Are You Fighting Dirty?

This weekend, when my honey was cleaning the office (SQUEEE, I can find more books!), he came across a piece of paper that cracked us up. This four page document – called, “Dirty Fighting Techniques” – helped save our relationship.

Dirty Fighting Techniques isn’t some Kung Fu or Kickboxing how-to guide. Nope, this is a list of twenty-two items – a quiz, if you will – that we were given by our counselor when we went to him to make us or break us as a couple back at the end of 2006.

Like everybody else, when we met it was full speed ahead – all love muffins, all the time. I’d like to think we weren’t sickening, but we probably were. We got along amazingly well. I’d never had such a peaceful relationship. That first year or so of dating, we only had like two fights. Or so I thought…

You see, I’m one of those people who thinks the shortest distance through a fight is straight up the middle. Then boom, it’s done and over with.

My husband (then boyfriend) is exactly the opposite, at least he was then. His M.O is passive aggressive and that straight up the middle technique used to make him want to hyperventilate. Plus, with passive aggressive people, it takes a lot to finish a fight, mostly because it takes a lot to start one.

Side Note: for anyone that doesn’t get the passive aggressive thing, here’s what it really means:

  • Passive aggressive people avoid conflicts at all costs. They hate it, usually due to the irrational fear that if they engage in conflict with someone, that person will leave them.
  • Yes, their anger (which has not been expressed) might come out in other ways, at other times. It will often seem to come out of the blue when it finally hits.
  • Passive aggressive individuals are often able to have conflict with others they don’t care deeply about because the fear of abandonment isn’t there.
  • Passive aggressive people internalize all the conflict in the room. Seriously. It doesn’t matter who is fighting, they take it personally. Most of the time this is because it scares the pants off them. Taking on all the conflict lets them smooth it over and control it, rather than having it go flying around in big uncontrollable waves.
  • Conflict can make a passive aggressive person feel physically ill.
  • Passive aggressive children are usually created by controlling mothers, many of whom are passive aggressive themselves.
  • Most passive aggressive people will leave the room, car, house, vicinity when the fighting breaks out because they are avoiding the conflict. This leaving is the equivalent to a fight-or-flight response. (Plus, it is seriously dirty fighting!)

So, why did we go to counseling?

Well…I’d broken up with him. Things weren’t moving forward (blah-blah-blah)…you don’t need to be bored with all the backstory. Suffice it to say that we were on the same page the first year or so, until his dad passed away. Then there was grieving time and the dogfight over my health (that was when I got blood clots, like EVERYWHERE) and we never really got back together on the You-Are-It-Forever track.

Actually, I was on it all by my lonesome, so I broke it off. This was a HUGE surprise to my honey and we decided to go to counseling before we went our separate ways.

We picked a rockstar psychologist, herein known as Counselor Guy (CG). He is the hero who got us back on the You-Are-It-Forever track where we belonged, only with much better skills to make sure we could stay there.

Counseling went something like this:

Visit One: CG reached in and found the fight we’d had fifteen months before in the hospital when my honey’s dad was in for cancer treatment. By the time CG was done with us that first visit, everybody was smarting.

Example of CG’s phrases: “’I don’t know’ might work in the real world, but in this room it means ‘I don’t want to talk about it’ and it’s unacceptable.Oof.

Visit Two: CG asked if we felt like we fought. We looked at each other and agreed that we had the occasional discussion. “Oh, no, you fight plenty,” he corrected us. “You just don’t do it out loud.” Ouch. He wanted to know if we were aware that were fighting. (That would be no.)

Visit Three: He gave us a list of Dirty Fighting Techniques and asked us to put a  checkmark next to those that we engaged in.

At one point, I was spying on glanced at my honey’s list and was dismayed to find that he’d checked almost nothing. I had been checking them as I went along and was shocked at the end to see that I engaged in like FIFTEEN of the twenty-three techniques. I’m not kidding. Apparently, I was a dirty fighting hot mess.

To look over and see my honey’s document with almost NO checks was horrifying. I was kind enough to point out a few that I thought he engaged in. (See? Dirty fighting!)

CG immediately barked at me to “Stay in your own document!” Yeah, that was embarrassing…

Turns out, the two of us approach tests differently. I mark it up as I go along and my honey reads every question and then goes back and fills in the answer. But I was still irked because he only had five items checked and I had fifteen.

Because my honey rocks, he rationalized that I might have fifteen “small ones” but “his five were whoppers.” (Like CG was gonna fall for that one.)

Within 6 visits, we’d learned how to fight well, which means keeping it clean. (Don’t worry, I’ll share with you what that means.) Within 6 months, we were engaged; we married eight months after we started counseling. We still get tuned up by the amazing CG each and every month, which helps us keep it clean.

Clean Fighting:

  • Take responsibility for your own stuff. Also known as “cleaning up your own side of the street.” I know it sucks when you’re mad and you clean up your side while the other person leaves their big cow patties steaming, but lead by example on this one. It helps when someone steps up to be the bigger person.
  • Leave the other person an “out with dignity.” This is most often achieved by understanding that there might be facts you don’t know.
  • “I” statements are always going to work better when you’re pissed off than “you” statements. And don’t be trying to cheat with crap like, “I understand that you’re a selfish bastard.”
  • Talk about the behavior in those “I” statements, not any personality disorders you think they should address.
  • Stick to the point. Don’t go throw in the kitchen sink of laments spanning back over months of why they’re a (fill in the blank).
  • Deliberately pushing buttons is REALLY dirty. The weak underbelly is to be avoided, even if you’re thinking your partner is lower than a yellow-bellied toad for siding with your mother-in-law over you.

Here is a clean fight summed up in 4 easy steps:

  1. How you feel (use an “I” statement for this)
  2. The behavior that prompted that feeling
  3. Why it’s important/the background (i.e. what button did they push)
  4. What would you want them to do differently next time

Sounds simple, doesn’t it? Go try it. It’s really hard to do when you’re mad.

Now, why would I be throwing myself under the bus like this and talking to you about Dirty Fighting Techniques?

Tomorrow is Techie Tuesday, when we discuss a piece of technology or a technical point of writing. Understanding the difference between clean and dirty fighting will give you a TON of mileage in your scenes. Great books are filled with conflict. And great characters (who learn important lessons).

If you need plausible arguments and dialog, Dirty Fighting Techniques will help you achieve this. These techniques can be applied with a friend, family member or a significant other…it doesn’t really matter. Every entry on the list I’m sharing tomorrow is guaranteed to make the other person see red. If you’re writing fiction, that anger and tension is a REALLY good thing so stay tuned tomorrow when I discuss the ones I think work the best.

What about you? Do you fight dirty or clean? Is fighting something you’ve learned to do well, or is it on the list of things that makes you hyperventilate? Enquiring minds always  want to know at More Cowbell!

Happy Monday!

About Jenny Hansen

Avid seeker of "more"...More words, more creativity, More Cowbell! An extrovert who's terribly fond of silliness. Founding blogger at Writers In The Storm ( Write on!
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39 Responses to Are You Fighting Dirty?

  1. Gene Lempp says:

    I think You wrote a great article Jen! Perfect advice for handling rough moments (and we all have them).

    Great Post 🙂


  2. Guess what I found out with my morning coffee? Eek! I’m a dirty fighter. Holy crap! I used to be passive-agressive but thanks to my hubby who is a straight forward soul and years of advocating for one of my kids I became a straight up the middle gal. Love that term BTW. I thought it was an improvement Jenny. Honest. You’ve given me lots ot ponder. I can’t wait for tomorrow. Thanks for the laughs with my morning coffee too.


    • Jenny Hansen says:

      Kate, if it makes you feel better, just about EVERYBODY is a dirty fighter. But it’s like writing – once you learn what the better way is, you literally can’t do things the old way any more.

      I’m sure you have improved but being passive aggessive is like being Catholic or Jewish. You might not practice the religion any more but you will *always* be Catholic or Jewish deep down inside. It’s just the tradition you grew up with. So, don’t be so hard on yourself!!


  3. jamilajamison says:

    Excellent article! I have to hang my head when I admit that I seem to be full-fledged passive-aggressive: conflict (no matter whose conflict) makes me want to break out in hives, and it gets me into trouble ALL the time. :/

    This list will be quite useful when it comes to diagnosing the conflict in my life, both fictional and real. Thanks for sharing!


    • Jenny Hansen says:

      Hey, Jamila…if you know it and you work on it, it will get better. You’ll have a better time with your teachers and fellow students if you learn how to manage conflict. Does it help that it lasts a shorter amount of time when you go straight up the middle?


  4. Amber West says:

    Great post!

    I am, in all honesty, a mostly clean fighter. I married someone with a rough childhood (which translates into more confrontations than you can count in adulthood) so the 4 steps you outlined are essential to getting through any disagreement. Fighting dirty turns a spark into an inferno otherwise.

    I am non-confrontational by nature, but I’ve learned the value of discussing an issue using those steps rather than answering with “I’m fine” when clearly, I’m not.

    Thanks for sharing these with everyone!


    • Jenny Hansen says:

      Good for you, Amber! You’re probably gonna be the only clean fighting commenter on this post. 🙂

      Yep, if you’ve got someone who probably grew up with dirty fighting, it takes some patience and self-discipline not to “fall in with the crowd.”


  5. Hey there, thanks for the great post. It seems like you found a real rock star to keep you on track, so few of them actually are helpful. You also point up one of the hardest things for a human being to do, yet any meaningful relationship cannot survive without it. Owning your own stuff. That is the first step, and tha hardest.
    Stay on track and you are in for a long and happy life. I applaude you. Rock on girl.



    • Jenny Hansen says:

      Thanks, Prudence! We absolutely did find a rockstar counselor (his name is Jeff) and we give him tons of credit. We were a pitiful case on the dirty fighting front.


  6. Stacy Green says:

    Yeah, I’m a dirty fighter. Not as much as I used to be, though. I know how to push my hubby’s button and don’t always accept responsibility. Twelve years of marriage has taught me a lot, and I’m better than I used to be, but I still have my moments.

    Thanks for sharing this with us!


    • Jenny Hansen says:

      Stacy, we ALL have our moments! You go girl for knowing your (sometimes) evil ways. Isn’t that the first step in AA, etc…admitting you have a problem. Perhaps we should start a Twitter hashtag for #DFA (Dirty Fighting Anonymous). 🙂


  7. Katie Doyle says:

    I am so very passive-aggressive! I had known for a while, but only because when I get mad, I internalize it and my mood immediately shifts to bad. I then proceed to refuse to admit anything is wrong. I’m glad to know that it’s a trait of the passive-aggressive person to feel the “fight or flight” for conflicts that aren’t even necessarily ours and not just me=)
    These are definitely good points to be aware of and something that I should try the next time I feel my passive-aggressive tendencies being triggered. “I feel…” is a good thing for any relationship! This post leaves me very intrigued and I look forward to tomorrow’s post!!
    Thank you so much for sharing your personal journey and the Dirty Fighting Techniques!!


    • Jenny Hansen says:

      Hi Katie! Welcome to More Cowbell. Yep, that fight or flight thing seems to be universal. Stay tuned for tomorrow. It will be interesting to see if people find as many things on the list as I did. It wasn’t that I did them all the time, but that I did them ever.


  8. Laura Drake says:

    Nice Jenny, how you threw the writing part in at the end – here I was, all into what kind of fighter I am (I’m NOT going into that here!) and the writing zinger got me. Wow, what a wonderful tension maker! Someone doesn’t fight fair .. . . Hmmm. going to put that in.
    thanks for the tip!


    • Jenny Hansen says:

      But of course. We’ve got to get those characters up a tree and shoot at them any way we can. Making them a dirty fighting hot mess (which would be only natural if they were from a dysfunctional family) is a really great way to do it!


  9. Jennie B says:

    At the beginning of my marriage I was dirty fighter and sometimes I tend to go back to some of these (i.e. not talking about the behavior) but with time I think my hubby and I have figured out how to fight. The most important thing for us is to never go to bed angry, we both get so tried we know we find the solution and it really helps us stay on good terms with each other.


    • Jenny Hansen says:

      Thanks for the comment, Jennie. And kudos to you and your hubby for understanding that relationships are a work in progress. It sounds like yours is on it’s way to being a fine art. 🙂


  10. amyshojai says:

    Reminds me of the popular play, “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change”
    And I am SOOOO gonna use this in my fictioning. Thank you!


  11. Jenny Hansen says:

    I loved that play, Amy! That was completely my relationship life for years. 🙂

    Stay tuned tomorrow because I’m tossing out ALL the dirty fighting techniques. We’re gonna be scrapping on More Cowbell!


  12. Great post! I used to be a passive peace maker when little because avoidance and silence is what I saw and learned. I mastered at giving the “nothing” answer when asked if anything was wrong.

    Then I reformed and learned how to run up the middle real dirty…like analyze someone’s weak spot and stab at it. Guilty over here. I was fighting dirty for sport. I do have tendencies to reach for both methods, but am self aware and can stop myself and choose to fight clean. Most days. 🙂


    • Jenny Hansen says:

      I shouldn’t laugh, Barbara (but I did)! My husband tries giving me the “Nothing” answer to this day…like I’m gonna settle for that one. Please.

      Anywho, if you’re reformed, you’ve been working at it so good for you! It’s crazy hard work.


  13. K.B. Owen says:

    Love this post, Jenny! You know, the clean fighting could be applied to teenagers, too. 🙂


  14. May I offer a couple of additional principles?

    1. Value the relationship above your need to be right.

    2. Don’t go to sleep at night – even once – mad at each other.

    These have worked for me for nearly 20 years now, after some failed marriages before I grew up enough to see these two principles.


    • Jenny Hansen says:

      Awwwwwww! David, I’m doing follow-up posts to all this (of course…this IS More Cowbell after all) and I think I’ll have to include these two on that. There’s some interesting new stats on the “don’t go to bed mad” tip.


  15. Jillian Dodd - Glitter, Bliss and Perfect Chaos says:

    It’s so hard when you’re really mad at someone to stop and think about how to phrase a sentence as not to offend or attack the person you love, who made you so mad in the first place. I find it best to focus on how I feel. When my kids were little, I read the best book. It was called the 10 greatest gifts I can give my children. Although I bought it when my daughter was having huge tantrums, I learned so incredibly much about taking the high road in situations like these, rather than the low road of fighting dirty. I reread it every year, just to remind myself and as my kids grow and change. It’s helped me a ton in all my relationships. Great post and I’m looking forward to reading tomorrows. My WIP has a very mean girl in it that fights dirty, so I can’t wait to read it!!


  16. drimhof says:

    Oh crap Sis… I am a dirty fighter… I walk out of a fight because I can’t deal with the conflict… shoot. Does CG have a twin in Portland?


    • Jenny Hansen says:

      Of course CG has twins! Go to and check out Portland. Usually if they’ve taken the time to learn EMDR, they’re up on Dirty Fighting.

      Nine times out of ten, Dysfunctional family = Dirty Fighter…just sayin! Don’t be so hard on yourself. You learned from two pros.


  17. I’m married to a passive agressive guy. To be fair he has stopped a lot of the behaviours but we came very close to losing one another because he couldn’t come out and say what was bothering him. Instead he would ‘punish’ me and then when I would catch on and ask what was wrong he would say ‘you should know’. That used to drive me nuts and then I would ask the rhetorical question, “I thought I was the woman in this relationship?”

    He and his brother learned this behavior from his mom. His brother wasn’t smart enough to change before losing his wife in divorce. Thank God Paul is a better man and was willing to work on our marriage with me because lord knows I’m far from perfect. In fact I’m controlling and somewhat bitchy on occasion although I try to warn people ahead of time if I feel it coming on.

    We’ve had good times but it hasn’t all been a bed of roses. What has kept us going? Love, communication, respect, the willingness to compromise and, above all, commitment even when the times are tough.

    We’ll be married 29 years in September. I guess we’re doing something right.


  18. Catie Rhodes says:

    I read this with quite a bit of interest. My husband and I spent many, many years arguing. Over the last few years, I’ve made some big changes in how I approach things.

    A lot of the key to avoiding conflict–or at least conflict that ends up making zero sense–is keeping my side of the street clean. Another thing is to remember that my husband is doing the best he can. We all bring baggage into just about every decision we make. Trying to understand what he’s bringing to the discussion helps.

    Another thing I’ve learned to do is analyze where my anger comes from. Is it based in fear? If so, of what? Is it based in pride? What am I too proud to concede to? Sometimes understanding what made me angry helps me decide how I want to react.

    Most of the time, though, what really works for me is asking myself this question: Is arguing really what you want to spend irreplaceable minutes of your life doing? Most of the time, the answer is no.

    Thanks for the thought provoking post.


  19. I used to fight dirty all the time (I used to be passive aggressive to the T). I still have that tendency to do it but I try to open up more. I mean, if I don’t let it out, it’ll consume me. Then, I realized that I blow up less the more I release it the moment I feel it. That’s when I learned that I need to find a way to express my feelings. So, as you can see, there is hope for passive-aggressives!


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  22. Okay, am I really late to the party? Or is this a re-run? lol

    But seriously, thank you Jenny. There’s some really great info there for all of us!


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