The Good Fight: How Fighting Factors Into a Healthy Relationship
Call it passion, call it bickering, call it a blowout or another attempt at ordering takeout (has a marriage ever been built on a shared love of pineapple pizza?!). But can we call verbal fighting within a romantic relationship healthy? Plus, how much fighting is too much fighting? And c’mon, sometimes we can go to bed angry, right?
Vanessa Morgan weighs in on these (and more) fighting questions…
Let’s get right to it – Is fighting healthy?
It can be. A couple is two people with two sets of needs, and fighting is a negotiation of those needs in circumstances where they don’t match up exactly. Basically, the fight is the articulation of your needs, and letting your partner know there’s a disconnect can be super healthy.
Ooh, I’m excited that all my crabby spells can now be described as an “articulation of my needs.”
Well, of course there are plenty of ways to articulate, some healthier than others. How we’re socialized – our family dynamic growing up and the culture that surrounds us – prepares us for the way we fight.
What about the inverse of that question, then… Is not fighting unhealthy? (I’m low-key judging all those seemingly perfect couples now.)
Sometimes. If not fighting boils down to conflict avoidance or a lack of intimacy, that’s not good either. Two avoidant personalities can create the illusion of a problem-free relationship, but if they’re not voicing their needs, they may also be missing out on true intimacy. I would much rather see a couple who knows how to get in and out of conflict quickly – like under five minutes, ideally, or at least within a day – than a relationship with no conflict at all.
Speaking of getting in and out of fights quickly, what about that age-old marriage advice that says you should never go to bed angry. Is there any truth to that?
Yes, there’s some wisdom to it. But authenticity is key, so an authentic repair takes precedence over a repair just because it’s bedtime.
So, say you’ve had a night’s worth of cocktails, you can barely keep your eyes open and your partner is already snoring (that’s an issue for another day). You don’t have to spring to life like good-marriage robots saying, MUST REPAIR! MUST REPAIR!
Right, right. In that case, I’d say the repair takes a back seat to getting some rest and having a clear mind and open heart. But I do think it’s still important to make your intentions known that you want to discuss the issue the next day. Say something like, “I don’t have space for this right now. I’m too exhausted or angry or [fill in the blank], but as soon as I’m ready, I’m going to come to you and we’re going to work this out.”
What about frequency of fighting? How often is too often? Is fighting every day or multiple times a day a major problem?
It’s not so much the frequency, it’s the reason for the fights that could be a problem. Constant fighting because you never resolve any underlying issues can be a red flag. But if fights regularly spring up because you’re both hot-headed and rapid processors and lack impulse control, then that’s a different scenario. Some personality types feel better after they get things out, and if that’s the agreement in the relationship and both people are good with it, then that can be healthy, even if it means fighting every day. However, if one person is not cool with it and feels emotionally bullied, that’s another red flag situation.
How do you recover from an insult tossed out in the heat of a fight?
This is going to sound dramatic, but in a certain sense, that’s a betrayal in the relationship. You’re both operating under a mutual understanding of truth and then somebody throws in some other kind of truth. That’s a small betrayal. It’s on a micro level, it’s not an affair, but it is a bit of a betrayal when you’re like, wait, I had no idea you think I have smelly breath. What?!
Oh my god, a breath comment might be worse than an affair to me.
Ok, so how do you recover? First, as the person receiving the… we’ll say, unfavorable news… avoid being retaliatory. The most disarming thing you can do is go straight to vulnerability. Say something like, “Ouch, that really hurts my feelings. I had no idea you felt that way and I need some time to process this.” You don’t want to duke it out with someone who’s angry and wants to hurt your feelings because they’re not grounded in reality. They’re likely falling back on fighting tactics they learned as a kid.
As for the person dishing the unfortunate comment, they have to fall on their sword immediately. Say, “I’m so sorry. I don’t know where that came from. That must have felt so shitty; it felt shitty to say.” Apologize immediately and recognize that you stepped outside the rules of engagement. If the insult comes up again later down the line, reassure your partner. And if there was a kernel of truth to it, find a healthier time and way to discuss.
Like, “Hey, I feel we’re in a better place now, so here’s my olive branch: some halitosis toothpaste.” Kidding!
Mmmm… maybe not. But the betrayer should take some time to reflect and ask themselves, why did I act out like that? Was my fight or flight response triggered and I just lost control or do I really feel this way? Some introspection can go a long way in helping your relationship.
If we had to boil this all down to a few rules for healthy fighting, what would they be?
Ask yourself if this is an issue that’s important and truly needs to be discussed.
- Self reflect.
Ask yourself, am I triggered? Why am I triggered? Is this an old childhood wound? Is this a frequently occurring dynamic in the relationship that annoys me? Did I have a bad day? Am I hangry?
- Be concrete.
If you decide that it’s worth the fight, be very specific about the issue. No sweeping character assassinations. For example: “It didn’t work for me that you talked the whole time at the dinner party because I felt really left out.” As opposed to: “You’re so self-absorbed! You wouldn’t even notice if I weren’t around!”
- Offer corrective behavior for the future.
In the example above, you could say, “Would you be willing to check in with me throughout the night or respond to me touching your leg as a queue to help me join the conversation?”
- Come up with a game plan.
Fighting is an opportunity to solidify the relationship. It’s a way to say, hey, that didn’t work for me. What can we do better and how can we handle this if it comes up again down the line?
And #6: The sixth rule of fight club is you don’t talk about fight club?
Um, no. But I do want to add that even though we learn to navigate conflict as kids, under the right circumstances, we can learn new tricks. So try to think of fighting as an opportunity to teach someone how to relate to you.
So #6: You can teach an old dog new tricks?
Sure, fine. But maybe don’t call your partner a dog in the heat of the moment.
Oh, good call. Thank you!