlying problem of unforgiveness, he explains.

“Bringing up the past is because you still have past hurts,” says Caston.

While it’s tempting to do, it doesn’t work, says Caston, because it takes the focus away from the original argument.

“You have to deal with one issue at a time,” he explains.

Step 4: Do not criticize.

When couples begin to criticize each other, they are no longer arguing constructively, Caston explains. He says they are just fighting dirty.

“You’re basically now just saying, ‘It’s not about the issue, you’re a dirty liar.’ This is personal. You’re not fixing the problems,” he says.

From there, the argument quickly spirals into name calling, criticizing, and using aggressive language, he says.

“So that’s how we start fighting about the way we’re fighting,” he says, “rather than dealing with the issue.”

Step 5: Apologize.

Learning to recognize and take responsibility for when you’ve hurt your partner is crucial, says Caston. It’s often the easiest way to resolve a conflict, he explains, but for many people, it’s the hardest thing to do.

“We need a proper apology that acknowledges the hurt, the pain, that accepts responsibility, being held accountable, problem solves, and asks for forgiveness,” he says.

“But when you apologize, like for so many couples, they’re no longer the enemy,” he continues. “Defenses drop, you’ve taken responsibility, you’ve acknowledged their hurt, and connection is restored and trust is built, too.”

Fighting fair creates a stronger marriage

All couples fight, but those who fight fair are the ones who tend to stick together, according to Caston. He says it saved his own marriage.

“It’s transformed our relationship,” says Caston. “It’s transformed the way we talk and tackle problems together.”

How to Fight Fair

  • Keep your cool. This is key to fighting fair. Use a “time out” word that allows you and your partner to know when it’s time to de-escalate and take a break.
  • Be polite. When we interrupt, we are listening to respond rather than understand. We are also trying to control the conversation. To prevent interrupting, choose an object and make it a rule that only the person holding it can speak.
  • Focus on the present. Focus only on the argument at hand. When fights start to get ugly, it’s tempting to bring up past grievances. But doing this takes the focus away from what you were originally arguing about, and makes the argument worse.
  • Don't lash out. When fights get dirty, couples start to name call. This turns the attention away from the problem and focuses on the person instead.
  • Say you're sorry. Apologizing is often the quickest way to resolve a conflict. But to work, it needs to be done properly. An effective apology acknowledges the hurt you’ve caused, accepts responsibility for it, and asks for forgiveness.

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