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No one likes fighting, but dirty fighting is a different matter entirely. "Fighting dirty is going past the specific issue at hand, to attacking your partner's character," explains Lesli Doares, marriage coach and author of Blueprint for a Lasting Marriage. But you'll never fall into the trap of dirty fighting if you follow these five expert tips to avoiding such a fight in the first place.
1. Phrase your complaint in the form of a request.
When we're upset, it's all too easy to resort to simple complaints that quickly get our point across. "It is really easy to complain about something that is happening," commiserates Doares. "It is also easy to focus on your partner's part in it", but by phrasing what would be a complaint into a reasonable request, Doares says, you accomplish two things: "It keeps the conversation on the one issue," she says, "and it focuses on what you want to happen instead."
2. Lead with a vulnerable emotion.
In a fight, "too often couples lead with irritation, anger, or frustration," says Julie de Azevedo Hanks, Ph.D., LCSW and owner and director of Wasatch Family Therapy. "Usually underneath those emotions are more vulnerable emotions like fear, sadness, or loneliness. You are much more likely to get a positive response if you lead with your vulnerable emotions." For example, rather than accusing your spouse of being selfish for coming home late every day, she says, consider starting a conversation with something like, "when you come home from work late, I worry about you and I get scared that I don't matter to you."
3. Avoid using the word "you."
Think: You didn't do the dishes yet again, or why do you insist on watching the TV so loudly? It's important to avoid you-based statements, Doares says, "because the word 'you' is often taken as an attack. The standard response is to get defensive and counterattack. A better way is to keep it focused on your experience — when this happens, I feel this way. The 'you' can be implied, but if it isn't stated, then your partner is much more likely to hear you without getting defensive."
4. Stay on your side of the court.
Much like avoiding you-based statements, Hanks says it's also important to abide this tennis-court analogy to avoid a dirty fight. "It means staying on your side, narrating what it's like from your perspective, and sharing emotions as they emerge," she explains. "This works because it helps couples own their perspective instead of getting into a power struggle of who's right and who's wrong. There is no right and wrong, only different perspectives and emotions."
5. Call a time out when things get heated
If you feel yourselves headed for a dirty fight, it's up to one partner to call a time out. "But whichever one of you does it must also suggest a time when the topic is revisited," says Doares. "If the topic is never brought up again, the chance of stopping a fight next time goes way down." A time out will stop any dirty fight in its tracks, Doares says, "because you cannot have a fight by yourself, your partner must agree to join in. If one of you refuses to continue the argument, it can't go on."