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  • Writer's pictureLorelei Hoyt

Conflict or Combat Sport - the Art of Fighting Fairly

Every combat sport has its own set of rules that participants are expected to abide by. The NHL’s Rule 56 - Fisticuffs has 1610 words outlining the regulations and penalties for fighting in hockey. The UFA describes their 27 Unified Rules or “Fouls” in 1812 words. While the Association of Boxing Commissions and Combative Sports detail their Unified Rules of Boxing in 20 rules and a mere 662 words. These types of rules outline parameters of a fight to ensure all participants follow the established guidelines, are afforded equal opportunity for victory, and are protected from unnecessary harm.

Most of us will never participate in a combat sport. But what about when we have a conflict that leads to an argument, or fight, with a loved one? How do we ensure each participant has equal chance of victory, and is protected from harm? Well, just like any sport, we follow agreed upon rules for fair fighting.

Everyone disagrees, argues, or fights with a loved one at times. We may take a variety of approaches. Some of these are more effective than others, and some may be downright

unhealthy. But do you know how to fight fairly? Have you established rules to keep your disagreements equitable and safe?

If you google rules for fair fighting, you will discover many, many versions, and combinations of these ‘rules’. Some resources list as many as 30! But as a wise horsewoman once told me about making up rules for a stable “even God only had 10”. So, lets take a look at 10 of the most common principles for keeping disagreements healthy and productive.

Perhaps first we should look at why people fight. After all conflict in life is inevitable.

All people have needs, wants, and values. Sometimes these don’t align perfectly between two individuals. It may be disagreement over something small like letting the gas in the car run low. Or it could be over more significant issues such as spending vs. saving money. Regardless, conflict will eventually occur when people’s needs, wants and values aren’t the same.

This is normal, expected, and healthy.

You may ask why is this healthy? Well, that is because it is important to be able to express one’s needs safely. In healthy interactions people are able to identify and express their needs safely and the needs of all parties involved are important. It is possible for both parties to ‘win’ but perhaps more importantly it is possible for both parties to show compassionate support for one another.

So, what helps contribute to a fair fight? Attributes like great communication, high emotional intelligence, strong emotional self-regulation, critical thinking, problem-solving, and empathy all contribute to fighting fairly.


Great communicators express their needs clearly and directly in a calm factual manner. They stick to the topic at hand and do not let emotions overwhelm their communication. They take turns speaking and are active listeners. This focuses the discussion on the issue at hand, and helps each person feel heard.


People with high emotional intelligence identify and self-regulate their emotions effectively. They also recognize and manage other people’s emotions well. They recognize when emotions are running high, or becoming difficult to regulate, and address the situation constructively. This keeps the fight from escalating out of control. It allows the logical, executive processing, higher thought regions of our brain to work.


Critical thinking skills and creative problem solving help focus on logic rather than emotional reactions, and brainstorm creative solutions to conflicts. This includes solutions that incorporate compromises and explore both positive and negative aspects (pros and cons) of various options.


Empathy, the ability to put ourselves in the experience of another person and feel what they are feeling, supports compassionate and collaborative conflict resolution. Putting ourselves into another’s experience motivates us to help them resolve their needs as well as getting our own met. This may include agreeing to an interim solution, taking a break from the discussion, or postponing a disagreement until later.

So now that we’ve considered some of the factors that contribute to fighting fairly lets look at some of the more commonly identified “rules for fair fighting”. But again, lets limit ours to 10 concepts.

1) Identify your real concern.


  • Make sure you are clear in your own mind what you are specifically concerned about.

o Is the issue that the car doesn’t run out of gas?

o Or do you feel like you are the one always paying to fill it?

o Or do you feel that your boundaries about the use of your personal vehicle aren’t being respected?

(Keep your eyes peeled for future posts on boundaries.)

  • Take some time to really consider what you are specifically distressed about, and how it makes you feel.

  • This is a great moment to come up with a few potential suggestions to resolve the situation as well.

2) Speak Kindly and Politely.

  • · Be polite. Follow the ‘Thumper Rule’ and if you can’t say it nicely then don’t say it at all.

  • · Don’t use insults, name calling, or degrading/condescending language, sarcasm or yelling.

  • · If you wouldn’t speak to your boss, a respected colleague, friend or relative that way don’t say it that way to someone you love. After all we are supposed to treat the ones we love most better, not worse, than our boss, colleague or friend.

(See August 25th, 2022 blog on why relationships are like an onion for more on this.)

3) No Stonewalling or Gas Lighting.

  • · If you are not familiar with these terms you should be. Stay tuned for future blog entries on both topics. In the meanwhile, a short explanation of each term will have to suffice.

  • Stonewalling is refusing to participate, shutting down, using the silent treatment or withdrawing as a manipulative form of control.

  • Gas lighting is using language, denying things, twisting words, or implying someone’s memory is wrong, to manipulate another person into questioning their own experience or sense of reality.

Stonewalling and Gaslighting are forms of emotional abuse.

4) Stick to one topic at a time.

  • Don’t wander off the path into the forest of everything that has ever irritated you.

  • No kitchen sinking – or throwing everything but the kitchen sink - at the person you are in conflict with. Particularly no listing things all at once as fast as you can to overwhelm.

  • Pick a subject and stay with it.

5). No interrupting.

  • Take turns speaking.

  • Let each person finish their thought.

  • Use a timer or pass an object back and forth to represent who ‘s turn it is to speak.

  • If you struggle to keep your thoughts straight while taking your turn listening, take notes.

6) Limit time and take breaks.

  • Rome wasn’t built in a day. Problems aren’t always solved in one discussion.

  • Don’t fight on and on. Set a limit and stay within it.

  • This includes setting a time to come back to the topic later.

  • If things get emotionally charged take a break of at least 20 minutes. This lets your brain, and body, chemistry return to a less activated state. This promotes calmer, thoughtful discussion as your frontal lobe will be better able to function.

  • Respect breaks and boundaries. DO NOT follow the person requesting the break to continue the discussion. Let everyone’s brain calm down and reset.

7) No threats- verbal, physical, emotional, financial or otherwise.

  • This included slamming of fists on tables or anywhere else, slamming doors, throwing things, cutting remarks, sarcasm, degrading comments, insults, name calling, threats to leave or end the relationship, financial threats etc etc etc. All of these are forms of abuse. Just don’t do it!

  • Do NOT storm out without agreeing on a time to come back and discuss the topic again. Its ok to take a break as long as you agree when to next revisit the topic.

8) No generalizations or defensiveness.

  • Don’t use you never, always statements. No one always or never does something.

  • Try language like ‘when you do this, I feel that.’

o When you leave the gas tank empty, I feel you don’t respect my time by assuming I will fill it.

  • Get off defence – when you get your back up you stop responding and start reacting.

9) No Mind Reading.

  • Mind reading, or expecting your discussion partner to know what you are experiencing, is unrealistic, ineffective and a sure road to misunderstanding and further conflict.

  • So ask, don’t tell, them what they are feeling.

  • Don’t expect them to mind read your feelings either. Explain your feelings.

o Maybe I value having the gas tank filled at the halfway mark because I am worried about the gunk in the bottom of the tank running through the motor and it’s not about time or money at all.

10) Seek compromise.

  • Sometimes we must choose whether we want to be happy or be right. We can’t always be both.

  • By actively seeking compromise you may improve the happiness of your discussion partner and yourself even if you don’t always get to ‘win’ everything you want.

  • Better to leave a fight friendly and reasonably satisfied then embittered and resentful.

Conflict is a part of every relationship. It doesn’t have to be the end of them. So, consider which rules you may not have been following in your conflicts. Discuss these ideas with your loved ones at a calm time when you are not fighting. Establish your own agreed upon rules for fair fighting.

That way when you do find yourself in fighting with a loved one you can make sure you each have a chance to express yourself and protect one another from being hurt unnecessarily. After all we don’t want our fights with loved ones to be a combat sport.

Finally, if you still struggle with fighting fairly seek therapy. A trained therapist can act as a neutral party. This may be just what you need to sort through your challenges, and find resolutions, while preserving your most cherished relationships.


Bach, G. R. (1969) Training Couples How to Fight Fair. Paper presented at the Seventh Annual Conference of Conciliation Courts, p.34-38

Frey III, J.F., Holley, J. & L’Abate, L. (1979) Intimacy Is Sharing Hurt Feelings: A Comparison of Three Conflict Resolution Models. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, p35-41

Lingren, Herbert G., “G99-1392 “Fighting Fair” in Marriage” (1999). Historical Materials from University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension. 555.

McKay, M., Davis, M., & Fanning, P. (1995). Messages: The communication skills book. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Pub.

Nielsen, A.C. (2017). From Couple Therapy 1.0 to a Comprehensive Model: A Roadmap for Sequencing and Integrating Systemic, Psychodynamic, and Behavioral Approaches in Couple Therapy. Family Process, 56, pp540-557

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