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.
By identifying fighting styles that can wreck your relationship over time (stonewalling, anyone?) and learning better ways to communicate even in the heat of the moment, you can maintain a stronger, better partnership.
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."
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