The Power of Boundaries in Relationships: The Fair Fighting Contract

Tara Blair Ball
Couple fightingPhoto byAfif RamdhasumaonUnsplash

I first heard heard of a “Fair Fighting Contract” over a decade ago when my ex-husband and I were in couples counseling. We’d made the appointment because we fought in ways that were disrespectful at the least, and mean at the worst.

“A fair fighting contract?” I scoffed.

Our therapist looked at me for a moment and then said, “Yes, a contract, that you both agree to, with the behaviors you won’t do in a fight.”

I didn’t like the idea of it at all. I believed, at the time, that relationships should be about feelings and emotions and other intangibles, and that any “contract” would suck all that right out.

What I learned from that appointment, though, is that something like a “Fair Fighting Contract” is a valuable tool for helping individuals learn how to fight in healthy and productive ways. Skills many of us didn’t learn growing up.

As a Relationship Coach, it’s now the #1 thing I recommend to couples.

When you have a meeting with your boss, there are implicit rules of behavior.

You don’t demand; you ask. You don’t raise your voice. You don’t give ultimatums, threaten to quit, throw a chair, or name-call.

Above all else, you speak with kindness and respect because you value yourself, your job (or at least your paycheck), and your boss (you may one day need them as a reference!).

Why should your romantic relationship be any different?

A “Fair Fighting Contract” helps you speak with kindness and respect to your partner regardless of how you angry you might be because you value yourself, your relationship, and your partner.

A “Fair Fighting Contract” should include the following things:

1. A list of unacceptable behaviors

Your “Fair Fighting Contract” should first include a list of behaviors that you and your partner agree are not okay.

For the vast majority of couples who fight in unhealthy ways, they have certain patterns of behavior.

They might be

  • yelling,
  • name-calling or other degrading language (“You’re such a _____”),
  • threatening to break-up or divorce,
  • blaming (“You’re the reason why I did that!”),
  • bringing up past incidents (“Well, you shouldn’t have talked to that girl 5 years ago!”)
  • physical force (hitting, shoving, throwing things, etc.),
  • interrupting, and/or
  • stonewalling (shutting down, the silent treatment).

Your relationship’s “Fair Fighting Contract” should include any behaviors that are unacceptable to the both of you, so don’t feel limited by the above list. The examples above are just good ones to include.

2. A plan for what will happen if an unacceptable behavior occurs

Most “Fair Fighting Contract” examples include language on time-outs.

A “time-out” is a moratorium, a break. You stop talking to one another. You don’t text. One or both of you can physically leave or withdraw to another place in your residence to get some space.

The reasoning for having a time-out is simple: if you find yourself getting escalated enough to do one of the unacceptable behaviors, it’d be best if you took a break to calm down before talking any further.

“The stress response can be triggered in a single instant, but how quickly you calm down and return to your natural state is going to vary from person to person (and it will depend on what caused it). Typically it takes 20 to 30 minutes for your body to return to normal and to calm down.”
— From “What Happens to Your Body During the Fight or Flight Response?”

But a time-out is not a “never-talk-about-it-again.” It’s a break with the intention of coming back to talk and, hopefully, resolve the issue.

Your “Fair Fighting Contract” could include language like, “When an unacceptable behavior occurs, we will initiate a time-out by saying, ‘I need a time-out. Let’s talk at ____’.” It’s helpful to give a specific time (like 4pm) that’s at least 20 minutes in the future.

3. (optional) A plan for re-engaging

It can be feel so vulnerable and scary to re-connect with our partner once we or they have done something unkind. Having a plan for how to re-connect, though, could help relieve some of that pressure.

For example, your “Fair Fighting Contract” could include language like,

“Once the time-out has ended, we will ask, ‘Are you in a place to discuss this now?’
If one of us is not, we will schedule another time to talk about it.
If we are both ready to talk about it, we will hug each other before discussing.”

It’s all about deciding what would work best for you and your partner. If you don’t feel like you’ll need this, don’t include it!

A “Fair Fighting Contract” isn’t just something you write out with your partner; you have to do it. It’ll take practice and consistency. You and your partner will mess up, and that’s okay! That’s all part of the learning process, and what’s awesome is that you won’t have to do it alone. You’ll have someone else working with you too.What matters most is that you and your partner continue to commit to work toward being more respectful and loving with one another.

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Tara Blair Ball is a Certified Relationship Coach and author of Grateful in Love: A Daily Gratitude Journal for Couples, A Couples Goals Journal, and Reclaim & Recover: Heal from Toxic Relationships with a 7-Step Guided Journal. She has a Master's from the University of Memphis and is accredited by CTAA. You can find her on Tiktok, Instagram, or YouTube at @tara.relationshipcoach.

Memphis, TN

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