7 Things Couples Therapists Wish You Knew About Healthy Fighting Vs. Hurtful Fighting
Relationships aren't perfect and fights do happen. Unfortunately, it's inevitable. But according to couples therapists, there are pretty big differences between fights that end relationships versus fights that are productive.
"As a couples therapist, I see up close, the different ways people argue with each other," couples therapist, Wendi L. Dumbroff, MA, LPC tells Bustle. "Whether a couple is heterosexual, gay, gender fluid/trans, it doesn’t really matter. All couples have a pattern that emerges when they argue, no matter the actual content of the argument."
According to Dumbroff, there are three common patterns in the relationships she works with. In one pattern, Partner A gets loud and aggressively pursues the other with nagging, screaming, and name calling, while Partner B completely shuts down or physically leaves the situation. In another pattern, both partners escalate the argument. And then there are those who try to avoid confrontation altogether. Although they do get upset about things, they're usually the couples who say, "Oh, we don't ever really fight."
Regardless of which pattern you and your partner fall into, these patterns may create distance. What you do during and even after a fight may determine whether you'll create a bigger gap between the two of you or come closer together.
"The goal of couples therapy is not to create a relationship in which arguing never occurs — that is far from realistic!" Dumbroff says. "Differences of opinion, and conflicts will happen no matter how in love a couple may be. However, there are things that partners can do when they encounter difficulty, that are not only more useful ways to argue, but can actually foster closeness and connection."
1. Fighting Productively Includes Taking A Moment To Pause
"It’s all about mindfulness (being present in the moment)," Dumbroff says. "It's the difference between 'reacting' to something and 'responding' to it." For instance, let's say your partner is annoyed because you forgot to run that errand for them. They call you out, which escalates the argument and makes you either angry or shut down.
Couples who fight productively are more self-aware. They know what's going to happen when they immediately react. So they take a step back before responding. "The pause allows you the choice to not engage in your habitual patterns of arguing," she says. This way, your response is not reactionary and allows you to better address the problem without turning it into a greater issue.
2. Fighting That Ends Relationships Includes Hurtful, Non-Verbal Cues
Eye rolling during an argument will show your partner that you may not be willing to listen to them, Dr. Holly Richmond, CST, LMFT, Head of the Advisory Board for Ella Paradis, tells Bustle. "When you roll your eyes at your partner during a fight, you’re signaling that they are ... not worthy of trying to be understood."
It’s the polar opposite of empathy, she says, which is very important to have if you want to feel connected to your partner. Since this is probably not the message you intend to send anyway, be mindful of what you do. "So much can be said without saying a word," Richmond says, so be careful to make sure your actions reflect how you truly feel about your partner, outside of this argument. Even things that are subtly dismissive can have an impact.
3. Fights That Are Productive Stay In The Present
Couples who fight productively stick to the topic they're fighting about. They keep it in the present and don't dredge up fights from the past.
"Keeping the discussion in the present and not the past is critical to couples finding resolution," Richmond says. "Couples typically fight about the same thing, even thought the details may differ."
So figure out if there’s a pattern to the theme of your fights and keep the specifics contained in the moment. As Richmond says, "Holding onto past woes builds resentment, and over time that can be hard for couples to bounce back from."
4. Fights That End Relationships Get Blown Out Of Proportion
Ever wonder why some fights seem to escalate a lot more quickly than others? According to Jane Reardon, licensed therapist and founder of RxBreakup app, it's because certain issues can have a way of triggering our basic fight, flight, or freeze responses that were developed during childhood. Because of that, we tend to get a lot more emotional. When that happens, those major fights can become a lot worse than we may have intended them to be.
Couples who don't fight productively keep going even though they may know this fight is not reaching any resolution. Couples who do fight productively, don't push harder than they need to. "Partners can calm down and re-visit the disagreement when they’re thinking more rationally, so they're better able to discuss the issue at hand with less emotional charge," Reardon says.
5. Fights That Are Productive Start From A "Softer" Place
Couples who fight productively don't start fights with an attack like, "I can't believe you did this!" Instead, Dumbroff says, they approach an argument from a more vulnerable place using starters like, "When you did that, I was hurt. Like I wasn't important to you."
"When couples begin to speak to each other from this softer place, a very different conversation ensues," she says. "They can find empathy for each other. Instead of distance, closeness is fostered. There is also opportunity for repair."
6. Fights That End Relationships Are The Ones That Go Unspoken
If you think not fighting at all means your relationship is picture-perfect and super healthy, experts say this may not be the case. "I actually worry more about couples who never fight than couples who fight too much," Richmond says. "Apathy and indifference are certainly relationship enders." Fighting (although not to a toxic extent) still indicates that both sides care. But if you feel nothing, then, what's the point?
Couples who fight productively know that it's sometimes necessary. "They don't hold onto to every relational misstep without letting their feelings be known," she says. "They know it's an equal partnership, so they're sure to let their partner know where they stand."
7. Fights That Are Productive Get Repaired
Even if you don’t succeed initially in changing how you approach each other, which can be difficult at first, couples who fight productively can still come back and repair things. "Issues are not swept away under the proverbial rug," Dumbroff says. "They are brought into the light of day and discussed, rather than festering until the next time."
Overall, it's important to know that fights are sometimes necessary. But there is a difference between productive ones and ones that can potentially end your relationship. Once you recognize the difference between the two and work on it, experts say your fights might end up bringing you closer together.