Is is Healthy for Couples to Fight?
The difference between a healthy fight and a doomed relationship.
When asked if it is good or bad for a couple to have a fight, relationship expert Esther Perel becomes animated her answer. “It’s a must. It’s obligatory. But the question is not so much the fighting, the question is really the repair.”
How we fight, what we actually fight about and how we repair the relationship are key indicators of how a couple is actually connecting. While having disagreements within any relationship is normal, there are unhealthy behaviors that can predict the breakdown of a partnership.
Where We Go Wrong
It is easy to be your best self on the good days…but how do you behave when things get hard? Your character is revealed in the most challenging moments, not the best.
Having a great relationship is based on how we treat one another in every moment, especially when life is hard. The strength of a relationship is revealed in how we care for one another even when we are hurting, even when we feel undervalued.
So where do we go wrong?
Your Fights Are Boring
Couples in long-term relationships often fight about the same subjects, over and over. You left your towel on the floor again. You didn’t clean the bathroom. You left the cap off the toothpaste. Whatever. Cue the eye roll. It is boring and it doesn’t go anywhere. These are simply topics. They are repetitive and unproductive because they aren’t the main event.
“Bickering is chronic, low-intensity warfare.” -Esther Perel
There is something greater lying under the surface of these superficial arguments. Constant complaining in your relationship is recognition of the fact that you are not getting your needs met. Stop in that moment and think, is this really about a towel?
We Don’t Say What We Mean
So much of our behavior in relationships is built the collection of our past experiences. We learn to fight by observing how our parents interacted with one another and by experiencing the dynamic of past relationships. We play out a dynamic we witnessed and try to turn our relationship into some ideal version. The fact is, you don’t know what it was like to be inside that relationship or if it is anything you would want. So instead of idealizing, spend some time figuring out what a successful relationship looks like for you.
“Vulnerability is terrifying and feels dangerous. It is not as scary, terrifying, and dangerous as getting to the end of our lives and asking what would have happened if I’d shown up?” -Brene Brown
So often, we don’t ask for what we really need in relationships out of fear. Fear of having the real conversation. And ultimately, fear that by showing up in the truth of who we are and by asking for what we really need, the relationship will end. If you can’t be yourself in your relationship, then what are you doing there anyway?
We Don’t Apologize First (or at all)
When we fight, we have the need to feel heard. So instead of showing up with empathy, looking for solutions, we are looking to win. But in a true partnership, can you really win if your partner is losing? The purpose of a relationship is growth…together as a couple and individually.
“To apologize — there is nothing weak about it. Whoever apologizes first is always the stronger one.” -Esther Perel
The truth is that it takes more strength to apologize, to be vulnerable in a moment when you feel weak and unsure. So often, we put up our defenses and lash out like a cornered animal. But does that ever get you what you truly desire?
Even when you aren’t wrong, apologize. Does it matter whose fault it is when you have hurt one another?
What Healthy Fighting Looks Like
Having bad habits in relationships is something that can be repaired. By raising our emotional intelligence and how we relate to one another, we can improve how we fight. But there is a difference between healthy and productive disagreements that lead to better understanding of one another and constant tension where one person seeks to exert control over the other.
So what is a bad fight?
Bickering: When you criticize with no apparent point. Just picking and picking at your partner. Anything can lead to a disagreement because extreme dissatisfaction is bubbling just under the surface all the time.
Personal Attacks: When you seek to belittle the other person. You put them down or attack the essence of who they are as a person. The victim walks away feeling they are not good measuring up to an expectation.
Playing the Blame Game: Pointing fingers and trying to assign blame to your partner. The simplest conversation turns into an arguement. Did you feed the dogs. No because you didn’t buy dog food. Why am I the only one who ever goes to the store?
Abusive Fighting: Abuse can take many forms, physical, mental or emotional. When someone purposely acts in a way to hurt you, that is abuse. The hallmark is manipulating your partner until they change their behavior or who they are as a person. Going out of your way to damage your partner’s sense of self is abuse. There is no justification for abuse in any relationship, ever. One time is too many.
So what is a good fight?
Getting on the Same Page: According to Perel, in intimate relationships, couples need to balance their ideal of togetherness with their need for separateness as individuals. Intimacy in a relationship means while you may need or want different things at different moments, you also need your partner to hear and understand your perspective. Fighting to provide both freedom and understanding to one another is worth it. It is a pulling away and coming back together that keeps a long-term connection strong.
Fighting to Create a Plan: When it is us vs. the problem, it is a healthy fight. When it is me vs. you it is not healthy. You don’t need to hurt one another over the circumstances life causes. Making plans on how to move forward together toward a shared vision of the future is a good thing. When you solve problems well together, this kind of fight yields a resolution and benefits both people. The end of the fight is a greater understanding and a compromise where the partnership can thrive.
The catch is this…only by being genuine, by showing up as ourselves, can we ever really have the relationship that gives us the fulfillment we desire. Instead of spending so much time on people we may have outgrown, we could just be real.
Have the conversation that scares you. Be yourself. Apologize. Ask for exactly what you need. Be vulnerable. Don’t force it. Let things unfold. Let go of the stranglehold, forcing a particular outcome. What lies on the other side of your fear is everything you desire.
If you lose, I promise, you will survive. Starting over feels so scary. But how does it feel to wake up every day in a prison of your own making?