Early on in the Veltkamps' marriage, most discussions about money led Liana and Jeremy into a full-blown yelling match. The young San Ramon couple -- who each work two jobs to support their family -- would talk over each other, often having the same frustrating argument.

Worst of all, nothing ever got resolved.

That all changed when the Veltkamps learned how to fight fair using practical, speaker-listener exercises. They took turns and, when necessary, timeouts.

"We learned to put our pride aside and just listen to each other," Liana says.

Turns out, fighting can be great for relationships -- if you fight clean. A 2011 study in Psychological Science revealed that the happiest couples argue in tandem with their partner, using words like "we" to spark compromise. (Meanwhile, another study by researchers at the University of Utah found that 93 percent of couples who fight dirty will be divorced within 10 years.)

The key to fighting fair is learning how to diffuse anger and, more important, increase empathy, says Les Parrott, clinical psychologist and author with his wife, Leslie, a marriage and family therapist, of the new book, "The Good Fight: How Conflict Can Bring You Closer" (Worthy; 190 pages). According to Les Parrott, the majority of marital spats would be resolved if all the couple did was accurately see the issue from the other's perspective.


Advertisement

The Parrotts, founders of the Center for Relationship Development at Seattle Pacific University, are on a national tour to teach couples the principles of a fair fight, or what they call C.O.R.E.: Cooperation, Ownership, Respect and Empathy. Their "Fight Night" stops Sept. 12 at Cornerstone Fellowship in Livermore. Tickets are available at www.lesandleslie.com. The website also features more than 1,000 free videos that help answer relationship questions.

Les and Leslie Parrott are the authors of the new book, "The Good Fight: How Conflict Can Bring You Closer." The relationship experts will
Les and Leslie Parrott are the authors of the new book, "The Good Fight: How Conflict Can Bring You Closer." The relationship experts will present their tips for fighting fair in Livermore on Sept. 12. (Courtesy of Les Parrott)

After more than 25 years researching relationships, Les Parrott says two of the biggest mistakes couples make in how they handle conflict is putting all of their energy into blaming and trying to get their points across. "Seek first," he urges. "Before you try to talk and prove your point, just listen."

That type of empathy was critical for Livermore's Donny and Tehani Hodge, who have been married for almost 13 years. Like many couples, the Hodges' hot-button issue was their relatives, and their fights "would get nasty, with name-calling," Tehani recalls, whenever she would turn to Donny for support following a disagreement she had with a family member.

"He would say something else that was hurtful, or he would try to fix it, when all I wanted him to do was listen and understand my feelings," she says. The Hodges used "I Love You More," a six-session, small group guide and DVD by the Parrotts to help them rekindle their mutual respect.

"We learned not to say something in the heat of the moment that you're going to regret and that there is a difference between reacting and responding," Tehani says. "It's better to take a deep breath and walk away than say something hurtful or in a tone that is hurtful."

But, good communication is only the beginning of healthy conflict resolution, explains Gal Szekely, a marriage and family therapist and founder of The Couples Center, which serves couples in Palo Alto, Berkeley and Marin County. It is the underlying emotional pattern and destructive cycle of what he calls "high-conflict couples" that need to be addressed.

"Conflict is like an iceberg," Szekely says. "Ten percent of it is above water, and that's what the couple sees and fights about." His example: Asking one's spouse to wash the dishes, only to come home and see them still stacked in the sink. "But, 90 percent is below water. That's what they don't see or address. Couples should ask themselves, 'What's really upsetting you?' Is it that you feel you can't trust or count on your partner? Ninety percent is the counting on. Ten percent is the dishes."

Ultimately, he explains, if you understand your spouse and what is important to him or her, you are going to feel much more connected.

That's what worked for the Veltkamps. For their daughter's recent birthday, Liana wanted to give the 5-year-old a show-stopping "Frozen" party theme -- from the cake and decorations to the costume and princess appearances. Jeremy was nervous about the cost.

"Do we really need to go all out and get everything? There have to be some discounts or something we can cross off the list," he says.

So, they came together. Instead of buying the items and then informing her husband about them, Liana discussed purchases with Jeremy and ways to cut costs. They decided to enlist crafty friends to design some banners and signs.

"I had to not buy certain (party) things and be OK with that," Liana says.

The reward was that she and Jeremy resolved their conflict without animosity or elevated voices, which, when practiced over and over, has brought them closer together, they say.

"When you sit down and start talking and revealing what's really deep in your heart, you develop a deep respect for one another," Liana says.

A final tip? Even though it would appear that fair fights involve compromise, the Veltkamps never use that word.

"Our therapist told us not to say it," she says. "When a person says, 'I've compromised,' a lot of times it feels like their needs have taken a back seat."

  • Cooperation. Good fighters fight for a win-win. They use "we" statements and when a solution for both sides can't be reached, they agree to disagree.

  • Ownership. Good fighters own their piece of the pie. Instead of playing the blame game, they take responsibility and admit when they are wrong.

  • Respect. Good fighters steer clear of belittling -- from sarcastic remarks to eye-rolling. Respect keeps contempt at bay and creates safety within the relationship.

  • Empathy. Good fighters step into each other's shoes. Research shows that 90 percent of marital spats can be resolved if all the couple does is accurately see the issue from the other's perspective.

    -- J. Yadegaran, Staff

    bay area "fight night"

    On Sept. 12, marital experts Les and Leslie Parrott, founders of the Center for Relationship Development at Seattle Pacific University, are coming to the Bay Area to teach couples how to fight fair using research-proven, practical tips. The event starts at 7 p.m. at Cornerstone Fellowship, 348 N. Canyons Parkway, Livermore. Tickets: $35, couples; $25, singles. www.lesandleslie.com.