What Every Couple Needs to Know About Fighting

... especially the 3 things to do when a fight is over.

Posted Feb 05, 2010

Source: wavebreakmedia/Shutterstock

As a relationship expert, I am often asked questions by the media about couples and fighting. I guess fights are the times when our relationships with those we love come into sharp focus and hit us right between the eyes, so to speak. They are not fun! And lots of couples seek help simply to stop escalating the arguments.

People ask me, "Do happy couples fight?" or "Is it okay to fight?" I tell them that all the research says that happy couples do fight, and that having fights is normal and healthy. In fact, if you never fight, it usually means that you are being very careful indeed and that isn't healthy for any relationship. It's hard to dance together when you are always watching where you put your feet. Many professionals have focused on reducing fights between lovers while typically ignoring other key relationship issues, like emotional distance, which is at least as toxic as recurring arguments.

So then the next question is: Shouldn't we then try to have rules for fighting? In other words, should we learn to "fight fair"? For me, this is like saying when the emotional music is fast and hot and we are in the middle of a terrible tango with our partner, can't we carry a little set of rules around in our hand we can consult that will tell us where to put our feet? I know I can't—and the evidence is that even happy couples that aren't relationship experts can't, either. In fact, I am allergic to the idea of learning rules like "fighting fair." It sets us all up for failure.

As one of my clients told me, "All these lists of skills and advice—it's like being in free fall over a cliff and trying to read a set of instructions about how to pull your parachute cord on the way down. Can't do it!" Even fellow therapists tell me that they cannot use their own honed communication skills at key difficult moments with their partner. Wrong channel, wrong time.

So when I go on the Internet and read, say, that the first rule of "fighting fair" is, "Stay calm!" I start to laugh. If you're fighting, this advice is already too late! The next common rule is, "Be specific and reasonable." When the fear center of my brain is glowing red, my cortex, the seat of deliberate reasoning, is most often not on line. Besides, we often fight just to figure out what the heck is upsetting us. I see couples fighting about chores—"You said you would fix the plug on Saturday and you didn't do it till Sunday." But in fact, the fight is really about key emotional issues, like, "Can I depend on you and do my feelings matter to you?"

The third rule in Fighting Fair is that if all else fails, take a "time out." Really? So when I am upset, it's going to help if you turn away and turn me off? I think that for many of us this would just trigger higher levels of alarm and resentment. Aren't we all just a little threatened by our loved one being able to turn and walk away, as if we didn't matter at all? In my practice, the only people who can use "time outs" are those who have very mild fights and tons of love between them—that is, those who don't really need it.

When I think of the hundreds of couples I have seen over the years, it seems to me that all we can reasonably do when the tsunami of upset hits is to avoid a few moves that can turn a fight into a war. When, in our desire to be heard or to "win," we reach for labels and threats, we can scare the Hell out of our partner. This partner then ups the ante or runs and hides, and then we are all by ourselves.

When a client in my office smacks her partner with the labels "loser" or "evil bastard," I know we are in for a long hard struggle. Usually we say these things because we think we are having no impact. The trouble is, this kind of label wounds your partner. In fact, our brain registers this kind of hostile criticism in the same area as it does physical pain. Your partner also becomes so busy dealing with this pain that he or she cannot listen to you at all.

Threats also backfire. I tell couples, "It's like you want to rearrange your home, your relationship, so you toss a grenade into the living room. It does change things! But..." As one of my clients told me, "When she uses the D word, divorce, it's like I have a pen knife and she has a nuclear weapon. I just freeze up. I can't talk at all."

So what does work? Well, what we know about "star" couples is that after the fight is over, they go and repair the rift between them. This makes all the difference. The old idea that bad feelings will just fade over time is just that—an old idea. Your brain actually holds onto danger signals and negative emotions just to try to protect you and help you avoid them in the future.

So the best advice of all about fighting is:

  • Reach for your courage, and your partner, and make up!
  • Soothe those hurt feelings.
  • Help each other to feel safe again.

It also helps to talk more about your emotions than about your partner's behavior. You can both assume, if you just had a serious fight, that you scared the Hell out of each other. When you then show your partner that you do care about his or her feelings, you open the door to what I call a Hold Me Tight conversation. And when you can shape this kind of connection, our research says, you can heal hurts and create a love that lasts.