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3 Things Every Couple Needs to Know About Fighting Well

Conflict is a natural part of any relationship—but do you know how to do it with respect?
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Art Credit: Taylor McCutchan

When couples seek counseling, it’s usually because they want to work on one of two issues: communication or conflict. But the truth is that working on one requires working on the other.

Conflict is a natural part of any relationship. In fact, I am wary of any couple that claims they never argue. So if you’re concerned about the amount of conflict in your relationship, take heart: It’s inevitable and may even be important. The goal isn't to stop fighting—but it is important to fight fair. There are 3 critical steps in that process:

1. Recognize your tendency toward contempt & criticism.

Contempt is the feeling of superiority that one partner has toward the other. It’s the figurative—and literal—rolling of the eyes. Contempt's more direct sibling is criticism. Criticism is when the complaint is an attack on your partner's character, it's when the dirty dishes in the sink represent a lack of maturity, not just an area to improve. Contempt and Criticism are two of Dr. John Gottman’s “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse,” meaning they are relationship killers. It is critical that you recognize them and reign them in.

2. Focus on how you fight, not what you fight about.

Dr. Gottman has noted that the thing couples fight about most is “nothing.” The subject of the fight is often irrelevant. How many times have you gotten into an argument and ultimately forgotten what you were fighting about? It is natural for you to have complaints in your relationship. The key is to learn to complain without blame. Dr. Gottman calls this the Softened Startup. It goes like this: “I feel _____ when ____ and I need ____.”

3. Make the most of the time you’re not fighting.

In the healthiest relationships, partners are proactive at expressing gratitude, fondness, affection, and respect toward one another. Consider intentionally encouraging and appreciating your partner on a regular basis. Maybe set a timer on your phone and send them a loving note at 2:34 every afternoon. By building up a reservoir of positive interactions you can take the edge off of your conflict.

Arguing—even passionately—is one of the privileges of a committed relationship. But by fighting fair you can actually leverage conflict toward deeper intimacy. Couples that avoid fighting also avoid making up. They don’t reap the benefit of navigating a difficult issue and coming out stronger and more connected on the other side. When couples learn to fight fair, they often enjoy a deeper respect and regard for one another and enjoy happier, healthier relationships.