Have you ever been in a relationship where fighting occurs frequently? Or not at all? Do you think that having fights means a relationship is doomed, or no fighting means you’ve found your soul mate? Well, fighting done in a healthy way is actually important for relationship success.
The “Classic” Relational Patterns:
In therapy with clients and in relationships in my personal life I have been confronted with couples who say how great their relationships are because fighting never happens. Couples claim that they always agree. They never argue or raise their voices. It’s like they are living euphorically in utopia. For the skeptics out there, like me, those people come across as somewhat annoying. Am I right? It’s equivalent to only displaying the pictures on Facebook in which you look your best or are doing something unique? As if to imply that you always look amazing and do interesting activities everyday! That’s all well and good, except it’s not all real, all the time.
What do these pattern look like?:
I’ve also been privy to relationships where couples constantly fight. They disagree about disagreeing. It’s like one partner gets into a habit of disagreeing that it’s hard to not disagree. Those relationships exist, too.
For the couple who never fights, their issue might be that they are worried one partner will leave, or not like them once they show their “true colors.” For the couple who fights constantly, the words “compromise” or “forgiveness” might not be in their vocabulary. Neither the blissful couples, nor the conflictual couples are able to show genuine vulnerability, or be emotionally naked with one another for fear of embarrassment or retribution.
The common denominator in both sets of relational patterns is that neither type of couple is actually getting to the crux of the issue. Their ways of interacting begin to define their relationships. These relationships will not grow.
“The Dishwasher Argument:”
A classic pattern of fighting I have seen in therapy and in my own relationship is what I like to call the “dishwasher argument.” It’s when couples have the same fight over and over again about something that on the outside seems insignificant. In my relationship, doing the dishes is a big point of contention. My partner and I find ourselves in arguments about who is going to do the dishes and who did or didn’t do them the day before. The important reflection to have is that the real issue is not about the dishes… it’s about the feelings of disrespect, lack of accountability, or the concept of fairness that is much harder to talk about than doing the dishes. Talking about feeling disrespect takes finesse and requires vulnerability that oftentimes individuals do not want to face.
I have resolved to share my feelings much more readily and encourage my partner to do the same, which often leads to fighting. But fighting with emotion, when mutual care for the sustenance of the relationship is at the forefront, is key. When fighting occurs that could be classified as “the dishwasher argument” I encourage clients to ask themselves and their partner: What is this really about? So often we fight about the content of the problem, rather than by processing the feeling underneath it. In order for fighting to be healthy, feelings need to surface and shed light on how individuals can create intimacy through arguments.
Can “Make-Up Sex” make up for fighting?:
The concept of “make-up” sex has been socially prescribed as an acceptable way of dealing with the aftermath of a fight. While sex is important to cultivate intimacy, if it is used to avoid getting at the root of feelings it becomes problematic. It tends to be a great way to get instant gratification; but, it actually avoids the real issue. Before long couples will be right back where they started – in a “dishwasher argument.” So, what are some ways to resolve inevitable fights that won’t lead to avoidance of an issue altogether?
How to fight fair?:
The following ten strategies provide an important perspective on ways to enter, stay in, and survive a fair fight:
- Use “I” statements rather than “you” statements – “I feel hurt” rather than “you always hurt me.”
- Resist name calling – As much as we all tend to revert back to kindergarten language when our emotions are raw, name calling gets us nowhere. Rather than “you’re an ass!” you can get the same point across by saying “That’s mean.”
- Start a fight with something positive. “I really appreciate you for _______. When ______ happens, it makes me feel __________.”
- Stay in the fighting “arena” – no matter how difficult the situation may be… the longer you stay with it, the more intimacy will be created and the higher likelihood for a better outcome to result.
- Taking breaks are okay – like in any fighting sport, breaks are important, as long as you come back to the “ring.” Saying to your partner: “Let’s take a fifteen-minute break and then come back to the issue” will allow you time to process your feelings, think about what you want to say, and give your partner time to do the same.
- Fight in person, not over phone or texting. I have been guilty of this myself, but have found that no heated issue can be resolved well virtually. The very idea of looking your loved one in the eye and listening face-to-face will set you up for success in conflict resolution.
- Try fighting while holding hands – it’s incredibly hard. The act of holding hands is very intimate. It’s a real test of a couple’s relationship stamina if they can share raw, vulnerable feelings while also holding hands. Touching is likely to reduce tension and open up the opportunity for reasonable and non-reactionary reflection.
- Placing Blame – Each person in the partnership is accountable for their role in the fight. Placing blame will not help ease any conflict. Taking mutual responsibility is key.
- No violence – This seems like a no-brainer, but touching out of anger or throwing objects around you will only “stoke the fire” and will likely cause physical and emotional hurt.
- Process the Fight – No one likes to process what they don’t enjoy, but it’s very important. Take a few minutes and acknowledge what each person could have done better. Identify what each person will try to do differently next time.