Every couple—even the blissful ones who seem madly and annoyingly in love—argue now and then. But how you fight—and recover from an argument—can make all of the difference when it comes to having a happy, healthy relationship.
Fighting Styles That Do Damage
Arguing in a destructive rather than a constructive, communicative way not only makes marriage more stressful and frustrating, but it can also lead to divorce. One of the biggest predictors of divorce is having one partner who deals with conflict in a constructive way while the other partner completely withdraws, according to a 2010 study in the Journal of Marriage and Family, which observed 373 couples across 16 years to determine how conflict patterns determine divorce.
“‘Shutting down’ is actually one of the worst relationship killers,” says Cheryl Burke, a licensed mental health therapist in Winter Park, Florida. “Many intimate relationships are destroyed by an inability to communicate. When one partner or both has developed a pattern of shutting down when they’re uncomfortable, it is because they do not trust the other person enough to share their thoughts and feelings. In fact, in many cases the person does not even know that it is a trust issue.”
Another deadly weapon some couples wield in a fight is putting each other down. “Belittling communication is also extremely detrimental to any intimate relationship because over time it causes emotional resentment between the couple,” explains Dr. Burke. In fact, according to the leading marital conflict researcher, John Gottman, Ph.D., contempt (such as rolling your eyes at your partner or calling him an idiot) is the number one predictor of divorce.
Adds Burke, “when resentment begins to build it contaminates the couple’s desire for intimacy, especially with the female.” And—no surprise here—research shows that intimacy is a key component of marital satisfaction.
Even in communicative couples, one or both partners may have a hard time letting go of the idea of “You’re wrong, I’m right.” Instead, they stubbornly fight to be right rather than working on actually resolving the problem.
“A rigid communication style is harmful to intimacy because usually when one person digs in, the other also becomes inflexible; ergo, progress is halted,” says Burke. “At this point, couples tend to focus only on their perspective of the problems, instead of focusing on resolution.”
But it’s not just your fighting style that’s important—your ability to move on once the spat is over can also affect the health of your marriage. When it comes to how well you bounce back from a fight, your attachment style often comes into play. According to a 2011 study published in the journal Psychological Science, couples’ abilities to recover from a quarrel may depend on the type of care of they received as infants.
In the study, researchers followed their study subjects from birth to their 20s and found a connection between their attachment style as infants and how they recovered from conflict in adult romantic relationships. The 20-something couples were asked to talk about a topic they disagreed on and then had a cool down period where they had a conversation about something they were in sync on. The researchers noticed that some partners had heated conflicts and yet were able to smoothly transition into chatting about a topic they agreed on, while in other partnerships, one or both partners would ruminate on the conflict topic, unable to get past the disagreement. Researchers found that people who had secure attachments to their caregivers as infants were better at moving past conflicts with their romantic partners two decades later.
But all is not lost if you or your husband didn’t have the most stable, reassuring parents growing up. You can still have a healthy relationship if one partner is secure and able to disengage from an argument rather than dwelling on a heated disagreement. According to the study author, “We found that people who were insecurely attached as infants but whose adult romantic partners recover well from conflict are likely to stay together. If one person can lead this process of recovering from conflict, it may buffer the other person and the relationship.”
Fostering Healthy Communication
You and your partner are going to fight now and then. That’s a given. But while you may not always have control over what sets you off, you have control over how you handle the situation. By taking a deep breath and employing these smart strategies, you can keep your relationship in (healthy) fighting shape.
Stay on point. What exactly are you fighting for? And no, “being right” doesn’t count as an objective. “Healthy, positive communication in any relationship should start with the following: respect, consideration, empathy, an open mind and a calm tone,” notes Burke. “The next step requires each person to consider their objectives before communicating thoughts and feelings with the other.”
Being clear on your purpose—whether it’s asking for more help with chores around the house or convincing your mate that a new couch, not a ping-pong table, is a necessity in the household budget—keeps a quarrel from going into pointless (and sometimes) dangerous territory.
Adds Burke, “positive healthy communication is not confrontational or argumentative, rather it’s an attempt to get what one needs from his or her partner with the clear understanding that we must be willing to give to get. Finally, the key to successful resolution is not to focus on the problem—old or new—but instead to focus on the resolution.”
Watch your language. Research shows that choosing the right fighting words can keep an argument from turning nasty and sending stress levels skyrocketing. According to a study published the journal Health Psychology, couples who used cognitive processing words, such as “think,” “consider,” “understand,” “because,” or “reason,” during heated arguments showed smaller increases of stress-related, inflammatory chemicals than pairs who didn’t—and the effects lasted for more than 24 hours.
Drop the “all or nothing” attitude. When you’re frustrated with your partner because he forgot to take out the trash—again—or left his dirty dishes in the sink (like they’re magically going to walk themselves into the dishwasher?), it’s easy to lash back by saying “you never take out the trash” or “you always leave the dishes in the sink.” Really? Always? Going to the extreme doesn’t help your argument. “Leave out ‘you always’ and ‘never,’” suggests Elyse Goldstein, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist in private practice in New York City. “We get carried away with our feelings in the moment, like children. You have to treat another person with more respect.”
Instead, focus on your specific point—that you would appreciate it if he could step up more when it comes to tossing out the garbage and putting dirty dishes away.
Empathize with your partner. When you’re ticked off, it’s tough to feel empathy for your partner. But channeling your sympathetic side not only cools anger, it helps you better understand each other’s position and fosters healthier communication. “Empathy is the key to being able to argue better and to put yourself in the other’s shoes,” says Dr. Goldstein. “Really listen—not just pay lip service while you’re thinking about your rebuttal. And realize that you’re talking to someone you love.”
Nix the unnecessary insults. Above all, don’t stoop to demeaning or belittling your mate—the equivalent of tossing a relationship hand grenade into the mix—just because you’re hurt and angry. “Don’t show contempt—nobody is perfect,” says Goldstein. “Instead, think about the intent of the other person. They’re not trying to do you wrong. Mostly, they’re unaware of the transgression, such as the stupid thing they said to you at a party. Sometimes you have to teach your mate what the guide to you is.”
Go to bed angry—sometimes. You’ve heard it a hundred times: “Don’t go to bed angry!” “Women are a little guiltier of that than men,” says Goldstein. “They want the resolution and hate sitting with bad feelings. And we’re socialized to make nice.”
And as it turns out, there’s a grain of truth that going to bed ticked off can be bad: Research published in the Journal of Neuroscience found that hitting the sack enhances memories, particularly emotional ones. The study found that sleep preserves the negative emotional response, keeping those powerful emotions fresh, while staying awake blunts the emotional response.
That said, if your quarrel kicks off late at night, sometimes tabling the talk until the next day is necessary. “You’re not going to get anywhere when the person is half asleep, really irritated and isn’t really available to have the discussion at that point,” says Burke. “If a couple is unable to resolve issues before bed, they should consider agreeing upon a plan to discuss the resolution at a later date and time—and then retire.” Just be sure to make it a priority to deal with the issue head on the morning after.