How to Fight Fair With Your Partner
Illustration: Olivia Fields

How to Fight Fair With Your Partner

Just because we’re living in a pressure cooker doesn’t mean our relationships have to suffer.

What does your partner do that really grinds your gears? I’m not talking about the things we ignore so that we keep the peace. (For me, that’s hair in the sink. Shudder.) I’m referring to the things that make us snappy and will inevitably lead to an argument — like smiling hard when you’re actually being critical. (Double shudder.)

Disagreements are inevitable in any relationship. We’ve all got different perspectives and ways of operating that may not always mesh with someone else’s. If you’re in a relationship, you’d ideally like to minimize these conflicts and prevent them from becoming blowups. But how do you fight fair with your partner? Should you two have ground rules that are established in peacetime? Should there be topics that are always off-limits? Should you regularly seek counsel from a professional?

My beau and I are pre-married. (We don’t like the word fiancée. It sounds pretentious.) It’s a second marriage for both of us, and we’re bringing fully formed careers, children, pets, and yes, a tiny bit of baggage. Okay, lots of baggage. We’re human. We’re still learning how to be civil co-parents with our ex-spouses while also learning how to be civil co-parents with each other.

We’re both in therapy and are pretty good at managing our isms. Ninety-nine percent of the time, my dude is laid back. He wants the basics: food, sex, conversation, and the occasional new lens for his beloved camera. While he’s tinkering in our studio, working on camera angles and setups, I’m usually flitting around him, talking nonstop.

“Did you know Alex Karras from Webster played for the Detroit Lions?”

“Did you know a housefly can live for a month?”

“Do you think we should get married in the fall or next year?”

“Do you like this dress? Or this one? Or this one? Or this one.”

I fully own my quirks — on top of being talkative and inquisitive, I’m also goofy and dramatic. And somehow he still loves me.

But those are the day-to-day annoyances. We don’t usually fight over them. Most of our major disagreements have been about not feeling understood or feeling like words and ideas have been misconstrued. We rarely beef over who didn’t turn on the dishwasher or whether the bathroom is a mess.

Should you two have ground rules that are established in peacetime? Should there be topics that are always off-limits? Should you regularly seek counsel from a professional?

What troubles me is that our disagreements can fester for a while. The last time we tussled, we didn’t speak for a full day. I don’t even remember what it was about — but even if I did, that’s not good. We talked it out and decided to never let anything get that far.

In the meantime, while in peacetime, I decided to call in some backup. Writer David Dennis is a friend in my head. We’ve never met, but in addition to reading all his work here at LEVEL, I follow him on social media, and I appreciate his takes on relationships (nine years of marriage) and parenting (two little ones). In the interest of preparing to get hitched, I called David up for his thoughts on the art of love and war.

Aliya: After an argument, how long do you and your wife go without speaking?

David: Oh, we don’t do the not-speaking thing.

Aliya: Really? Not ever?

David: There’s too much logistical stuff. If we don’t talk, some kid might end up not getting picked up from somewhere. [Laughs]

Aliya: Right. But how long can you go solely discussing logistical matters? My partner and I have gone for several hours.

David: It just sucks to be in that space. You’re in a house with someone. And it’s heavy. And we don’t live near other family members, so we can’t go to someone else’s house. So we don’t have the luxury of not speaking to each other. Also, if you have kids, they’ll feel it if there’s tension. And that’s not fair for them.

Aliya: Who usually calls the truce first?

David: Me, for sure. Wait. No. It’s pretty half and half.

Aliya: Was there more tension during the heat of the pandemic?

David: Right now, we’re in a nice pandemic bliss. We got into a groove. But the adjustment at first was tough.

Aliya: We were doing well at the start. Like, really well. I think because we both worked from home before and spent pretty much all of our time together.

David: The adjustment was tough for me. [Before the pandemic], I had the house to myself all day. I dropped everyone off, and then I did whatever I wanted. I worked. I ate. I went to the gym. And all on my own time. And then, everyone was in the house. All. The. Time. At first, I thought it was temporary. Back in March, I said, well, we’ll go on vacation in a few months. And then school will be out for the summer…

Aliya: Did it lead to conflict?

David: I mean, it was tough because your usual cool-off outlets aren’t an option anymore. I remember on Friday nights, I would often go have a drink or two and unwind. Everyone’s asleep. And that kind of recharge helps when there’s conflict. You have to work on conflict during peacetime!

Aliya: I know, I know. We don’t really do that. Because there’s a lot of peacetimes. We made it through. But there were definitely rough patches.

David: But however things were during the pandemic, that’s not a reflection of your marriage or relationship. Like, how you disagree or deal with conflict right now — we all get to take a mulligan on fighting during the pandemic. That whole situation can’t be judged.

Aliya: Wait. Why not? If the conflict was there….

David: Relationships are not supposed to be like this. We’re not meant to be trapped inside with children and no breaks.

Aliya: Ah. True. But I was always with my partner anyway. Before the pandemic. Like, all the time.

David: But, you could leave. You could go have lunch with a friend. Or go to the gym. You probably don’t realize how often you did leave when you felt like it. That helps conflict.

Aliya: So what did you do to work on conflict during peacetime?

David: Recharging is important. And for a few months, I couldn’t figure out how to recharge. How do I make myself happy on a regular basis? Sometimes that would be a good meal.

Aliya: But then you’d have to share…

David: Exactly! I want to buy some food and not feed anyone else!

Aliya: And you feel like it’s selfish…

David: But it’s not — when you recharge yourself, everyone benefits.

Aliya: So, when this pandemic settles down (if ever!), me and my guy are getting married. Give me your number-one word of advice from a longtime married couple to a newly married couple.

David: Counseling.

Aliya: Pre-marital?

David: Yes. And marital, too. Managing conflict — and every other part of marriage — requires tune-ups. It’s just like cars and oil changes.