How Often Should Couples Fight? 9 Signs Your Arguments Are Healthy Vs. Toxic, According To Experts
If you have been fighting with your partner, it's easy to assume that that's a bad sign for the health of your relationship. If things are really strong between you, shouldn't you always get along? According to experts, there's a big difference between toxic fights and healthy fights, and fighting in a healthy way is actually a great sign.
"I am more worried about my clients who say they never argue with their partners because it signals passivity, emotions being ignored, or a lack of self in the relationship — all of which are unhealthy," Maryann W. Mathai, LPCC, LMHC, LPC, NCC, a licensed professional clinical counselor specializing in helping people heal from abusive or toxic relationships, tells Bustle. "Humans are complex and all of us experience emotions like anger and sadness, so it's very normal that at some point in the relationship, you will disagree with your partner." These disagreements can range from something as tiny as whether to store apples in the fridge or on the counter to something as big as what counts as cheating. Whatever the conflict is about, though, there is a very clear difference between an effective way to work through the issue and a harmful way.
Here are some signs that your arguments with your partner are healthy, and some signs they may be toxic, according to experts.
1. Toxic: You Keep Bringing Up The Past
If fights with your partner typically begin with an issue as benign as who forgot to unload the dishwasher, but ends with a deep-rooted issue like how much you dislike their parents, this is a red flag for toxic communication patterns, Michelle Smith, LMHC, a licensed psychotherapist specializing in premarital and and couple counseling, tells Bustle. When you're fighting, discussion should stay focused on the issues at hand, rather than becoming a time to air any other grievances as well. "If emotions become heightened, it’s a good idea to implement a safe word prior to the discussion which indicates that one of the partners needs to take a break," she says. This can help you both to press pause until you're in a good headspace to finish the conversation.
2. Toxic: Trying To Read Each Other's Minds
If you and your partner aren't great at communicating with each other effectively, you can quickly fall into the trap of trying to read each other's minds during an argument. "Couples who mind-read are often wrong," Jeff Larsen, MA, a psychotherapist who specializes in relationship issues, tells Bustle. Instead of assuming that they're thinking or feeling a certain way about the situation, ask them what's going on in their head, he says. This will help keep the fight healthy instead of toxic and help both of you respond to the actual concerns of the other person, instead of to the perceived concerns.
3. Toxic: You Shut Each Other Out
After a fight, you and your partner may need a little bit of space to decompress individually before coming back together and continuing on with your day. But if you notice that you or your partner routinely withdraw from each other and don't talk for days at a time, your fights may be toxic, Mathai says. "Researchers have shown that stonewalling, the term for withdrawing and avoidance, is a predictor of divorce," she says. "Shutting down and emotionally leaving the conversation will trigger the other partner to feel alone and overwhelmed." If you both want some time alone after a major argument, agree on a period of time that feels right, and then honor that agreement by speaking again when the time has elapsed. This will help keep the line of communication open.
4. Toxic: They're Verbally Or Emotionally Abusive
Emotions can certainly become heightened in the middle of an intense argument. But that doesn't mean that using abusive language is OK. Verbal abuse includes any negative or disparaging comment about your appearance, any put-downs about your intelligence, and any insults about your worth or value as a human being, Christine Scott-Hudson, MA MFT ATR, a licensed psychotherapist, marriage and family therapist, and owner of Create Your Life Studio, tells Bustle. "All of these types of repeated verbal assaults could lead you to feel not good enough, not smart enough, or not lovable," she says.
Emotional abuse could also look like repeated criticisms about personal vulnerabilities you've shared with them in the past, such as abuse histories, phobias, fears, or sensitive information about your past, Scott-Hudson says. It can be challenging to keep things civil in the heat of a fight, but using abusive language is never OK. If this is the case with your partner, it may be time to seek help from loved ones or a professional to exit the relationship.
5. Toxic: They're Physically Abusive
Since you were very young, you were probably taught to "use your words" during a fight instead of resorting to physical violence. That rule still holds in adulthood. "Examples of physical abuse are behaviors like pushing, shouting over you, screaming in your face, physically taking things away from your grip, grabbing you tightly, squeezing, pinching, hitting, slapping, punching, biting, kicking, shoving, forced sexual contact, restraining, and destroying your property," Scott-Hudson says.
If your partner gets physical with you during a fight, end the relationship and seek help from a supportive psychotherapist who understands and specializes in domestic violence. If you feel that you are in danger, contact the local authorities or the National Domestic Violence Hotline.
6. Healthy: You Don't Let Fights Fester
"You both may have different needs or time frames to unwind and cool down after an argument, but a sign of healthy relationships is when couples repair disruptions and come back to each other quickly," Mathai says. If you live together, you might be OK with just hanging out in separate rooms for a few hours. But if you need a bit more space than that, try going for a walk outside to clear your head. Getting some fresh air certainly can't hurt, and being in separate places will give each of you the chance to truly calm down. Just make sure that you don't wait too long before reconvening, Mathai says. "There is truth behind the old saying 'never go to bed angry.'"
7. Healthy: You're Always Respectful
You love your partner, so if you keep that love in the forefront of your mind even in the midst of a heated argument, that's a sign that you fight in a healthy way. It's easy to let anger become the primary emotion of a fight, but making a commitment to staying respectful of each other no matter what is key. "The healthiest relationship goal a couple can have is a vow to fight fairly," Scott-Hudson says. "Respect and love should be felt and evident, even when you feel upset and frustrated." If you have a hard time remembering what you love about your partner in the heat of a fight, take a few moments before the confrontation to make a list of some of your favorite attributes of theirs.
8. Healthy: You Use Fights To Grow
A truly healthy fight for a couple should be an opportunity to strengthen the relationship, rather than weaken it. Both of you should be willing to listen fully to the other person, making good eye contact and genuinely considering how they feel. During a healthy fight, each partner is interested in using the conflict to become more invested in the partnership —seeing disagreements as an opportunity to increase self-awareness and relationship awareness, Dr. Carla Marie Manly, a clinical psychologist with expertise in relationship issues and author of Joy from Fear, tells Bustle. After you've resolved a situation, take a few minutes to brainstorm ways you can implement what you've learned with your partner.
9. Healthy: You Are Both Present
It's easy to be present in the best moments in your relationship, like going on a romantic date, telling each other you're in love for the first time, or moving in together. But if you're consistently mindful and present during an argument with your partner, you're creating a healthy relationship dynamic, Smith says. Because a fight can often feel like a situation where one person needs to "win" at the end, it can be tempting to brainstorm all of the best rebuttals for what your partner is saying. But in a healthy fight, you'll resist this urge. "During the argument, instead of thinking of what you will say next, try to focus on what your partner is saying, how they are saying it, and think of follow-up questions to make sure you truly understand before responding," Smith says.
It's not fun to fight and it's not fun to think about fighting either. But a little bit of careful reflection on what your arguments with your partner look like can help you identify things that you're doing well and areas where you could grow a bit.
Editor's Note: If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic abuse, call 911 or the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1(800) 799-SAFE (7233) or visit thehotline.org.