A fascinating recent WSJ piece titled, “How and Why to Ban the Silent Treatment from Your Relationship,” offered tantalizing keys to saving a relationship, but it left out a powerful way to practice those keys.Fortunately we can here easily fill the gap in that excellent article.
‘Demand-Withdrawal.’ As the piece noted, meta-studies show one of the surest paths to divorce appears when couples fall into a ‘demand-withdraw’ approach to conflict. One partner makes a strong, aggressive demand. After some argument, the other partner shuts down and withdraws, or the initiating partner escalates and withdraws. The consequences? A seriously troubled relationship, psychological pain, and even physical health problems.
What to do? The article counsels awareness, accountability, empathy, taking time outs, setting discussion ground rules, making ‘I’ statements instead of ‘you’ statements, avoiding harsh language like “selfish” and “rude”, and working on your own attitude. All wise…but there’s a simple method that can help you do these things and go further. My wife and I call it the Fair Fight Rule.
The Fair Fight Rule: Let’s Take Turns Actively Listening Here’s the rule in a nutshell: “You speak, I recap; then I speak, you recap.” More specifically:
1. At the start of an argument, agree one partner will speak for ~30-60 seconds and the other will then say back what the speaker said. Also agree at the start that saying something back doesn’t necessarily mean ‘I agree,’ it just demonstrates, ‘I understand.’
2. If the listening partner was reasonably accurate, the speaking partner will say, “yes, that’s basically it,” or “exactly.” If it wasn’t, the speaking partner will repeat what (s)he’d said and the listening partner will try again.
3. Once the listening partner gets it, switch roles. Let the new speaking partner speak for ~30-60 seconds and then have his/her partner say it back.
4. Repeat the process several times. Then, if you like, try solving the problem or taking a break to consider what you’ve each heard. Marriage counsellors, ministers doing pre-marriage counseling, and many couples all happily use a version the Fair Fight rule. (Some call it ‘dialogic listening.’) It fosters many of the things the WSJ article counsels, and more: *It de-escalates *It bars negative interpretation *It bars invalidation *It fosters genuine listening without loss of face *It endows each with respect *It fosters empathy *It meets the profound need to be heard *It safely reveals hidden assumptions and facts *It lays the groundwork for problem solving *Often it reduces much of the conflict: “I don’t even need you to apologize or say you’re wrong…I just need you to get it. You got it. That’s enough.” *It lets you end well the ‘demand and withdraw’ cycle. What if the other can’t or won’t do it? That may be useful too- it signals a conversation won’t help much at the moment. Thus: “Let’s talk later when we’re better able to hear each other.” Just don’t be petulant; if your partner can’t embrace it, drop the rule for now, not him/her. My wife and I have found the Fair Fight Rule has helped us many, many times in our very happy 12-years of marriage. No one idea always works, but I dare you to try it. If you do, I recommend you share the rule with your partner before your next argument. Also, try it first on something fairly minor, like, ‘with whose parents should we spend the holidays?’ or ‘why are we overdrawn?’ and not, ‘should we have a baby?’ Get some practice first. For more on these ideas, read Difficult Conversations or Crucial Conversations.