How do you stop fighting in a relationship? This is an all-important question for anyone in a serious relationship. In most relationships, fighting and arguing are a part of life, albeit with varying frequency and intensity. When couples fight regularly, it puts a serious strain on the connection and safety each partner feels.
(There are exceptions, however. For some couples, fighting is exciting and stimulating. Even though this is mostly unconscious, some couples prefer fighting over disconnection and dismissal, but this is a topic for another post).
Based on our experience as relationship coaches, we can safely say most of us would much rather have less fights and would easily prefer not to have to deal with the fallout from fights. True for you, too?
So why do we fight so much with each other? And how can we stop fighting in a relationship? In this post, we’ll offer you some key insights you can pay attention to, plus a few practical steps you can take to improve the pattern and experience of fighting.
The Content of Fights
Fights often seem pointless, at least when you look back at what you fought about. After a fight, you might ask yourself, “What are we even fighting about?” It can be really hard to figure out why you got so upset about who does the dishes or whose parents to visit on the weekend. It seems so … not worth fighting about.
In fights, you often end up arguing about the Content, that is a certain topic. It might start out with a remark from your partner, “It’s your turn to put our son to bed”. Right away, you feel irritation rising inside you, and you say, “I did it yesterday and the day before!”. Now there’s the dreaded tone involved and pretty soon you’re arguing about who does more kid duties and house chores.
Sometimes, you become like a prosecutor trying to bring forth enough evidence to secure a conviction! We’ve coached couples who bring out footage from their house security cameras to prove that their own version of events was “the truth”.
This is fighting about content. It’s a doomed strategy. It sets you up to be stuck in un-resolvable loops. Don’t take our word for it, though. Just look at your own relationship. How often does it work to convince your partner that he or she is wrong and that your version of the “facts” is the accurate one? Do fights about content ever result in a peaceful outcome? Does it ever help you stop fighting in your relationship?
The Process of Fighting
Instead of trying to “win” the fight about the content, we suggest you put a lot more attention on the Process of fighting. That is, the How of fights, not the What. How do you fight? What happens in your body when you get into fights? What runs through your mind? Can you calm yourself, or does your fight-response take over?
It takes some skill of self-observation to sort this out, and often you can only do it afterward, once you feel calm again. One simple method you can try out is to imagine seeing your relationship from a distance.
Pretend you’re looking at the two of you as if you were watching a movie. What do you notice about this couple? Notice their voices and body language. Do they come closer to each other? or turn away? Do they screw up their faces and tense their muscles? Does the volume of their voices increase? Are you hearing lots of global accusations like, “You always …” and “You never …”? Do they hurl insults at each other, like “You’re a piece of … “? Are they escalating the intensity or do they try to de-escalate? As you observe this couple, does their process of fighting seem to work for them? Or does it leave them frustrated, hurt, and disconnected?
The renowned couples therapist Dr. Stan Tatkin said (in this NY Times article), “Money, time, mess, sex, kids are the five most argued about topics,” Dr. Tatkin said. “But here’s the thing, it’s never really about those things. What causes a problem is a manner in which partners interact, especially in distress.”
In other words, couples argue about content, such as money, time, mess, sex, kids. But as Dr. Tatkin says, it’s hardly ever about the content. The more important part is the process of fighting.
Dr. Tatkin goes on to say, “We have brains that are built more for war than for love. In order to survive, we have more threat centers in the brain than anything else. It’s part of the human condition, and it’s part of the problem in all relationships. When a couple is fighting, they’re producing more catecholamines. These are excitatory neurotransmitters and hormones. You’ve got noradrenaline, which makes you very focused, very attentive, but you can also be focusing and attentive on the things that are specifically threatening, and not see other things.”
The chemicals released in your brain and body is part of the process of fighting. But you don’t need to understand the science of neurotransmitters and catecholamines to make use of this knowledge. Simply pay attention to what happens in your own body during fights.
When you notice your face feeling hot, your jaw tightening, your fists clenching, your voice getting shrill, or your breathing getting short, you can be sure you’ve been “hijacked” by your fight-or-flight response. You can also be sure that you’re not thinking clearly or seeing the full picture. As Dr. Tatkin said, you get very focused, but not necessarily on the right things.
Get A Free Mini-Workshop
In addition to what we suggested above (and more will follow below), you can also take our 90-minute “mini-workshop” called How To De-Escalate conflicts. You do it from the comfort of your home, on your own time, for free!
In just 90 minutes, you’ll learn a step-by-step process to de-escalate fights and communicate positively when something’s on your mind. For instance, there’s a tool that guides you from anger and hurt to appreciation and even love, in a short span of time. Plus, you get to practice on the spot with your partner, with us guiding the entire process, one step at a time. It’s a highly effective way of learning relationship skills and it’s extremely affordable.
As a thank-you for being a reader of this blog, and to make it easy for you to get started, we’re giving you this mini-workshop for free. Just use coupon code FREEMINI2106 when you check out, and the price will adjust to zero!
The Focus of Fights
When you’re in a fight, you get highly focused, but often on things that make the fight worse. You focus on what your partner said that isn’t true. You focus on where your partner is unjustly accusing you of bad behavior. You zone in on your partner’s hurtful habits. You get very focused on winning the fight. Most importantly, you focus on being right about things you don’t want to be right about! This is a really important point.
Consider this: you try to convince your partner that she doesn’t respect you enough, or that he doesn’t value you. What happens if you “win” that argument? What happens if you are “right” that your wife doesn’t respect you? What are you left with if you’re “right” that your husband doesn’t value you? Well, you “won the right” to a have partner who doesn’t respect or value you!
Is that what you want?
No, it’s not. That’s what we mean by fighting to be right about things we don’t want to be right about.
The Layer Cake of Fights
In addition, you tend to focus intently on your partner’s bad behavior and/or bad character traits. Now, you might begin to throw in digs like, “You’re such a coward”, “You’re manipulating me!” or, “I should have known you were a narcissist; I should have never married you!”
Statements like these really sting. They leave an open wound with salt thrown in for good measure. And once they’re said, they can’t be un-said. Once they’ve heard, they can’t be erased from memory. Which means they’re likely to be brought up in the next fight.
Every insult and hurtful remark only make things worse. Your fight might have started as a conversation about who spends more money, but by adding incendiary remarks like these, you add a whole new layer to the problem. Now, not only do you have a conflict about money, you also have the pain and hurt over calling each other names. You begin to build a layer cake of problems, and you lose sight of what was on the bottom layer.
Most couples are unskilled in noticing and managing the process of fighting. As a result, it becomes close to impossible to address the legitimate issues you need to deal with as a couple. (By the way, it’s not your fault if you don’t have these skills yet. Most of us never received any kind of support or training to figure this out).
What to do about Fights
If you haven’t developed a positive process for fighting, you can at least attempt to minimize the damage of the layer cake. If you catch yourself heating up or feeling fear or anger, you’re better off not even trying to have a conversation. Better to interrupt the interaction in any way you can. Once you start to over-heat, anything you say is likely to add to the problem, not the solution. So better zip it and take a break, somehow.
Some couples develop hand signals that signify, “Let’s take a break, this is getting out of hand”. It could be putting your hand on your chest or putting your hand up as if to say “Pause”. Sometimes, you give yourself a timeout by saying, “I’m so charged up right now I can’t think straight! I’m going out to calm myself; we can pick this up later”. You might go do a fast workout, listen to loud music on your headphones, or go outside and smash a stick on a tree (the last two examples are from my own repertoire).
Once you’ve calmed down, try again. If you tend to land in the same spot, get help. Learn a better process for fighting and communicating. These are learnable skills that will serve you as long as you’re in a relationship.
So try out what we’ve shared here. Notice the difference between what you fight about and how you fight about it. The how is the important part, as it will either leave you feeling closer or ever more separated. We strongly recommend you take the free mini-workshop above. It’s a fast, easy, and step-by-step guided approach to stop fighting in your relationship, or at the very least, de-escalating fights when they do happen!