This question of “How do we fight fair?” is often asked in couples therapy. Below are some common questions and answers about the purpose and frequency of conflict. Ways to approach and resolve conflict that lessens emotional injury and promotes connection are also discussed.
Is fighting good for a relationship?
Fighting, or conflict, or most specifically nonviolent communication, is good in any relationship and is actually often inevitable. Though all couples encounter and handle conflict differently, it is a natural and even healthy aspect of all relationships. If there is conflict, it means couples are leaning into tough conversations and that their relationship is worth fighting for. It means that they are discussing matters that differ between them and that affect their relationship. Discussion, which sometimes takes the form of conflict, is necessary for reaching a compromise. Disagreement can also be a source of connection, especially when it’s handled in a productive way. It offers couples a chance to learn something new about their partner like what upsets them, how they feel, and what they need in moments like these to strengthen their communication moving forward.
How often should arguments happen?
It certainly depends on the couple. A really important note though: it’s not about how often you fight, but instead how you handle the fight. If you’re arguing more than once a month, even if it’s a hundred, but it is not inviting distance between partners, then the way conflict is handled is working well! However, if even after one fight there is a rupture in the relationship, that’s all it can take to lessen connection in the moment and over time.
What can happen when couples DON’T argue?
There is a risk of feelings and needs not getting communicated at all or in a way that is getting heard, which can lead to resentment over time in the relationship. That resentment can show up in various ways, but ultimately when we don’t feel seen by our partner, we tend to pull away at times and lessen the interaction with them overall. Of course, less interaction means less conflict but at the cost of less connection as well, increasing the odds of separation or divorce.
What are some rules to fight better?
Avoid the Four Horsemen. Dr. John Gottman found four ways of interacting amidst conflict that sabotaged each partner’s getting listened to. They include criticism, defensiveness, contempt (the most detrimental), and stonewalling. In order to avoid these unhelpful and often hurtful patterns of communication, using an “I statement” to express your feelings and needs is a necessity. An example might be: “I felt sad when you didn’t kiss me goodbye this morning. I’d really love it if we could give each other a hug or kiss prior to leaving for the day.” This kind of statement does several things: it lessens or eliminates the blame on the partner due to naming our own emotion and it clarifies the needs that arise from this emotion. Be careful, an I statement does not sound like “I feel like YOU…” That’s how criticism sneaks in. It is our own emotions we are aiming to share.
Kick out Contempt. Don’t put your partner down, yell, or mock them. This contempt is harmful and takes a lot longer to repair over time, especially if it is recurring. This was the pattern that Dr. Gottman found was present in most couples who divorced five years after observing them.
Repair as much as possible. Repairs are like helpful detour signs amidst a conflict that get you back to the highway of helpful communication. They are seemingly simple but powerful phrases like “I feel blamed, can you say that a different way?” or “I’m feeling really overwhelmed, can we take a 30-minute break and come back to this discussion when I’m feeling calmer?” or “We are getting off track” or” I’m starting to understand your side.” There are numerous ways to repair, but they are essential to navigating an argument in a healthy and productive way. Keep in mind that tone plays a key role in these phrases as well.
When should couples consider seeking therapy or counseling?
Sooner rather than later. So often, couples who arrive at couples therapy needed it months or years before they started. Many couples wait 7 years before coming to therapy only to be at a point where both are leaning out by then. If you’re noticing one or more of the following things, couples therapy should be considered:
1. We have conflict more often that is not getting resolved
2. I feel less close to my partner than before
3. I feel like my partner is distancing
4. Our interests are different or have changed and due to this we have had difficulty connecting lately or for a while.
5. We barely interact at all with each other aside from logistics within the household
6. After encountering a big life change – marriage, a diagnosis, welcoming a new child, a death in the family, caring for an aging parent as some examples – our lives were changed and we don’t know how to adapt.
No matter where you are in your relationship, at the start of it or 40 years in, it’s never too late to gather the tools to effectively communicate. Whether it’s preventative or in response to past hurts, there is no shame in getting an outside perspective and gaining helpful information on what makes relationships work. And couples therapy can be an empowering place to further explore what makes your relationship work.