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  • Healthy Relationship Fighting

    Arguments and conflicts happen in all relationships, but it’s not uncommon to feel as if arguing with your partner automatically means your relationship is in trouble. But arguing isn’t the problem, it’s how you argue that matters.

    In this article, we will discuss the normalcy of fighting in relationships, one of the main causes of disagreements and arguments, and how to engage in healthy conflict.

    Is it okay to argue or fight with your partner?

    The short answer is yes, although obviously it’s never okay for arguments and fights to turn physical. But conflict is part of all intimate relationships. Conflict is never fun, but in healthy relationships, it usually leads to partners feeling closer to each other and better understood by each other.

    Some couples argue once a month or every few months. Others argue much more often. Sometimes frequency of conflict depends on what’s going on in the lives of the couple. It is often normal for fighting to happen more frequently when life is stressful at work or at home. Just like there’s no average number of times a couple should have sex, there is no average number of times couples will argue. As I wrote above, the frequency of conflict isn’t nearly as important as how couples conduct themselves when it happens.

    One of the main causes of conflict

    A lot of couples, on our initial free consult call, tell me, “It feels like we fight over everything, and can never work through anything. The smallest things often become huge problems.”

    In a struggling relationship, almost anything can become a conflict. If one partner feels uncared for by the other, this will often cause them to become negative about the relationship, and partners tend to start interpreting each other more negatively. At that point, even something as routine as, “Can you pick up milk on the way home tomorrow” can lead to a huge conflict. In relationships that have gone negative, partners tend to miss 50% of the positive things the other partner is doing in the relationship. In other words, you’re seeing a lot of negative things because that’s what you expect to see.

    Exercise: For the next week, every time your partner says or does something that upsets you, find at least five explanations for it where you don’t make your partner or their intentions bad.

    How to Engage in Healthy Conflict

    Knowing how to engage in conflict and arguments effectively and safely with your partner is important. If you want to maintain a safe and healthy relationship, consider utilizing the tips below.

    Control Your Anger

    Many people flood in arguments with loved ones. Flooding is when you get so upset, so worked up, that you start to lose control of yourself. You reach a point where, frankly, you don’t really care if you hurt your partner, you just want to make your point.

    50% of the time when you are flooded, you won’t even know it. But about 90% of the time, when one partner floods, the other partner knows it’s happening.

    You’re officially flooding when your heartrate reaches 100 beats per minute. At this point, your body floods with cortisol and adrenaline and you go into fight or flight mode. You can’t hear or be receptive to anything your partner is saying. You cannot think rationally, though you will often not realize this, because when you are flooding your self-awareness is one of the first things to go.

    To fight in a healthy way, you need to know what to do when you are flooding. Essentially you must call a timeout and disengage from the argument, but there’s a specific way to do this that will not leave your partner feeling abandoned. If either you or your partner tend to flood when you argue, the process will be one of the first things I will teach you.

    Speak clearly and gently

    No matter how clearly you speak to your partner, they will still not hear you if you don’t combine it with gentleness. When couples struggle with conflict, they are often not speaking clearly or gently. I’ll you how to move from harshness to gentleness so you can get what you want—which is for your partner to hear you.

    Use “I feel” statements

    When you are upset, your partner isn’t the topic, your feelings are. So when you talk to them, talk about your feelings first, that’s what you really want them to hear: how you are affected by what they did or said.

    No cheating. Here people will frequently say, “I feel like you’re being unreasonable” or “I feel like this conversation is ridiculous.” Those are not feelings, they are opinions. Say, “I feel…” and then follow it with a word that is actually a feeling, such as hurt, misunderstood, confused, worried, scared, depressed, embarrassed, etc.” Notice I didn’t include the word “angry.” It’s not necessarily a bad thing to tell your partner you are angry, but it’s better to dig under the anger and get to the softer feeling underneath. Anger is frequently a smokescreen we use to hide more vulnerable and scary feelings. 

    Can you be angry at someone? Of course But can you be hurt at them? No. Can you be sad at someone? Nope. Can you be discouraged or or worried at someone? You cannot! Using an “I feel” statement and getting to the softer feelings under the harsher ones will be most likely to not draw a defensive response from your partner.

    You might think, “That sounds like a lot of work.” It is often said relationships require hard work. This is it.

    Tell your partner what you need them to do differently

    Many people assume their partner should already know what they need to do differently, and then get upset that they seem to not know. But it is your job to educate your partner about what you need. Assume your partner will not know anything about you that you do not tell them clearly and gently.

    Don’t tell your partner what you don’t want, or use sarcasm or exaggeration.

    “Stop being an idiot.”

    “Can you just take out the garbage for once?”

    “I can’t believe you did that.”

    Tell your partner, clearly and gently, what you need.

    “I really need you to drive more safely and carefully.”

    “It might not make sense to you, but it’s important to me that you take out the garbage regularly because I feel cared for and like I have a partner when you are consistent with that.”

    “When we are in mixed company, especially when we don’t know people, I need you to be careful about the kind of jokes you tell, as sexual jokes embarrass me in those situations.”

    Be willing to apologize and be accountable.

    It’s sometimes hard to say I’m sorry, but it’s important to apologize without blaming the other person. When apologizing, try saying exactly what you’re apologizing for instead of saying “I’m sorry for my part in this,” or “I’m sorry you misunderstood.” Don’t say I’m sorry in a way that signals to your partner that you’re still defending yourself.

    Also, tell your partner precisely what you are apologizing for. When you just say, “I’m sorry,” your partner doesn’t know whether you actually are, or whether you’re just trying to make them feel better so you can move on. In your apology, demonstrate awareness of what you did or said that was hurtful to your partner.

    Two Kinds of Work

    As I wrote above, almost everybody knows, and people often say “relationships take work.” The question is what kind of work do they take?

    It’s work to stay in a conflicted relationship where you are alone, unhappy, or constantly on edge. It’s work to keep attending to the household, the kids, the schedule, your job, when things are not going well in your closest relationship. It’s work to keep telling yourself things will get better with time. 

    It’s also work to admit you need help and go to therapy. It’s work to learn how to listen to your partner. It’s work to learn how to manage conflict more effectively so you’re both getting what you want. It’s work to allow someone else to show you that some of the things you’re currently doing in your relationship are not effective, and what you need to do instead.

    I encourage you to do the second kind of work. Relationships do take work, so do the kind of work that ultimately makes your relationship better and more fulfilling for both of you.

    If some of the points in this article feel overwhelming or unrealistic, you may need someone to help you digest these ideas and apply them in your relationship systematically. Reach out today to learn more about couples therapy and how I might be able to help you.