The Good News About Fighting with a Romantic Partner
A lovers’ quarrel can be reassuring.
Posted Aug 07, 2019 | Reviewed by Devon Frye
Quarrels with partners can be so painful that we might want to avoid them at all costs. But an argument can be a way of coping with insecurities: A good fight reassures some of us that our partner believes the relationship is worth fighting for.
When we are too quick to give in—to give up the fight, so to speak—it might seem like we are not that into the relationship. After all, anyone can put up with a nuisance for a short period of time. If we aren’t planning on sticking around, why do the work to fix it?
When we are committed, we tend to approach relationship conflicts as if we will have to endure the troublesome issues for years to come. Problems become more serious when we think of having to live with them for the rest of our lives. If we are planning for an long-term relationship, we are more likely to fight for our point of view, thus laying the groundwork for a mutually beneficial resolution.
Relationship Insecurity Quarrels
The confrontation might be about a legitimate grievance, but the hidden motivation for instigating the quarrel is to get reassurance that our partner cares enough to argue with us
Granted, it is ultimately more desirable to be emotionally honest, express our fear, and give our partner the opportunity to be comforting. But already feeling insecure, it may feel too scary to expose the fear.
Ann and Alex
Ann and Alex have been dating for a year. When Alex is at work, he is not supposed to be on his cell phone, but he keeps it with him and occasionally checks it. Ann feels insecure about the long hours during which Alex is at work and does not communicate with her. Unable to openly express her fears, she accuses him via text, “You don’t miss me!”
Alex immediately feels guilty, like he has failed Ann and doesn’t know how to be emotionally available to his partner. Defending against these painful feelings, he angrily texts back, “You’re right! I’m at work. I’m not thinking about you.” Although this fight doesn’t resolve the problem, Ann immediately feels less vulnerable having engaged Alex in this text fight. For the time being, she feels less insecure: "At least he texted me.”
An End Run Around Vulnerability
Getting angry allows people to feel less vulnerable. When we are angry, our heart rate accelerates, our blood pressure rises, and our breathing becomes more rapid. Blood flows to our limbs, giving us a feeling of strength, as our attention narrows focusing on the target of our anger. Getting angry immediately makes us feel stronger.
Picking a fight, we avoid exposing our vulnerability while experiencing ourselves as having an immediate impact on our partner. When our partner responds with anger, we surreptitiously receive reassurance that our partner is invested in the relationship. They are willing to engage in the struggle to assure the relationship works for them, too. In this way, the partner reassures us of their commitment to the relationship without our having to expose our insecurities.
Mae and Dan
Mae was out of town on business on Dan’s first day at a new job. As soon as she awoke, she called to wish him, “Good luck!” Dan angrily responded, “How could you wait until noon to call me on my first day?” He had been at work since 8 a.m. and had suffered for hours fearing she forgot. Instead of expressing his fear and exposing his vulnerability, he attacked her for being uncaring.
Mae pointed out that she was in a different time zone and apologized, though she didn’t feel she had much to apologize for; she had called him first thing when she awoke. Having experienced her parents’ fights as leading to the dissolution of their marriage, Mae avoids fighting with Dan. When he is upset, she tries to appease him, smoothing over their differences. As she outwardly sympathizes with his reactions, she quietly nurtures a belief that they are unreasonable, causing her to feel emotionally distant.
Over the ensuing months, Dan repeatedly brought up the noon call as evidence of Mae’s neglect. Thinking she was never going to hear the end of it, Mae finally expressed her anger, explaining that she felt she was being unjustly accused and didn’t want to hear about it again.
Mae was surprised to find that after a brief surge in his anger, Dan calmed down. Less anxious about the relationship, he was able to hear what she was saying to him and began to empathize with her position. Reassured, he was able to put himself in her shoes.
Some Pointers for a Good Fight
- Speak up. When we disagree with our partner, we must say so. Not speaking up leaves the other person feeling anxious without knowing why and creates a breeding ground for resentment.
- Validate. No matter how unreasonable we find our partner’s perspective, it is important to remember that it is based on their experience and therefore important for us to hear—we don’t need to agree in order to validate.
- Be mindful. After a fight, taking time to consider what we learned about our partner and ourselves helps solidify gains and reminds us that the conflict was productive.
Fighting for the Love
When feeling vulnerable in a relationship, some folks become combative to manage their fears. When their combativeness is met with their partner’s passivity, it can feel like their partner is withdrawing from the relationship. When their partner becomes equally combative, it can seem like they are willing to fight for the relationship—to make it a relationship that can work for them in the long run. It can feel like a profession of love.