When couples come to therapy, some of the most common issues they hope to work on are communication, trust, their sex life, and healing from a betrayal. People go through disagreements and arguments around most of these subjects, and it’s important to acknowledge the hurt that comes up, resulting in conflict.
So, when fights happen in a romantic relationship, how do you deal with them? How do you repair from the hurtful words and actions you both dish out and receive?
How Do You Fight?
One of the questions I like to ask clients is: “How do you fight?” A typical pattern I hear is that one partner might need some time and space to cool down before resolving a conflict, while the other partner feels strongly about resolving issues immediately. As a result, partner one might say something hurtful and then blame partner two for “pushing them” to that point. Partner two then becomes more fearful and anxious around conflict and may begin to ignore their need to bring up issues in the future. Both partners may start to feel a loss of control and fall into this pattern more regularly and quickly.
I then might ask, “How would you like to fight instead?” while acknowledging that arguments have a place in relationships. This is where some folks get stuck. Here are some of my suggestions.
Learn more about their conflict history
It can be helpful to ask your partner what their experiences of fights have been in the past. How did their parents or caretakers fight? How did they fight with siblings or friends? What about in past relationships?
Some people never saw their parents in moments of conflict because their parents chose not to expose them to it. While this is the default of some families, it fails to give children models of how to fight thoughtfully, so they have no models of how it should or could look. Alternately, some folks grew up in high-conflict homes where there was screaming, cursing, breaking things, or severe consequences for every infraction.
Of course, these are not the only ways people fight. But having this conversation can provide insight both about your partner and yourself. It may shed light on why someone needs to step away from an argument to prevent escalation or why another person may feel compelled to smooth things over as quickly as possible to avoid discomfort. Either way, talking about your partner’s experience will allow you to show up for them more compassionately. Also, becoming aware of how the two of you fight will allow you to point out the pattern when it starts and intervene, so it doesn’t progress.
I’m a big advocate for establishing agreements in all aspects of relationships, especially fighting. After talking about your respective experiences with conflict, it’s a good idea to set some boundaries.
In the above example, I recommended that both partners work together to get their needs met. For instance, if you need time to cool down before or in the middle of having a hard talk, be explicit with your partner. “I can’t talk about this right now, I need three hours so I can clear my head, but then we can talk about it.” Something important to remember here is to set a reasonable amount of time (it might be a bit sooner than you’d ideally like) but come back to the conversation at the end of that time. So at the end of that three hours, come back and initiate continuing the conversation. This will let the person who feels urgency around conflict resolution know that they can trust you, which will decrease their anxiety and also give you space.
Collaborating with your partner so you have a game plan on how you’d like to fight, when you’d like to stop, and what is non-negotiable is a great way to prepare for and come out of conflict with less contempt and more compassion.
Other agreements can look like asking each other what would make a conversation impossible to have. Is it raised voices? Name-calling? Bringing up past issues as ammunition? Threats of ending the relationship? Once you’ve identified non-negotiables, it might be helpful to establish what either or both of you will do if some of these boundaries get crossed.
Especially in long-term relationships with heavy conflict, it might be challenging to expect everything to go seamlessly overnight. You might say something like, “If you yell at me when we fight, I’m going to have to stop the conversation entirely and come back to it in a couple of hours.” Or “If you start talking over me, we both need to pause and check in with each other to see if we are ready to have the conversation.” This way, you’ve not only identified what boundaries are important to you, but how to address them if they get crossed.
Try to Fight in a Neutral Place
I also recommend having this conversation in a neutral place and at a neutral time. So, not in the bedroom if you argue about sex and most frequently have sex in the bedroom. Not right after a fight or when either of you has just finished a long day of work, is tired, or hungry.
The same rules apply for when and where to engage in conflict. There’s nothing wrong with saying, “I need to talk to you about something that happened the other day. Are you ready to have that conversation?” or “What you just said made me mad, and I need to talk about it, what do you need to have a productive conversation?”
While this might seem unrealistic, especially in the heat of the moment, expressing that an exchange might get a little heated, and asking your partner if they are ready for that possibility, also sets the stage for approaching the talk with more safety and empathy.
Red Flags to Watch Out For
Sometimes fights get out of hand. Here are some things to watch out for that may indicate some more serious work is needed.
Frequent boundary-crossing. If you’ve established boundaries and your partner continues to cross them, be cautious of how that might show up in other ways. It’s okay to be firm on your boundaries.
Threats to break up. If your partner is constantly threatening to leave at any given moment, pay attention to that.
Bringing up insecurities or traumas. Your partner uses vulnerable things you’ve shared with them in the middle of a conflict in an attempt to be spiteful or cruel.
Violence. This includes name-calling, throwing things, destroying property, punching holes in the walls, physical violence, etc. This behavior is all violent and demonstrates that person’s inability to self-regulate.
At the core of these examples is safety. These violations all threaten the ability to feel safe and secure. Even if it happens in the context of an intense argument, your safety is paramount, and you have the right to protect it.
Conflict in relationships is often inevitable. Collaborating with your partner so you have a game plan on how you’d like to fight, when you’d like to stop, and what is non-negotiable is a great way to prepare for and come out of conflict with less contempt and more compassion.