When my boyfriend and I started dating, we prided ourselves on never fighting. We’d casually mention this with smug smiles slapped across our faces as if we were Dax Shepard and Kristin Bell about to crush another cute, couple-y appearance on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show.” (I know, I’m cringing for us, too). As you might have deduced from the title of this article, we were dead wrong.
We went through an entire year of dating without a single fight. And what did that year of supposed bliss result in? One gigantic fight. One drunken night we both decided to air all of the tiny grievances we had been bottling up. The next day, this blowout progressed to a more civilized, sober conversation during which we realized that if we wanted our relationship to have even a shot at lasting, we were going to have to learn to handle disagreements in the moment. Among other things, it became clear it was key to feeling truly comfortable and safe within our relationship.
Our long-held misconception isn’t unique. “Many feel there is judgment or shame around the word ‘fight,’ as if it means a relationship is dysfunctional or a failure when there is fighting,” says Jennie Marie Battistin, LMFT, clinical director and founder of Hope Therapy Center. In reality, fighting is a natural component of a healthy relationship, not unlike showing affection or chatting about your shared interests. “When two people with different life experiences and personalities come together, there are going to be some areas they disagree on or see differently,” Battistin adds.
Why are we so terrified of fighting?
Our fear of fighting mainly comes down to the way American society perceives and portrays the act. The cross-generational myth that a “normal” couple does not fight was first portrayed in early TV shows, like ‘Leave It To Beaver,’” says relationship therapist Nicole Richardson, LMFT-S, LPC-S. While fighting has become slightly more prevalent between couples in sitcoms like “Friends” or “Schitt’s Creek,” Richardson says “few depict it as it truly feels and plays out and even fewer show how much work it is to keep a relationship healthy.” A single scroll through the Instagram feed of your choice serves as a gigantic reminder that we’re still perpetuating the same myth. And it’s not just influencers. “Nobody in their right mind who wants to keep their relationship is going to caption their post, ‘I swear to god, if my boyfriend doesn’t do the dishes….’” she says. “All we see online is how great it is to be in a relationship.”
When we do see real couples fighting, it’s typically on reality TV, and anyone who’s caught an episode of “Vanderpump Rules” can attest to the fact that it’s not pretty. “What you see on reality television is people throwing things, screaming, and having meltdowns in these terribly toxic, unhealthy relationships, because that’s what’s going to get you on TV,” Richardson adds.
So, in effect, we’re stuck with two extremes: couples who fight are doomed, and couples who don’t are to be revered. But the opposite is true. “I often find relationships without fighting are actually more dysfunctional because there is avoidance and/or denial of issues,” says Battistin. “Lack of fighting in a relationship can be a symptom of codependency, fear that your partner will leave if you bring up an issue, or a tendency to fall into people-pleasing and abandonment of one’s own needs.”
Take 23-year-old Plamen, for example. “In general, I dislike fighting, because I think it only complicates things and leads to more problems,” he says. “Also, I’m afraid to start a fight as it might lead to separation and me being alone.” Plamen, who also admits to catering to the “every need” of former partners to avoid conflict, believes he fears disagreements within his own relationships because of the big, ugly fights he witnessed between his parents.
Fighting doesn’t always have to be ugly.
To Plamen and — to be totally honest — me for the entire first year of my relationship, fighting was always perceived as a messy, awful thing that inevitably left both parties hurt. Richardson notices this misconception a lot when she asks couples how they fight, a standard question during initial couples therapy sessions. “There are some couples who hear the word ‘fight,’ and they hear ‘put up your dukes, screaming, yelling, throwing, hitting.’” But that’s not what Richardson means by fighting, nor is it what the word truly implies. “For some people, when they say, ‘oh, we never fight,’ they mean, ‘we don’t yell at each other, we don’t disrespect each other.’ If you have a relationship where there’s no name-calling or inappropriate boundary-crossing — that’s rad! Be proud of that.” But don’t mistake it for never fighting.
If you have a relationship where there’s no name-calling or inappropriate boundary-crossing — that’s rad! Be proud of that. But don’t mistake it for never fighting.
How can you make a fight positive and productive?
If you and your partner are convinced expressing any sort of dissatisfaction will result in some sort of dramatic scene resembling a teaser clip for the next episode of “The Bachelor,” Richardson comes bearing suggestions. First, she recommends taking some time to cool off before initiating a contentious conversation. Once you’ve done that, apply the Gottman technique of boiling your feelings down to “I feel,” “I want,” and “I need.” Let’s say you feel as though one of your partner’s friends was rude to you and your partner didn’t do enough to defend you. You might let it sit overnight and then say, “I feel hurt. I want to feel like you have my back. I need for us to be OK.” Richardson explains operating this way transforms your fight into something that will propel your relationship forward rather than possibly tanking it.
My boyfriend, Brian, agrees that learning to embrace conflict truly transformed our relationship. “Knowing that it’s OK to fight made it easier for me to be honest with you about how I feel,” he says. I feel the same. There’s no longer — or at least much less — holding things in and letting resentment build. Instead, we say how we feel when we feel it, deal with it, and move on feeling closer than we did before the conflict arose in the first place.
“There’s nothing wrong with being angry,” says Richardson. “The anger — the feeling — isn’t what gets us into trouble. It’s the way we behave when we’re angry.” So next time your partner says something that makes you so exasperated you could just burst, don’t try to shove that feeling deep down inside. Instead, use it as an opportunity to make your relationship stronger than it was the day before.