Fighting with your partner can be stressful, demoralizing, and scary. But fighting doesn’t have to be a source of such angst, and certainly doesn’t have to weaken your relationship. There are productive ways to argue with your partner and work through challenges that can bolster your connection and leave both people feeling better.
Of course, much of the difficulty of fighting comes down to each partner’s communication style. Sometimes, it’s not what we say — but how we say it — that leaves one or both partners feeling misunderstood, angry, and emotionally abandoned. Learning how to fight in a healthy way with your partner is much more important than trying to avoid fights in the first place.
Keep in mind that there are plenty of happy couples who fight, and plenty of unhappy couples who don’t fight. It’s what happens during and after the bout that determines whether your relationship is likely to survive.
What’s Your Fighting Style?
There are many factors that influence any one individual’s fighting style. If you grew up seeing arguments between your parents, you will likely slip into the same patterns of conflict when you argue with your partner as an adult, often unconsciously. This logic also means that if you saw no fights between your parents, you may subconsciously avoid fighting with a partner, even when you are very hurt and want to express yourself. If your parents fought and repaired their relationship in a healthy way, then you’re ahead of the game.
Most fights start when one or both partners feel misunderstood. They believe their partner has in some way failed to comprehend how important something was to them. This thought makes them feel small and insecure. Then people tend to lash out with anger, which prevents their partner from seeing the vulnerability and sadness underneath.
Partners who get yelled at usually respond with yelling back, or with detachment and withdrawal. Either one can fan the flames of conflict, which often escalates the fight. While we are conditioned to have particular communication styles based on our upbringings and personalities, there are certain patterns of fighting that tend to escalate conflict across the board.
Stay Away from These Unhealthy Communication Styles
- Minimizing (“I didn’t really do anything that bad.”)
- Invalidation (“It’s totally wrong to feel angry over that!”)
- Shaming (“Here we go again with the crying…”)
- Denial of responsibility (“I only did that because you did X first!”)
- Name-calling (“What kind of idiot would do that?”)
- Kitchen sink-ing (Throwing every past argument into the current fight, even when it barely applies to the present situation: “You always do that—this is just like the time five years ago when…”)
The Importance of Empathy
Instead of these toxic styles, it is essential to use empathy when fighting with your partner. Empathy doesn’t mean you agree with your partner’s position, but rather that you can understand how your partner feels, given their unique situation, perspective, personality, and history. When you empathize with a partner, this approach instantly allows them to calm down. They can see you are trying to understand their viewpoint. This reaction can defuse the tension.
When your partner shares feelings about something you did, it is common to want to defend yourself as though you’re being attacked. If at all possible, however, try to use empathy to understand why your partner feels as they do.
Maybe you were thoughtless. Maybe something in your partner’s history or the history of the relationship is triggering them. Maybe they had a bad day and are taking it out on you. No matter what, the forces of empathy and validation can help.
Remember to Speak Up
Empathizing with your partner also doesn’t mean you can’t express your own feelings. But if you have just empathized with your partner, it is far likelier that they will empathize with you once you share your own perspective. Then you will be in a place where repair is much easier, as neither person has said something they regret and might not even have meant in the first place. Making up is much easier when partners feel heard by one another, and not shamed or dismissed.
Although fights cannot and should not be avoided, they can destroy relationships if partners use arguments as excuses to run completely roughshod over each other’s feelings. If you recognize yourself and/or your partner in the unhealthy communication styles mentioned earlier in this article, couples counseling can help you identify negative patterns, and teach you new ways of interacting.
Especially for those who did not grow up around healthy fighting in their family, counseling can be a crash course in new, productive ways to engage in honest communication and conflict. It is never too late to transform your relationships for the better. Learning to fight, with a couple’s counselor or individual therapist, using empathy and understanding is one major step toward the relationship you and your partner deserve.