Couples Who Fight: What, How, Why, and How to Recover

In Relationships by Kelsey Nimmo, MA, LPC, LLMFT

You just got in a fight with your partner – or maybe you’ve been fighting a lot more often lately – and you’ve decided to do some field research.

Couples fight about everything – and that’s completely normal. But under most big, repetitive fights is a difference in values, beliefs, or worldview. Stopping the fight means managing your own stress response more than managing the conflict itself, but listening to your partner and validating their emotions will go a long way to help you stop a fight. After the fight, know how to reconnect and recover to trick your brain into prioritizing the pleasant memories.

WHAT DO COUPLES FIGHT ABOUT?

Google will give you a million different answers to this one but they aren’t answering your real question. If you’re Googling “what do most couples fight about” or “common fights for couples,” you’re probably actually asking

Is it normal to fight with my partner about this? 

The answer?

Yes. Always yes.

Literally every argument I’ve heard between couples in my office has been totally normal. And really, no matter what a couple is fighting about, that’s not really what they’re fighting about.

To save you some time, here’s the list of common fight topics you might get from Googling this question:

  1. Sex, intimacy, and romance
  2. Budget, spending, savings, and retirement
  3. Parenting techniques and decisions
  4. Time together and apart
  5. Jealousy, suspicion, and distrust
  6. Relationships with friends and extended family
  7. Past hurts and betrayals
  8. Household chores and tasks
  9. Division of labor and expectations
  10. Insecurities
  11. Technology use
  12. Health, diet, physical fitness

Here’s another list of real fight topics couples have come to me for help with:

  1. Installing a french cleat wall shelf
  2. How to pound the chicken
  3. Driving together or meeting there
  4. What side of the sink to put dirty dishes in
  5. Getting morning erections
  6. How to fight
  7. Coworker relationships
  8. Emailing something romantic
  9. Saying no to sex
  10. Bed time and nap time routines
  11. Opening the relationship
  12. Asking too many questions
  13. How to represent the family
  14. Answering the phone around friends
  15. Brushing their teeth
  16. Appropriate discipline when the teen child eats the last ice cream sandwich
  17. The girl in the aisle at Meijer
  18. Candy Crush
  19. Choice of leisure activity
  20. Confronting a contractor about an incomplete job
  21. Who cuts the broccoli
  22. Masturbating to social media
  23. Whether or not Green Day is a punk band
  24. What to talk about in the next couples counseling session

And yes, all of those are 100% real fights of real couples.

If you felt the need, you could probably place all of those fights into the Google-provided categories, tally them up, and write your own article to rank on Google.

But in my years as a couple and sex therapist, I haven’t found the categories very relevant or meaningful.

Couples fight about all things, at all hours of the day, in all seasons, on vacation and at work. So let’s answer the real question:

Is it normal to fight with my partner about this?

But wait, maybe that’s not the real question either. Maybe we need to dig even deeper.

What does this fight mean about my relationship?

Now we are getting somewhere. This is what most clients are asking me when they ask if it’s “normal” to fight about whatever topic they’re fighting about. They want to know what it means – meaning is this the beginning of the end?

Let’s answer that question after another question.

HOW DO COUPLES FIGHT?

Couples are really skilled sometimes at fighting. Truly it’s almost admirable.

Some couples fight in really helpful, productive, respectful ways. They balance their individuality with their relationship and they always remember that they’re a team. Other couples fight mean and dirty. Their fights are hurtful, disrespectful, and aggressive.

COMMON FIGHT BEHAVIORS

  • Storming out, closing in, or trying to prevent an escape
  • Asking for time to process before talking
  • Talking, yelling, or not responding
  • Talking over each other or interrupting
  • Taking turns talking
  • Name calling
  • Criticizing – intentional or not
  • Self-soothing and/or comforting each other
  • Defending or taking responsibility
  • Acknowledging each other’s feelings
  • Attacking due to feeling attacked
  • Talking about past hurts
  • Starting with kindness and compassion or criticism and harshness
  • Being condescending
  • Talking at instead of talking with

Just a note: If you’re shooting for healthier fighting, aim for the ones in italics.

DOES THIS FIGHT MEAN WE NEED TO SPLIT UP?

I can’t answer this question for you – unless you are being physically or sexually abused and then yes, whole-heartedly yes, to finding a safe and supported way to split up. Emotional abuse would be included in this one, too, except that we all are emotionally and verbally abusive to our partners sometimes.

If you aren’t sure where the line is, it’s probably crossed.

Couples worry that certain types of fights mean the relationship is doomed but this isn’t exactly how it works. Couples can fight about all of the things from above but if they fight in a healthy, respectful way and they learn how to recover from their fights, they’ll be fine. No need to split.

Fights that are centered around differences in values, beliefs, or worldviews are the hardest to overcome. These tend to lead into perpetual conflicts – the ones that feel like we are spinning our wheels and having the same fight over and over.

While we think we know what we fight about because we do this same fight all the time, if we are fighting about differences in values, beliefs, or worldviews, we usually have no idea. These deeper meanings hide within smaller, every day conflicts.

Some every day conflicts don’t have a deeper meaning. These are called solvable problems. These fights make up 31% of our conflicts and are situational with attainable solutions.

Perpetual problems make up the other 69% of fights. Perpetual problems are areas of conflict that have far deeper roots than the surface topic. These fights are the endless circle fights where we feel like we can’t ever get to a solution. At their center, perpetual problems are rooted in beliefs, values, worldviews, personalities, or lifestyles.

We will always have perpetual fights, no matter what relationship we are in. For perpetual conflicts, we often need to seek out professional support from a therapist to help us dig deeper and understand the root of our conflict.

Perpetual fights aren’t problems to be solved. These conflicts will never go away. Instead, over time they become more fully understood and therefore more manageable.

Let’s try the analogy of running a marathon. With perpetual conflicts, you’ll never quite reach the finish line and be done with the race. You will always be running. But with productive, respectful, insightful, heartfelt conversations, you can reach one mile farther where there’s a water stop. It’ll be refreshing and reassuring, letting you know you can make it another mile towards your goal.

But you also know you’ll probably need another water stop sometime.

IS IT HEALTHY FOR COUPLES TO FIGHT?

So how to know if your fight is the healthy kind? Watch out for these signs that your relationship isn’t functioning in a healthy and respectful way:

  1. Disrespect for your partner as a human
  2. Insisting your partner admits that you are always right in conflicts
  3. Conflicts are escalating to physical violence

Also, if there was one thing that happens in fights that seems to indicate a disintegration of the relationship, it is when someone says

I don’t want to fight anymore.

When someone says this in a fight, it usually means that person doesn’t feel like they have any hope of being heard. They are feeling exhausted, defeated, and hopeless. If you hear you or your partner say this, something needs to change.

Instead of shutting down hopelessly, find a new way to approach your partner.

If you’re feeling this way, it is likely true that your partner is having a hard time hearing you. So instead of continuing to try the same thing and feel more and more defeated, try something new. (Here’s the Amazon link to my favorite fun book to challenge the way we talk to our partners – and it can be used for any gender, so don’t let the title fool you.)

HOW DO COUPLES STOP FIGHTING?

If your fight is a solvable problem, work together to come up with as many possible solutions as you can. Get creative on this one so you have a good, long, all-inclusive list to work with. Write them down and then go through the list together to veto anything that you’re completely unwilling to compromise on. For the items left on the list, select your favorites and come up with a game plan.

If your fight is a perpetual problem, accept that you won’t solve the problem for good – right now or ever. For perpetual problems, here are a couple ideas to try:

  • You can still do the exercise for solvable problems, but be sure to focus on finding a temporary solution for this current moment rather than a final end to the issue.
  • Dig deeper to find the hidden root that is getting triggered. To unearth more layers, try:
    • Exploring the hidden meaning by following each statement up with “And that’s meaningful to me because…”
    • Exploring the hidden fear by flipping it upside down and saying “If (opposite), then…” to understand the consequence you would experience.

Either way, take into consideration what is happening during your fights. Remember that list from “How Couples Fight” above? Those can create something called flooding. 

Flooding is a physiological response to stress. It takes over our brain and our body when we are in conflict with our partner. To fully understand flooding, I wrote this article devoted to it – it’ll open in a new window so you can keep reading this one.

There are so many great tips on how to stop fighting, but here are the biggest game changers:

  1. Take a break when you need to so you can each calm down (if you or your partner is flooded)
  2. Remember that your partner is on your team – you two against the world
  3. Be receptive, not defensive
  4. Take responsibility for your part of the fight – including owning up to saying something wrong or creating unintentional hurt
  5. Empathize with the emotions your partner is expressing, even if you don’t understand or agree
  6. Use humor appropriately but never hurtfully

It’s amazing how big of a difference empathy can make. If your partner is repeating something like a broken record or an annoying commercial, realize that they are trying to communicate something to you. They have big emotions you aren’t hearing. 

Slow down the conversation, shut your mouth about your own experience, and just sit with theirs. Recognize and validate what they are saying by reflecting it back to them. Try to understand what emotions they are experiencing. What is this like for them? Don’t jump into problem-solving mode and don’t tell them their feelings don’t make sense.

Here’s the key:

If you’re frustrated, angry, and annoyed because you don’t understand the situation, you aren’t listening enough to the emotions. 

HOW DO COUPLES RECOVER FROM FIGHTS?

Fights are exhausting. They’re draining for each of you and they can make the relationship feel strained and distant even after the fight has ended.

Before you can really recover the relationship itself, first you need to each recover in your own selves.

HOW TO HELP YOURSELF RECOVER

  • Calm down. Do something to soothe yourself. Get your heart rate back to normal. Try some deep breaths. Get a change in scenery by going on a walk. Put a cool wash cloth on the back of your neck and close your eyes.
  • Remind yourself that everything is safe now. Conflict with our partner can create a feeling of complete helplessness. If the fight is bad enough, we might even fear losing this person who is so important to us. It feels very dangerous. As you are calming your body, recognize that you are no longer in the middle of the fight. You have made it to the other side and you are no longer in danger.
  • Reflect. Think about the conflict itself and see if you can own what you did to contribute to it. Notice what you could do better next time. Try to identify what your partner was doing that was an attempt to connect or validate during the fight. If they tried to respond in a new way to your fight (like being receptive instead of defensive), admire this and be appreciative. Even if it didn’t work, it feels good to know they’re trying.

Now that you are feeling more clear-headed and you have some insight into what just happened, you can work on recovering the relationship.

HOW TO HELP THE RELATIONSHIP RECOVER

  • ApologizeSay you’re sorry and be specific. What did you do in the conflict itself that wasn’t helpful or respectful? Were you accidentally sabotaging the fight and making it worse?
  • Appreciate and affirm. Acknowledge their side of the conflict and validate their emotions again. Don’t get distracted with rehashing the situation – you really don’t even need to mention it. Just focus on the emotions. Notice what your partner might have done during the conflict that was helpful or positive, even if it didn’t seem to go over so well in the moment. For example, if they tried to do some of these recovery tools too soon (like touch or humor), let them know you appreciate their efforts to change the cycle.
  • Say “I love you.” Create safety and reassurance by letting your partner know that even though you just fought, you still adore them.
  • EmbraceReconnecting physically will help you both attune and align with each other. If you’re still feeling tense, distant, or regretful about the fight, it will soften you and bridge the divide. Long, loving hugs work best for this one.
    • Important note: Not everyone is ready for touch as soon as their partner is. Be sure to only touch your partner if they want to be touched. And if you aren’t sure, just ask.
  • Smile and laugh. Even if things are still feeling really tense, try to smile. Loosen up and laugh. Do something fun. Change the tone, move forward, and don’t let it ruin your day.

Here’s a fun fact:

Our brains like to hold onto more recent memories, even if the more recent memories are shorter periods of time.

For example, if you had a great date night with your partner for hours but then get in a fight on the way home, your brain will prioritize the most recent (meaning the awful drive home) and it will feel like your whole evening was ruined.

This can feel defeating – until you realize that this has some really impressive potential when it comes to reconnecting with our partner.

If you get in a fight on the way home from your date night, get home, and go fuming off into your own angry corners, you’ll have successfully ruined your night. To play around with how terrible you can make it, spend a few minutes or hours ruminating on all the awful and unfair things your partner said or did during that fight. Your brain is going to remember the horrible fight and forget the great date.

But now let’s imagine that when you get home after that awful fight, you go change into pajamas, wash your face, take some deep breaths, and then come back to recover and reconnect. Because your brain will prioritize the most recent, it will remember the great recovery and forget the horrible fight. 

Now that sounds pretty cool.

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To set up a counseling appointment with Kelsey, email her at kelsey@kalamazootherapygroup.com.