Is Fighting Part of a Healthy Relationship? [Hint: It Can Be]
Is Fighting Part of a Healthy Relationship?
I sat on the couch, frustrated, disheveled, and unable to focus on anything other than the gap that had formed between us. During the six years of our relationship, my wife and I had rarely fought. But tonight, we had blown up. Our voices had raised, and then gone silent.
Quietness ensued, and it was tempting to leave it be.
But with every silent second, I was reminded of the laughter that typically filled these walls. My heart pounded on my chest, my mind a murky mess, and I was compelled to speak again, although my legs longed for the door, a release into the night.
I was convinced. There must be some good to come from this. We had a healthy relationship… fighting must just be part of that. I was frustrated, but still in love. I was angry, but still empathetic. I felt vulnerable, but I didn’t want distance (to hide). So, our voices rose again, tussled in the air, and eventually, with trust, they turned to laughter.
Is it Normal to Fight in a Relationship?
Most of us don’t like to fight in our relationships, and we’ll do anything to avoid such confrontation. It’s painful.
But whether you like it or not, your significant other and you are probably going to scuffle every once in a while. The reality is that humans are individuals. We are different from one another, each with our own perspectives, experiences, desires, and needs. And, sometimes those individual realities collide, trip, or adhere to one another. This is bound to happen, just as atoms are bound to collide according to the laws of physics.
So, yes, fighting is normal in a relationship. It will happen. In fact, Dr. John Gottman, the foremost expert and researcher on marriage states that “fighting, when it airs grievances and complaints, can be one of the healthiest things a couple can do for their relationship.”
It’s Not ‘if You Fight’, It’s ‘How You Fight’ That’s Important
In the heat of the moment, an unexpected fight can make us feel as if our relationship is doomed for divorce. However, according to Dr. Gottman, “a lasting relationship results from a couple’s ability to manage the conflicts that are inevitable in any relationship.”
And, although fighting every day would be a warning sign to me, John and his wife Julie Gottman, say that how often a couple fights does not determine the success of a marriage. Instead, they emphasize that it’s how the couple fights, and that as long they respect each other, fighting is not a threat to their relationship.
The real threat Gottman warns is the “four horsemen of the apocalypse”, which allow negativity to seep in and cause destruction to our relationships:
The Gottman’s found that couples who had the “four horsemen” in their relationship were divorced an average of 5.6 years after being married.
How to Fight More Productively in Our Relationships
Okay, so if fighting is unavoidable on occasion, and not the real threat to our relationship, how can we fight more productively in a way that’s healthy for our relationship? How can we make the best of an uncomfortable situation, so our relationships don’t just survive, but they thrive?
Here are a few tips.
1) Step Away and Let Your Heart Rate Come Down
In the heat of a battle, it’s easy to get carried away with emotion and say things we don’t mean. We might plunge ourselves into a fight, to defend ourselves. But in reality, fights are often complicated, and the best approach is not to jump directly in when we’re feeling heated.
In 1994 study, the Gottmans found that when couples took a 20-minute break in talking and allowed their heart rates to come down, they were able to dramatically change the course of their discussion and more readily access their humor and affection for one another.
For me, I prefer going for a walk. By doing so, I remove myself from the situation and expend my energy in a way that’s more healthy. It allows me to back away from the situation, reorient myself and approach it from a less reactionary position. It’s a strategy I often use to collect my thoughts during times of stress beyond just my relationships. And, I find that it prepares me for tip number two.
2) Let Down Your Guard and Listen (Practice Listening Without Being Defensive)
Instinctually, we want to raise our guard during a confrontation. Rather than listening to our partner, the instinct is to fight back. But, from this defensive position, it’s impossible to listen. We become guarded, and we reflexively jab back at the person we love.
This instinct can be hard to break. But it can also prevent our relationships from growing. To gain progress, we need to get to the root of the argument and acknowledge our partners perspective. That’s hard to do when you’re stuck on the defensive.
Sometimes, you might feel like your partner isn’t listening. If so, communicate that in a constructive way. If you’re being interrupted, it’s okay to say “please let me finish," or “I know we’re both very emotional right now, but will you please allow me to finish my thought?" And, rather than being defensive, if you feel hurt, it’s okay to say “when you say ____, that hurts my feelings.”
Just remember, the key is for both partners to feel a sense of respect for each other. The goal of a fight should not be to win, but to better understand one another. Because, to that effect, both partners win, and contribute to building a stronger more trusting relationship.
3) Embrace Your Partners Point of View
Sometimes, relationship fights are not what we think they’re about.
In my experience, fights often arise seemingly out of nowhere. Once, in an especially tumultuous fight, I found myself thinking, “are we really fighting about your weight? I think you look great!”
When these fights erupt it’s important to not judge your partner or disregard their viewpoint. Stick to the facts. Fact number one is that your partner is upset. It’s not your mission to fix that, or make it go away. But you should want to understand why. Try to step into their shoes.
To do this, both partners need to have respect for each other and feel free to express their feelings. So, if you don’t understand why your partner is upset, don’t be flippant, or dismissive. Instead, acknowledge their feelings and give them the room to speak.
One way to foster this is to provide encouragement through simple phrases. By encouraging your partner with phrases such as “uh huh”, “I see what you’re saying”, or “go on”, we communicate that their feelings are important to us. Plus, we eventually gain insight into our partner’s point of view. And, you do that, you can come closer together.
Relationships Should be Built and Not Won
Socrates, the great philosopher once said, “the secret of change is to focus all your energy, not on fighting the old, but on building the new.”
Life is constantly changing. To be successful, our relationships must acknowledge the inevitability of change, hardship, and discomfort. But with each of those inevitabilities, there’s the opportunity to build, grow, and kindle intimacy.
Our culture has a tendency to look at fighting in terms of winners and losers. Too often that carries over into our relationships. But our loved ones are not our enemies. Their emotions and desires are not there to be conquered.
So, the next time you find yourself in that situation, where your voices rise, and your heart quivers, focus on building closeness, rather than distance.