Fighting About How to Fight: Establishing the Contest Rules

Some of the most difficult conflicts engaged by many couples concern the very process of conflict itself. How are we going to fight and about what is it legitimate to fight in this relationship? The rules of the contest must be established if each partner is to feel safe and acknowledged in the relationship. This is the part of meta-communication we discussed previously and is often associated with the remarriage process. Frequently, as in the case of Tina and Ben [#38] the real, underlying issue is the very existence of the relationship itself: “is this relationship worth fighting for or can either of us simply run away if the going gets tough.” When asked: “who makes the decision in this relationship,” Ben indicated that he makes “decisions about things that are very important to me — the kids, about my life and myself. Everything else Tina decides. I don’t feel very strongly about most things, just the kids and myself.” Tina disagreed: “I think that Ben makes most of the important decisions and I get to make most of the trivial ones. Ben has decided that I shouldn’t go to [the midwest] with him to visit his kids and that we shouldn’t get married, and I decided where we went to dinner last night and I picked the last movie we went to.”

Ben offers the key to understanding their relationship (or non-relationship) at this point: “Some decisions you can’t make mutually. There are decisions that I need to make for myself, whether it is about my children or about getting married.” Tina agrees in part, but offers a very insightful comment about their failure to establish equitable rules of conflict:

About the marriage thing, you are right, you have to decide what is right for you; [however] you so often make unilateral decisions that affect me. I just wish you would talk to me about what is going on more, so that we could negotiate things out. Same old stuff — you focus on the content, I’m more interested in the process and you draw me into the content so I end up arguing with you on your turf.

Tina goes on to offer several specific suggestions concerning the problem she is having with the way in which they fight (or don’t fight):

Sometimes, Ben, I don’t even disagree with your decision about something, like inviting Steve and Betty to join us for dinner the other night. I just get upset that you make unilateral decisions that affect me without discussing them with me first. But you kept on focusing on whether or not I liked Steve and “Betty and wouldn’t I enjoy having them. That wasn’t the point, and for some reason that is so hard for you to see.


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William BergquistWilliam Bergquist, Ph.D. An international coach and consultant in the fields of psychology, management and public administration, author of more than 50 books, and president of a psychology institute. Dr. Bergquist consults on and writes about personal, group, organizational and societal transitions and transformations. His published work ranges from the personal transitions of men and women in their 50s and the struggles of men and women in recovering from strokes to the experiences of freedom among the men and women of Eastern Europe following the collapse of the Soviet Union. In recent years, Bergquist has focused on the processes of organizational coaching. He is coauthor with Agnes Mura of coachbook, co-founder of the International Journal of Coaching in Organizations and co-founder of the International Consortium for Coaching in Organizations.

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