Sex & Relationships

Why Even Happy Couples Fight

Twelve ways to tell if an argument is healthy or toxic, according to experts.

How often should couples fight? Often, experts say.
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It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that fighting with your partner is a bad sign for the relationship. All couples fight, whether or not you see the residue of their fallouts publicly. In fact, sidestepping disagreements can lead to decreased psychological well-being the next day. "I am more worried about my clients who say they never argue with their partners,” says Maryann W. Mathai, an Ohio-based counselor who specializes in helping people heal from toxic relationships. “It signals passivity, emotions being ignored, or a lack of self in the relationship — all of which are unhealthy."

That’s right: Fighting can be good for a relationship. According to a 2019 study in the academic journal Personality and Individual Differences, couples’ arguments typically fall into one of six categories: inadequate attention or affection; jealousy and infidelity; chores and responsibilities; sex; control and dominance; or future plans and money.

But it doesn’t take academic training to know that not all arguments are healthy. Below, experts break down key characteristics to distinguish between healthy and toxic fights.

1

Toxic: Jumping From One Grievance To The Next

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If fights with your partner typically begin with a benign issue, like unloading the dishwasher, but end with a confrontation over disliking each others’ parents, that’s a red flag for toxic communication patterns, says Michelle Smith, a licensed psychotherapist specializing in premarital and couple counseling. When fighting, discussions should stay focused on the issue at hand, rather than act as a springboard to air other grievances. "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," Smith says.

2

Toxic: Trying To Read Each Others’ Minds

"Couples who mind-read are often wrong," Jeff Larsen, a psychotherapist who specializes in relationship issues, tells Bustle. Instead of assuming what your partner’s thinking, ask them, he says. This will help keep the fight healthy and allow you to respond to your partner’s actual concerns.

3

Toxic: Shutting Each Other Out

After a fight, you both might need space to decompress individually. But if you notice that you or your partner routinely withdraw 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 time alone after an argument, agree on a time frame to reconvene.

4

Toxic: Being Verbally Or Emotionally Abusive

Even though emotions can be heightened in the middle of an intense argument, that doesn’t grant leeway on abusive language. Verbal abuse includes negative or disparaging comments about appearance, intelligence, or someone’s worth as a human being, says Christine Scott-Hudson, a psychotherapist and owner of Create Your Life Studio. And emotional abuse tends to feature repeated criticisms about personal vulnerabilities, such as abuse histories, phobias, fears, or sensitive information, she says.

"These types of repeated verbal assaults could lead you to feel not good enough, not smart enough, or not lovable," Scott-Hudson says.

5

Toxic: Being Physically Abusive

Children are taught to "use their words" during a fight instead of resorting to physical violence, a rule that 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.

6

Toxic: Threatening To End The Relationship

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"During an argument, emotions are running wild, and lots of things are said that are 'in the heat of the moment,' but the threat of divorce should never be said," Dr. Karen Sherman told Very Well Mind last year. "The idea of divorce is the ultimate abandonment and goes to the core of people's attachment issues. So even though it is only at the moment and not really meant, the threat has been put out there and is frightening.”

By threatening to walk out on a relationship, someone is squashing the possibility for healthy arguments. Each partner needs to feel respected and safe in the relationship, and constant threats of abandonment compromise that.

7

Healthy: Letting Go Of Grudges

"You both may have different needs or time frames to cool down after an argument, but a sign of healthy relationships is [that] couples come back to each other quickly," Mathai says. If you need a bit more space, try going for a walk to clear your head. Just make sure you don't wait too long before reconvening, Mathai says. "There is truth behind the old saying ‘Never go to bed angry.'"

8

Healthy: Listening More Than You Talk

There’s a difference between airing grievances and having a mutually respectful fight. If one of you is primarily talking, the conversation will be lopsided toward their point of view — and vice versa.

9

Healthy: Staying Respectful

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It's easy to let anger dominate 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."

10

Healthy: Using Fights To Grow

A fight can be an opportunity for a couple to strengthen their relationship. Both of you should be willing to listen fully to the other person, make good eye contact, and genuinely consider how they feel. Disagreements can increase self-awareness and relationship awareness, says Dr. Carla Marie Manly, a psychologist and author of Joy from Fear: Create the Life of Your Dreams by Making Fear Your Friend.

11

Healthy: Focusing On “I” Phrases Instead Of “You” Phrases

This slight linguistic flip can go a long way. If you feel inclined to tell your partner, “You don’t listen to me,” try rephrasing that statement to, “I don’t feel heard.” This puts the emphasis on you and your feelings, rather than throwing around blame and accusations.

12

Healthy: Staying Present Throughout The Fight

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It's easy to be present during feel-good moments, like a candlelit date or moving in with your partner. But if you're consistently present during arguments as well, you're building a healthy foundation for your relationship, Smith says. During fights, it’s tempting to brainstorm rebuttals and follow-up responses in live time, which ultimately removes you from the moment. In a healthy fight, 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.

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.

Experts:

Maryann W. Mathai, LPCC, LMHC, LPC, NCC, counselor

Michelle Smith, LMHC, psychotherapist

Jeff Larsen, psychotherapist

Christine Scott-Hudson, LMFT, ATR, psychotherapist

Dr. Carla Marie Manly, psychologist