December 2006: Issue #002

Welcome to Marriage Matters, an ezine devoted to helping individuals and couples prepare for, enhance or revitalize their marriage.

In this issue:

  • Feature Article: Nine Rules for Fair Fighting
  • Healthy Marriage Tip: Forgiveness: A Key to Unlocking the Door to a Healthy and Happy Marriage

Feature Article

Nine Rules for Fair Fighting

by Nathan Cobb, Ph.D.

Every sport, from basketball to golf, has rules that define the game. Rules provide safety, structure, and predictability. They make it possible for everyone to understand what’s going on, strategize, and solve problems.

Unfortunately, while the necessity for rules is self-evident in the world of sports, it is often forgotten when trying to resolve conflict in families. This is one reason why some spouses would rather have a root canal than get into conflict—they’ve seen too many occasions where marital arguments were akin to playing full-contact American football with no referee, no safety equipment, and no commitment to a set of rules.

But conflict does not have to be unsafe, unpredictable and without purpose. When spouses are committed to following a set of rules, conflict can be an opportunity for couples to grow their “cooperation muscles.” Handling conflict constructively can even help couples develop greater closeness through achieving mutual understanding, learning to cooperate, taking each other's perspective, and resolving problems together.

So what is a good set of rules? The following list outlines nine suggested rules intended to help couples handle conflict without harming the relationship.

1. Agree on a time and place. Be selective about when and where you tackle difficult issues. Each of you should be able to give your full attention. This is difficult when you are tired, stressed, or distracted. Avoid sandbagging your partner. Let your partner know you have something you need to talk about. Ask if this is a good time. If it is not, then decide to sit down and discuss the issue at a specific time and place. This will help both of you adopt the mindset of resolving concerns.

2. Stay in the present. Focus on resolving the present issue at hand. It’s discouraging to keep bringing up the past. You can’t change the past. You can only change today and the future. Try to keep your focus on what can be done today to resolve the issue and go forward. A related guideline is to stick to one issue at a time. If you get off-topic, stop yourselves and agree to get back on track. You can always come back to other issues later.

3. Avoid degrading language. Avoid name-calling, insults, put-downs or swearing. Putting your partner down or criticizing your partner’s character shows disrespect for his or her dignity. In sports there are many rules that prevent one player from intentionally injuring another. In marriage and relationships, similar rules must apply. When you intentionally injure your partner, it’s like saying, “You are not safe with me. I will do whatever it takes to protect myself or to win.”

4. One person speaks; one person listens. Don’t interrupt each other or talk over top of each other. Let one person speak at a time. When one speaks, the other should be listening—really listening, not just planning their rebuttal. Take turns speaking and listening so that you both have a chance to say what you need.

5. Don’t interpret. Arguments often escalate when partners interpret each other’s words. Interpretation is when you put your own spin on what your spouse says in order to prove your case or make a point. Usually, this involves selective hearing. It often leaves the other person feeling unheard, misunderstood and judged. Instead of interpreting, make an effort to hear each other fully. Open your ears and hear the whole message, not just part of it.

6. Speak for yourself. Use words that describe how you feel, what you want, what you believe, not what your partner feels, wants, or believes. It may seem easier to analyze your partner (i.e. see #5 above), than to analyze yourself, but focusing on your partner’s thoughts and feelings will distract you from identifying your own underlying issues. It will also invite defensiveness from your partner. Speaking for yourself means taking ownership of your unmet needs, feelings, and ways of thinking. It’s about acting as the expert of your own world, not your partner’s world.

7. Don’t keep score. In marriage you are not opponents. You’re on the same team, even when you have disagreements. Keeping score against each other is contrary to developing unity, teamwork, and cooperation, which are essential to working through disagreements in relationships. Scorekeeping promotes an adversarial, “you against me” stance. Try to think of each other as teammates who truly do not wish to hurt each other, rather than as enemies or opponents.

8. Don’t threaten to end the relationship. Unless you fully intend to end the relationship, this possibility should not be raised during an argument. Threatening, in the heat of the moment, to leave is manipulative and hurtful. It creates anxiety about being abandoned and undermines your ability to resolve your issues. It quickly erodes your partner’s confidence in your commitment to the relationship. Trust is not easily restored once it is broken in this way. It makes the problems in your relationship seem much bigger than they need to be.

9. Do take a time out. When emotions get too heated, it helps to take a time-out from the argument. It’s impossible to have a discussion in a climate of hostility. Think of it like pushing the pause button on a video. Use the time-out away from each other to calm down and become reflective instead of reactive. Reflect on why you feel the way you do and how to express yourself in a positive way. Try to think about the other person’s point of view. Think things through before you speak. Then “push play” again and return to each other to resolve the issues calmly. Also, realize that a time-out is not a cop-out. It’s a “pause” button, not a “stop” button. Take at least a half-hour to calm down, but don’t stay away for more than twenty-four hours.

It takes practice and perseverance to learn and apply these principles consistently, especially when strong emotions are involved. But doing so is essential for working through conflicts in a manner that does not harm the relationship or each other.

Healthy Marriage Tip


A Key to Unlocking the Door to a Healthy and Happy Marriage

By The National Healthy Marriage Institute

Why do the people closest to us have the power to offend us the most? Part of the answer lies in our ability to feel the emotion of love.

To fully experience the emotion of love, we must first lower our protective emotional walls. Once we lower our walls we leave ourselves vulnerable to getting hurt. Since no one is perfect, we all do and say things that offend those we love the most.

How we choose to react when we have offended or been offended by our spouse will determine if we are able to form and sustain a healthy marriage.

Forgiving and offering a sincere apology are two of the most effective medicines to heal a marriage, although they aren’t always easy to administer. However, the question you need to ask yourself is, “Do I want to feel anger, resentment, bitterness, pain and misery?” or “Do I want to feel love, peace, joy and happiness?”

To feel these positive emotions, you need to forgive your spouse when he or she offends you and offer a sincere apology when you offend him or her.

In essence, forgiveness is the process of replacing the feelings of bitterness, anger and hurt with love. The following five steps can help you forgive:

1. Calm down before speaking to your spouse.

2. After you calm down, tell your spouse what he or she did to offend you. In many cases, you will find it was unintentional or a simple misunderstanding.

3. Recognize you aren’t perfect either. Think of the many times your spouse has forgiven you for offending him or her.

4. Think of three memories where your feeling of love was especially strong towards your spouse. Whenever you feel bitterness, anger and hurt, think of these three memories.

5. Don’t be discouraged when you can’t replace the feelings of bitterness, anger and hurt with love overnight. It may take time. Be patient and don’t give up.

Going through the process of forgiveness does not mean you should leave yourself vulnerable to being hurt again by unacceptable actions. Domestic violence is one example of this. If you are a victim of domestic violence, you should seek professional help immediately.

It is also important to learn how to offer a sincere apology. There are three crucial steps in making a sincere apology to your spouse:

1. Recognize exactly what you did to offend your spouse.

2. Develop a plan to not repeat the same mistake again.

3. Tell him or her you are sorry.

Some people skip the first two steps and go straight to the third. By doing this the healing power of the words “I'm sorry” will lose their effectiveness and make the situation worse.

Action Plan

Think of something you have recently done to offend your spouse and begin the steps of apologizing.

Think of something your spouse has done that offended you and begin the steps of forgiveness.

Visit to read the other topics in this pamphlet series.

© 2005 The National Healthy Marriage Institute

Nathan Cobb, Ph.D. in MFT, RMFT, R.Psych
200C Haddon Road SW
Calgary, AB T2V 2Y6
Tel: (403) 255-8577
Fax: (403) 255-8570

For more information please visit

Nathan Cobb, Ph.D in MFT, RMFT, R.Psych

Nathan Cobb, Ph.D.
Registered Marriage
& Family Therapist
Registered Psychologist


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