It's Perfectly Fine to Fight with Your Partner - if You Do it Right (Here's How)
More than seven months into the Covid-19 pandemic, some things are more common than ever: dialing in to Zoom calls (“Try unmuting yourself?”), wearing tie-dyed sweats on repeat, and, if you’re in a relationship, arguing. The pandemic added a string of extra stressors to life—including a dearth of childcare, job loss, or just spending unnatural amounts of time together—that created an environment ripe for arguments to thrive.
But fighting doesn’t have to do lasting damage to your relationship. Dr. Pamela J. Lannutti, director at the Center for Human Sexuality Studies at Widener University in Chester, Penn., says it’s perfectly normal to have conflict, as long as you do it the right way.
“It's not the disagreeing that’s problematic—it's the unhealthy way you might communicate your disagreement that can be incredibly destructive,” she says. “You can learn to argue in a way that's productive, rather than destructive, for the relationship.”
Lannutti has been studying communication in personal relationships for over 20 years, and teaches something called the fair fighting skill set. If you follow these guidelines, arguing can be a healthy way to resolve problems. Plus, she says, “the good news is that if you keep using the skills, there should be less from the past that’s unresolved.”
Go in With the Right Mindset
Before starting to talk, evaluate your perspective. “You can't go into a conflict with the idea that you're going to win, and the other person is going to lose,” explains Lannutti. “You have to go in looking for a win-win.”
Starting a fight with the wrong attitude can cause you to focus on trying to score points at the expense of hurting your partner, which can lead to using “win at all costs” tactics—name calling, snide comments, insults—and ultimately, erode the trust between you. “If you are trying to defeat someone you are in a relationship with, it's nearly impossible to also be trying to strengthen your connection to them,” she says.
Alternatively, if you’re prone to conflict avoidance, you might go in willing to lose just to dodge the fight. “You're having a conflict because there's something important to you, but if you're always giving up and not advocating for yourself, then it's unlikely that you'll ultimately get your needs met in the relationship.” Instead, enter the argument with the understanding that you’re looking for a mutual solution to resolve your problem.
Lannutti suggests preparing yourself for the most positive outcome by bringing empathy to the conversation: recognize and really try to understand your partner’s feelings, and to remember that those feelings are valid, even if you disagree with them.
Set up the Right Environment
When you need to have a weighty discussion about a conflict, the right time is probably not the middle of dropping your kids off at school, or minutes before heading into a work conference call. In addition to considering the timing and location of a serious chat, avoid arguing when you’re tired or hungry, as both can needlessly add stress and frustration. Setting up the right atmosphere for a constructive talk—one that’s comfortable, private, and has few distractions (turn off the TV and silence your phones!)—can make for a better outcome.
Also, Lannutti says, one conversation might not settle it. “You might get to a certain point and you say, ‘okay, let's think about this some more, and talk about it again.’” Take a deliberate pause instead of rushing to get through a difficult talk. When you’re ready to come back to the table, consider adding it to your calendar, she says. “It means you are giving the conversation the attention and space needed for it to be more likely to be productive.”
Totally Eliminate These Behaviors
According to Lannutti, the idea is to remove certain toxic communication habits so you're left with only the most positive techniques. Behaviors to stamp out include something called “nonverbal leakage” like eye rolling, huffing or sighing—all natural, but ultimately unhelpful, responses that can signal contempt.
Another is “competitive tactics”—all the things we do to score points, including sarcasm and hostile name calling, which can inspire defensiveness, shut down the conversation, and just be hurtful to your partner.
Additionally, avoidance tactics, like not answering questions, are on the “no” list, as is constantly bringing up the past. “There’s an issue we disagree on, so let's focus on that,” says Lannutti. This can be a tough one, especially for women; Lannetti says they typically excel at seeing patterns. But instead of zeroing in on exhibit A like you’re litigating in front of a judge, focus on the facts of this specific squabble.
Two more tactics to steer clear of: “beltlining,” and “putting the belt around your head.” The first is a boxing term, and refers to attacking someone “below the belt” with an issue you know they’re sensitive about just to hurt them (think: bringing up your partner’s parents’ divorce, because you know it’s a sore subject). The second is pretending that someone has beltlined you when they haven’t, to elicit sympathy or manipulate their emotions. (Hence the "belt around your head" metaphor: it's so high, any blow would be “below the belt.”)
Practice cutting out these unhelpful habits to boost the more effective communications strategies, and ultimately help you fight better.