If you and your partner are in a rough spot where you are fighting a lot, here are some tips how to stop fighting in a relationship and keep your connection stronger.
- Understand The Pattern – In order to prevent a fight, you must be able to clearly identify your pattern as a couple. Pull out a piece of paper and take notes on your interactions. Think about the past few fights and identify the item that triggered the fight, who did what (attacks, blames, avoids, shuts down, defensiveness, etc), and how you two resolved the fight. Writing it down helps you see each step clearly.
- Take Care of Yourself – If you are overly tired, hungry, or stressed out, you may not be in the best place to communicate effectively. Make sure to keep your body well fed, rested, and relaxed. The more your body is taken care of, the more you will be able to regulate emotionally.
- Speak Up Sooner – Sometimes people can feel their partner is a bit “off,” but they don’t speak up or check in. If you feel like your partner is distant or irritated, share with them: “I feel like something is off and I don’t want to take it the wrong way. Are you upset with me for some reason? Is there something I should know?”
- Break Your Habits – It takes two to tango and it only takes one person to step out of a fight. Stop your normal response. This will help keep your partner from reacting their normal way. For example, if you tend to react quickly, blame, or get angry, make extra effort to bite your tongue, don’t interrupt, and speak calmly. Don’t continue the dance of escalation. The less attacking you are, the less your partner will shut down or attack back. If you avoid shutting down, the less your partner will want to knock down your walls with sharp words.
- Reassure the connection – Most couples get into fights because they feel misunderstood, on separate pages, or disconnected. If that big scary topic must get discussed and history says a fight always happens when you bring it up, then set up some safety. Keep the bond connected by reassuring your partner that you two will get through the difficult discussion, that you care about them, and that you aren’t giving up. Touch is also very defusing.
Think You’re Dodging the Drama? Avoiding a Fight Can Cause a Fight
Why Holding Back Can Backfire
When your partner gets your blood boiling, it might be tempting to push down your feelings and try to avoid a fight. Sometimes that just seems easier, and at the end of a long day the last thing you want to do is end up in an argument. The thing is, by suppressing your feelings about whatever is bothering you, you can actually cause a bigger fight. Keeping quiet can backfire, and you just wind up in an argument anyway. It’s better to communicate your issues, or avoiding a fight can actually cause the fight!
Sometimes taking a breather will help you calm down about a problem, but sometimes it just makes your partner stew even more. Especially if what you’re upset about is an ongoing issue, keeping silent will only make the issue unresolved, causing you both to get angrier and angrier over time. Your feelings or your partner’s feelings will eventually come out because either one of you will build up steam like a tea kettle until you scream! Emotions can’t stay suppressed forever – they will always come bubbling to the surface. By the time you express what you’re thinking, your emotions are built up to be stronger and the fight will be bigger.
If you try to avoid a fight over one issue, your feelings can come out as a fight over something else. Before you know it, you’re complaining about how your husband parks the car or how he was 5 minutes late coming home from work. Basically, avoiding a fight might bring up tensions in other areas of your relationship. The anger you feel has to find its way out somehow, and it might come out an an unexpected time. Instead of bickering over the small stuff that you’re not REALLY that mad about, just address the bigger issue so your fighting doesn’t pop up randomly.
It’s Hard to Hide Your Feelings
Your partner can probably tell when you’re upset, even when you think your hiding it. Sometimes just the fact that you are obviously holding something back can cause a fight. If your partner says “What’s wrong?” and you say “Nothing,” it can cause an argument because you’re not being honest and that is very frustrating for the other person. Don’t make your spouse guess about what’s bothering you – she or he will probably just get annoyed. It’s better to bring up the issue on your own so your spouse doesn’t have to play the guessing game which leads to a fight.
Creating a Cycle
The more you withdraw from your partner, the more his or her volume will increase to get your attention. You might think you are being smart by walking away to avoid escalating the situation, but all your partner thinks is that you are not interested in dealing with the issue and that you don’t care. Your good intentions can easily be misconstrued and lead to a harsher tone from your partner, and soon — an argument. This cycle is not healthy and you should nip it in the bud. Instead of just walking away, which will look like you are jumping ship, make an effort to explain that you love your partner, but you want to avoid escalation so you need to cool of for 30 minutes. Then — and this is important — you need to fulfill your promise and return to the conversation as promised.
Even though you might think you’re avoiding a fight, staying silent when you’re mad can lead to a fight – maybe one that’s bigger than the original fight would have been! It’s better to deal with things head on, even if you need a short cooling off period first. Deal with the issue as soon as possible so you don’t have a colossal argument because you were trying to steer clear of the drama!
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Don’t Be Afraid to Fight
Often people worry that if they are fighting in their relationship that that means they do not belong together. But the truth is that fighting can actually help your relationship become healthier – if you do it right. Arguments, especially in the beginning of your relationship, help to define where the lines are. However, it is important to know what you are fighting about, to be clear about what is upsetting you, and to say what you really mean. Sometimes this is easier said than done.
Every relationship establishes boundaries at some point.
Fighting in the form of disagreements, arguing, bickering, and even an all out yelling match can help to define these boundaries when you are just getting to know someone. When you are dating or even when you have been with someone for years, you have to be able to say what you like and what you don’t like. It has to be ok to say, “Hey, you are about to cross a line, you better be careful.” One of the benefits of being close to another person is that we don’t always need to say everything with perfect composure. When you share what’s upsetting you with your partner you are checking in to see if the other person cares about what you care about. I recently overheard a couple bickering about what bar they were going to go to. I could tell that what the woman was really asking him, with her irritation, was: “Do you care?”
Fighting can help you feel heard.
Fighting can be useful but only if it is productive. If you are the kind of fighter that likes to scream obscenities and use fowl language, be sure to include what you are really mad about. Some relationships fall apart simply because one of the participants never says why they are angry. This happens either because they don’t feel safe to talk about it or they were taught that their needs and feelings were not going to be heard. Then the tension just builds and builds into an explosion of emotion. One way to avoid many fights is to talk about what upsets you earlier. The more you hold things in, the heavier they will become. If you are not good at saying what is bothering you, practice with small things first or get support from your local San Diego couples therapist.
Finally, sometimes we don’t really want to fight at all.
Sometimes, we don’t know how to ask for what we really need, so we result to fighting as an attempt at feeling connection with our partner. Someone once shared with me that she would come home from a long hard day at work and start a fight with her partner. She was not sure what was happening. I knew what she really needed was to be held and made to feel better. However, this was not something that she was used to getting growing up. Argument and conflict was the only way that she learned how to connect with her loved ones, so she brought that into her romantic life. If there is one powerful way to completely avoid squabbles, it is to step back and ask yourself what you really need in this situation and then ask for it in a calm and clear way.
Closeness at the levels of a romantic relationship can be pretty challenging at certain points. Perfect harmony and bliss is not going to be possible all the time. But if you get it all out there and tell your partner when they are stepping on your toes, it will help. Make sure to say what is really happening for you. And if what you really need is a hug or a foot rub then practice asking for it. In the end being open and real -even if it is heated, will bring you closer to your partner.
Communication Advice: How to Practice Fighting Fair in Your Marriage
There are some couples who fight explosively and often, and others who seem to rarely get into a heated argument. Perhaps you can recall separate relationships you have been in where each has had a different “fight dynamic”. Regardless of how you define what a fight is, we all at some point encounter conflict, or disagreements, in our relationships. If our emotional needs aren’t attended to, even the small things that get dismissed or “swept under the rug” can develop into larger issues later down the line. Merely avoiding a fight does not resolve conflict.
As strange as it sounds, fighting (or conflict) can be part of a healthy relationship if both partners adhere to some “Fighting Fair” rules.
- Don’t dismiss the parts you have done or said to trigger your partner: An argument is hardly ever one-sided; both sides contribute. We can all have a different perspectives on the same situation. Dismissive comments such as “You took that the wrong way”, “you’re just being sensitive”, or “that’s not how I remember it”, etc. will just get you further down the wrong path. Stating “I understand that this upset you” will help you both come to mutual understanding.
- Connect through touch: This doesn’t mean sexy time; if your partner (or you) is upset or highly accelerated, an embrace or understanding touch can help send the message that you are there for them and listening- and can also be physically calming. Make-up sex doesn’t really make-up for anything (sorry to break the bad news), and sex will always be better later when you are both in a good place with each other emotionally.
- No “Buts” about it: You’ve probably heard this one before- a “but” completely erases everything said before the “but”. It also signifies to your partner that you aren’t fully listening and understanding, but dismissing their feelings and becoming defensive. It’s amazing how differently something comes across if “but” statements are reframed to more vulnerable, instead of defensive, language.
- Try to remain calm: Yelling or raising your voice will probably accelerate things further. If your partner begins yelling, responding calmly will help regulate them automatically. If you start the yelling, they will probably respond in like, and it will push them into defensive mode. You can’t be vulnerable and understanding when volume becomes hostile.
- Express how you feel, not how you think your partner feels: You already heard me make some statements about being vulnerable. A key point in vulnerability (which leads to understanding and compassion from the other side) is being careful to state how you feel instead of blaming your partner. A statement regarding your own feelings such as, “I feel unappreciated and I worry I can’t do enough to keep you happy”, is very different than stating “You are so ungrateful”.
- Don’t bring in other issues: This would be hard to do if you are aware of the other rules, but it’s important so it deserves to be restated. Saying, “yeah, but, that one time you did something similar” is not only diverting from the topic, but it’s also dismissing, using ‘but’, blaming, and probably breaking other rules as well. If you are more focused the core issue, the faster you can come to an understanding.
- Be sensitive to ‘soft spots’: Throwing a ‘blow below the belt’ is using harsh or blaming language especially where it doesn’t belong, such as throwing in a comment for the spite of it. This is where we usually are hurt, so we throw in something to hurt our partner as well. If you attack your partner, you have just added to the conflict.
- Don’t generalize: Using “always” or “never” is much too broad and can easily lead to defensiveness. Being specific is much more helpful in sharing how you feel about something. Stating “It hurts me when we don’t greet each other when I get home”, is more constructive and has more emotional vulnerability than “you never acknowledge me”.
- No accusations/degrading language: Not only is this blaming, it’s disrespectful to your partner. Hurtful language is a dangerous misstep.
- Do not use force: Physical force is obviously never acceptable, but verbal force can make your partner feel cornered and play defense. If they aren’t ready to discuss something, respect them. Reassure them that you are open and ready to discuss when they feel comfortable.
- Don’t pull the ‘divorce’ or ‘break-up’ card: Making threatening remarks about ending your relationship will either make your partner feel less safe sharing anything with you, or cause that ugly defensive side to show up again. Discussing your long-term compatibility is a very different discussion than ‘up-ing the ante’.
- Listen: If you think it’s important that you are heard, your partner likely feels the same way too. Communication is a two way process; allow them a turn to speak and share. Don’t just be silent when they speaking, but use touch and validating language to show you care what they are saying and that it has an impact on you.
- Validate your partner: You don’t necessary need to agree with your partner’s point to validate them. Just because you don’t feel a particular way about something, your partner has a different background and experience in the matter than you do. Acknowledge how they feel, and don’t write it off. They feel that way for a reason.
- Don’t expect to solve everything in one day: If some of these points sound repetitive or similar, it’s because they are. Fighting usually occurs in cycles, and these really aren’t each separate points, but a pattern that you probably see repeating itself. It takes time to change a negative cycle of fighting, and the more ground rules you can adhere to, the easier the rest will come.
If you are having trouble identifying where the negativity in your disagreements comes into play, or if you experience the same fight repeatedly, meeting with a Marriage and Family Therapist can help you sort out what the fights are really about and help guide you back on the right track. For additional support and to schedule an appointment, you can
Here are the steps you can take to prevent defensiveness:
1. Notice your patterns and change them
The first key to creating healthy communication is to notice your patterns and change them. As I mentioned in the article “Defensiveness: The Roadblock to Communication,” relationships are like a baby mobile: each move impacts the other. Each couple has built a unique dynamic of communication that both play a part in — know that you have the power to change that dynamic.
2. Don’t let your emotions (or temper) take over
Don’t lose your temper! Don’t let your emotions take over – it can be difficult to think clearly or logically when this happens. When your emotions take over you may also interpret actions or words in a different way than was intended. Slow down and breathe. Your frustration when you partner is acting defensively will show and just add more fuel to the fire. Put down that pitchfork and stay focused on the feelings of hurt underneath it all.
3. Start the conversation with vulnerability and take responsibility
Your partner may not know why you are hurt by something they are doing or have done, especially if the base of this hurt is from an outside factor like childhood. They can’t read your mind, try to let them in on the background of the hurt in a calm conversation, and be open to listening. For example, “I always felt as if I didn’t matter as a child. I was never seen. Now, when I talk and the TV is on, I feel like I am invisible again. You probably don’t mean to send me that message at all. I know how much you like your show. But it actually hurts and brings me back to that place of being a kid again.”
4. Open on a positive note by showing appreciation for what your partner has done.
If they don’t feel like their good efforts are acknowledged and only hear about how they messed up again, they will feel defeated. Remember also to balance any negative comments with positive reinforcement and praise. You’re in this relationship for a reason, and it’s good to reinforce the love you feel for the other person.
5. Sandwich the negative between a positive and an alternative:
I call this the Safety Sandwich (you can read more about it here). You want to start with a positive, express what you want changed (the negative), and give an alternative. For example: “I really appreciate you calling me when you were going to be late, but it upset me that you waited until the last minute to let me know and I felt unappreciated. Next time, if you could let me know as soon as something comes up so I feel more prepared I would appreciate it.” This way you are not attacking your partner and you are giving them an alternative that they know would help make you feel valued.
6. Give your partner the benefit of the doubt.
Finally, and most importantly, give your partner the benefit of the doubt. Consider their side of the situation. Listen, breathe, and think before you respond.
If your partner does respond defensively, try to understand what is underneath the reaction. Ask meaningful questions about how they are feeling and be sincerely curious around their response. Deep down, it might be them feeling as if they are not good enough and they need your compassion.