You’d be hard-pressed to find a person who would call fighting with their significant other “fun.” There are tears, at least one partner ends up saying something they don’t mean, and a poorly handled fight can even result in a breakup neither of you actually wants.
Although fighting at any stage of a relationship can be tricky, it’s especially tough when you’re in the earlier stages of dating and don’t know each other all that well. While there’s no specific “fighting formula” that works for everyone, even then, there are some tactics that can work pretty damn well — and some fighting methods you should avoid entirely.
Here’s what you need to know about “fighting right,” according to experts.
Figure out if the thing you want to fight about is actually worth it.
Full disclosure: When I first started dating my now-husband, I picked a fight with him about almost everything. If he looked at me the wrong way or said something in a tone I didn’t like, I confronted him about it. Looking back, I think I was testing him — I wanted to know if he really liked me as much as he said he did. But in the end, all it did was put our new relationship on thin ice.
According to Jessa Zimmerman, a couples’ and sex therapist and author of the book “Sex Without Stress,” it’s always a good idea to do a gut check before starting an argument to decide if it’s really worth it.
“You don’t need to bring up every annoyance or concern you have,” Zimmerman explains. “When you can let things go, do. Give your partner a little grace or the benefit of the doubt and move on.”
Of course, there are times when it is important to bring a topic to the surface. “If you find something is starting to pile up or you’re feeling resentful or distant, then you know the problem is getting in the way of your relationship,” says Zimmerman. “If that’s the case, those issues need to be addressed.”
Start the fight right.
Jenna, a 31-year-old woman in New York, admits that she’s terrible at the “beginning” phase of fighting with her new partner. “I always wait until exactly the wrong moment and then explode with something mean,” she says. “So far, he’s been pretty understanding about it, but I can already tell it’s taking a toll on the relationship we’re trying to build.”
According to Linda Carroll, a relationship expert and author of “Love Cycles,” how you start an argument has everything to do with where it will go. “If you begin with an attack or raised voice, the other person’s alarm system will be triggered and you won’t have a chance of being heard, as they will be in instant protective mode,” she explains.
Her suggestion? If you’re in a new relationship, talk to your partner about how you want to fight before it inevitably happens. “If it’s important to you that both you attempt to keep your tempers in check during a fight, let your partner know that,” she says. “Or ask if there are certain phrases he or she wants to use to initiate a difficult conversation that can save both of you from getting too worked up.
Use “I” language.
Once you’re ready to fight, Zimmerman says the worst thing you can do is hurl accusations at your partner. Instead, acknowledge what part you play and go from there.
“Distinguish between what you feel (sad, mad, glad, or afraid are the basic categories), what you think (the story you have or the meaning you have made of what’s happening), and what you want (a clear request. Not that you’ll necessarily get it!),” she says. “Talk about your own experience and viewpoint using ‘I’ language instead of talking about your partner and what they are doing wrong.”
If you’re consistent with what you want and need throughout the argument, your partner is much less likely to get defensive and more likely to come to a well thought-out conclusion with you that moves your relationship forward, not backward.
Avoid the fight ending in tears.
Zimmerman says that it’s crucial to avoid being cruel for the sake of being cruel during a fight.
“Don’t say things with the purpose of hurting your partner — which is different from saying things that are true that might happen to hurt your partner,” she says. “Don’t call names, don’t belittle, don’t humiliate, and don’t point out how they are just like their parent.”
If you find yourself floating toward this territory, try to take a beat to collect yourself. Count to 10 before speaking again, or even tell your partner you need to take a walk. A little fresh air will help you return to the conversation with more perspective and a calmer demeanor.
It’s important to remember that fighting can be a normal, healthy part of a relationship as long as you approach it in the right way. So get ready to say goodbye to those tears and shout matches, and start fighting right.
Work to recover when things do get bad.
Sometimes, despite your best efforts, a full-blown fight does happen, and you end up in a screaming match, saying way too many things you don’t mean. According to Zimmerman, when things escalate, the best thing you can do is take some time to cool off. Once you’ve done that, go back to your partner and return to the situation in a calmer way.
“Take ownership of the way you contributed to the fight escalating in the way it did, and apologize where appropriate,” she says. “Where could you have done things differently? This repair will go a long way to mitigate the damage that fighting can do.”
As for the whole “never go to bed angry” concept, Carroll says that’s a myth. “Trying to work out a fight when you’re tired — or maybe you’re ready to talk but your partner is tired — is a recipe for another fight. Both people need to be receptive and responsive rather than reactive, and for many people late at night is actually the worst time to try and talk.”
Her advice? Get a good night’s sleep, and talk it out in the morning. It’s OK that you got into a fight, and it’s OK if you get into another one. Fights happen, and as long as you learn from them, they don’t mean your relationship is unhealthy by any means.