What's the worst fight couples have? Depending on your history with fights in relationships, the question might send a shiver up your spine. I solicited relationship experts of all stripes to reveal the most harrowing fight they commonly hear couples have — that argument that ends the relationship, or at least damages it nearly beyond repair. One conclusion: People say horrible things to each other in fights. Another: There are ways to avoid ever having such destructive fights to begin with. In terms of subject matter, the experts didn't cite one particular awful fight as most typical, but rather each expert related a different spat they'd heard over and over that clients wish they'd never had. However, though the topic may have varied, the theme was the same: These brawls were down-and-dirty, rough, inconsiderate — and brutal.
None of these squabbles were of the ilk I'd file under "healthy fights," but rather came from places of mutual disrespect, anger, fear, resentment and genuine lack of support for one another, rife with insults, judgment and attempts to control one's partner. It doesn't take a brain scientist to know that a quarrel like that isn't going to end well.
The fights couples have that they wish they could go back in time and take back — the doozies, the ones that cause near-irrevocable fissures or linger in the relationship indefinitely — are the ones we'd all like to avoid in our romantic relationships. The good news: They are avoidable, as long as you stay on top of issues and don't let your relationship spiral out of control to begin with.
My favorite response was short and sweet, from Joan Fradella, a Florida Supreme Court certified family mediator: "The one fight couples wish they never had is the one that preceded the appointment with either an attorney or with me." Preach.
1. The Sex Fight
This one should be a no-brainer, but it turns out that couples who fight during or immediately after sex come to regret it (and yes, as usual, pun intended). "Avoid all arguments, and never say anything even vaguely critical during or immediately after lovemaking," say authors Patricia Johnson and Mark Michaels. The married couple have written several books about sex and love, including Designer Relationships: A Guide to Happy Monogamy, Positive Polyamory, and Optimistic Open Relationships , and are adamant about barring fights from the bedroom. "Most people are in a highly vulnerable state when they’re turned on and after a sexual encounter," they say. As such, a little tact and gentleness go a long way.
"If something is not working for you in the moment, and certainly if an activity is causing you any discomfort, it is good to speak out," they advise. That said, steer clear from any language that implies blame or judgment. Don't say, “Why are you doing that? It feels awful," Michaels and Johnson recommend. Instead, try something more effective, such as, "I’m not sure I love that. Could you try this instead?" Unless there is an immediate need to say something, though, it's best to put a pin in it and address your concern at a later date. "If something happens during sex and you feel the need to discuss it, kindness (not to mention enlightened self-interest) often dictates that you should save the conversation for later," Johnson and Michaels say. It's kind to bring up hard things, especially sex-related issues, outside of the bedroom; and it's in one's own best interest to do so, as there's a better chance it'll lead to a rational discussion — not a fight.
Michaels and Johnson put a spin on the old adage of “Don’t go to bed angry”: They suggest that you take it literally, and never have an argument in bed. Putting fights to sleep before you put yourself to sleep "is a somewhat controversial bit of conventional wisdom, though some recent research tends to support the idea," they say. If you have to have a difficult conversation with your partner, try to do so at a time and in a place that "will minimize their potential for disrupting your connection" — not just before it's time to snuggle. "While it may not be humanly possible to avoid ever going to bed angry, doing your best to minimize conflict in advance of sleep is kindness in action," they say. So try not to have a fight just before bedtime, and "dedicate a space for your disagreements," they say.
How To Avoid It:
I'm just going to quote Johnson and Michaels here, because what they have to say on this is so brilliant.
"If you’re getting ready for bed and are having an argument or feel one brewing, choose to take the discussion into that dedicated space and wait until things have cooled down before calling it a night. Most couples have most of their sex in bed, and it’s difficult enough to eroticize your shared sleeping space. Thus, it’s a good idea to refrain from creating an association between your bed and conflict. Being kind is not an abstraction; it’s all about making choices that demonstrate your esteem for your partner and send the message that, even if you’re furious about something, your anger in no way diminishes your regard."
Mic down, Michaels and Johnson.
2. The Fiscal Infidelity Fight
"Money is ... the number one topic that couples fight over (with sex coming in second)," says relationship coach and psychic medium Cindi Sansone-Braff, author of Why Good People Can't Leave Bad Relationships. Money fights, or what Sansone-Braff calls "fiscal infidelity," happens when "one partner learns the other partner has cheated on them in monetary matters." The cause changes, but the problem is always the same: "Whether this person is guilty of lying about how much money he or she makes, claiming he or she can't find work, gambling, spending too much, abusing drugs or helping out other family members without his or her partner's consent doesn't matter," says Sansone-Braff. "The bottom line is that fiscal infidelity causes people to feel that they have been deceived and betrayed."
How To Avoid It:
It all depends on how deep the fiscal betrayal goes. "The extent of financial ruin, and the amount of lying and manipulation employed to cover up the financial sinkhole, can and will determine whether these actions become a deal breaker," Sansone-Braff says. "Additionally, If money had been a major issue in either or both of the partners' parents' marriages or relationships, then this can really trigger a 'War of the Roses' scenario that can either destroy a relationship — or rebuild it back up from a more honest and stable foundation of pecuniary transparency and trust."
In other words, this fight offers a chance for healing if it's played right. If it's an ongoing fight that gets dragged out for a ride every month or two, it's obviously not healthy and will lead nowhere. But if you and your partner see this conflict as an opportunity to work on fundamental financial issues and invite each other to have more truthful conversations as a result, the fight could lead to harmony in the end.
3. The Mudslinging Fight
Just. Don't. Do it. This fight is beyond immature, and it can only lead to a world of misery and regret. If "one partner delivers insults about the other partner's looks, weight or intelligence because they are angry," says couples specialist Karen Greenhouse, beware: This type of insult "never goes away." Even if you're tempted to spit such venom, take a deep breath and hit the pause button on yourself. "Words spoken in a fight that tear at the core of another person's body are never forgotten," says Greenhouse. "This is a boundary violation every couple needs to stay away from."
How To Avoid It
If an gibe slips out, it's best to catch it immediately, apologize and explain that whatever you said was out of anger and not based in truth. But be careful — some things can't be unsaid, and too many of these types of situations will lead to irreversible damage. When someone doesn't feel heard and validated, an argument is likely on the horizon, says relationship trainer Daniel Amis. Next can come "name-calling, uncaring or negative behavior and body language, and [someone] saying something they'll later regret," Amis says. Remember, he says, "words have power. And these words can linger into the relationship much longer than one anticipates, regardless if there was an apology or not."
Communication is key here, which should be a surprise to exactly no one, as it's one of the most vital components of every relationship, romantic or otherwise. "To avoid this type of communication breakdown," says Amis, "it's important for a couple to have an open line of communication and listen to what their partner wants — and what they generally say or voice a complaint about."
To avoid voicing insults in the first place, commit yourself to not dissing your partner in anger. "If an argument happens at some point, the couple should fight fair (which means no name-calling or badmouthing, or minimizing the other person's feelings), and they should show ... respect by not interrupting their partner and allowing them the time to speak," Amis says. Get in and out of an argument as quickly as possible, he adds. "Resolving things quickly and efficiently is the key," he says.
4. The Fight About Your Partner's Family
"As we all know, it's all right to talk about our own parents, but when our partner calls them names to our face and insults [them], even if we believe it's true, it's a wound in the coupleship that never goes away," says Greenhouse. "Why? Because our partner has trespassed a sacred boundary called, 'Don't ever insult my parents.'" Yes, being in a couple means sharing one's opinion, but there are some things best left unsaid. "Same goes for when a partner insults another partner's children from a previous marriage," Greenhouse says. "This is a boundary violation between couples that they need to learn to stay away from."
How To Avoid It:
"It is difficult to understand the complexities of another family," says Ruth Nemzoff, author of Don't Roll Your Eyes: Making In-Laws into Family. "These relationships have a long complex history." So let your mother-in-law be your mother-in-law, and stay out of it — just as you'd hope your partner would do for you. Otherwise, "you risk future support in crises," Nemzoff says. "View your in-law family as a culture unto itself: different, but not necessarily bad." And remain open-minded. "Approach with curiosity and take your cues from your spouse," she advises.
5. The Fight About Control
"I find that one of the biggest fights is caused because one partner is a very controlling person," says relationship coach Melinda Carver. "The partner wants to control everything, from when to set the alarm clock [and ] where to go to dinner [to] how many times to have sex." First off, quick editorial aside: Alarm bells! If you're with someone who wants to control everything down to the last minute detail, head for the hills. And if — gasp — you're the controlling one, check yourself before you wreck yourself. "The controlling partner badgers and harasses the other partner into the behavior or activity that they want," she says. "When the other partner decides to call out the controlling partner, then the fight may go on for days."
Think of such a thing as relationship poison. "The manipulative, controlling partner will just bully the other partner relentlessly, until both are exhausted," Carver says. "That is when the other partner has to decide if they want to remain in this relationship — or leave."
How To Avoid It:
Controlling girlfriends and wives, take note: "For the manipulative, controlling partner, the only way to begin moving out of this behavior pattern is to ... stop it as often as possible," Carver says. For starters, "I recommend that they allow the other partner to choose the activities and menus for their day off," she says.
And a little visualization goes a long way. "I also ask the controlling partner to really decide if they want this partner in their life," she says. "They usually say yes. I then ask them to imagine their partner leaving them due to their controlling behavior." This type of conceptualization can put autocratic tendencies into perspective. "Providing them goals to work toward in behavior adjustment, as well as [reminding them of] their own need to keep the relationship, gently pushes them to modify and stop their controlling tendencies," says Carver.
6. The Fight About Household Chores
File this under the same category as fights about control: "It sounds like a minor squabble, but in working with hundreds of couples, we found one of the most frustrating fights couples have is [about] how to load the dishwasher," say couples therapists Jon and Beverly Meyerson, creators of the adorably-titled relationship website Power Snuggles. (Their tagline? "Turning power struggles into power snuggles." Does it get any cuter than that?!) "There’s a reason for this," say the married couple. "Most couples’ fights concern one partner wanting to control the other."
Derivative of control-based fights, "the analytical ... partner believes they know the perfect way to get clean dishes," the Meyersons say. "The over-burdened loader ... believes there is not enough time to spend loading the dishwasher" to achieve what their partner might term the "right" way. "This continuing scenario, with two people attacking the other’s methods, can lead to hurt feelings and a lot of resentment," they say.
How To Avoid It:
Four simple words: Live and let live. Don't try to control your partner, the Meyersons say: "Once couples can find a solution to this issue, other disputes are more easily handled, because all disputes concern who has control over a situation."
7. The Fight That Has Nothing To Do With The Situation At Hand
Ah, this old classic. This oldie but goodie (oldie but baddie?) is a exceedingly common phenomenon for couples, especially those who have been together for long enough that underlying issues build up and fester. "What I hear most as the type of fight couples regret is the one where they go too far in saying all the built-up thoughts they’ve had," says licensed clinical social worker Janet Zinn. This is a case of stale resentments coming out sideways. "Perhaps they both feel their partner doesn’t listen, but they end up saying how bad sex is, with specifics," Zinn says. Well, yes: That would be an ugly fight.
How To Avoid It:
"Learn to listen to each other," Zinn suggests. There are even exercises to help you do this. "One is for one person to state a problem, and when they are done, the other must repeat what he or she heard." Like a game of telephone, the pair may find that there's a disconnect between what one person says and what they other hears. "This gets repeated again and again, until they find ways to be understood by the other," she says.
"The wife may say, 'I hate when you don’t put the cap back on the toothpaste.' Then [the husband] may say, 'So you think I’m a slob.' She repeats, but differently, 'Could you please put the cap back on the toothpaste in the morning? It’s nice when things are complete and I can move on with my day.' He may say, 'You’re kidding me, that could ruin your day?' 'No, not at all,' she says, 'I just like it when you put the cap back on.' 'OK, I’ll put the cap on.' Done. Then he speaks of an issue he has, and they go on until she can hear him."
This leads to a couple seeing "how differently they understand things," says Zinn. If I may add one last thought: If the problem you need to state to your partner is that it drives you crazy that he never puts the cap back on the toothpaste, you may be dealing with deeper issues. One of my favorite relationship questions: How important is it? This one question is enough to avoid entire unnecessary arguments. Choose your battles, y'all, and don't fight when you're tired or hungry.
Want more of Bustle's Sex and Relationships coverage? Here are some sex positions you can try that will feel good regardless of your (or your partner's) size.
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