I dated my college boyfriend for 10 years and then dove into marriage with him for the next 7. We rarely fought; we were best friends. Yet, in the end, we divorced. What happened? Reading about the research on what makes marriages work, we probably should have been fighting more.
There was too much unsaid in our relationship. Our not-fighting was a sign of not sharing our feelings rather than of contentedness. John Gottman, my favorite relationship researcher, points out that not fighting is a predictor of divorce!
Is marriage just about resolving conflicts? No, most marital arguments can’t be fully resolved (69% of them aren’t resolved according to Gottman). So it isn’t useful to cross your arms until things change. He simply won’t always be on time and she simply can’t help but need the bedroom to be spotless. We are generally so ingrained in our patterns, that while short-term changes may be possible, we are more likely to fall back into our patterns over the long term.
So if we can’t change each other or force the other person to be ‘perfect’ in our eyes, what can we do? We can “manage” the conflict instead of trying to resolve it. Here are a couple steps for you:
Fight better. Research shows it is not whether couples argue but how they argue that makes the difference. Focus your energy on learning more about what triggers you (what makes you really mad!). Find ways of staying calm so you can effectively communicate. You might want to practice breathing deeper or asking for a break when overwhelmed. Practice effectively communicating your needs. Two tips: (1) find ways of starting a conversation that doesn’t trigger your partner (e.g., make them defensive, or make them shut-down) and (2) research “non-violent communication” practices.
Accept him/her. Find a couple things about your partner that you are willing to accept just as they are. Maybe he is messy and maybe you just leave that alone. Maybe she isn’t great at making small talk at a party and maybe you just learn to live with that and be the “small-talker” of the couple. For each characteristic of your partner that you can “accept”, you just got rid of one cause of your fights!
Get curious. Another way to reduce fighting is to gain a greater understanding of your partner. Start asking (non-threatening) questions. “I would really like to understand you better. I noticed you don’t talk a lot at parties. Do you enjoy the parties?” Fights can easily arise when you start making assumptions about why your partner is like they are. A greater understanding of your partner can lead to greater empathy and less fighting.
Shift yourself. A huge key to shifting away from fighting with your partner is to understand yourself better. Each fight is caused by the dynamic between the two people. You are half of that dynamic and the problem is that you can’t control your partner’s behavior (as much as you would like to!). But, you can control how you behave. It is rather amazing but you can see big shifts in your dynamic by simply shifting yourself. This may look like changing the language you use to communicate, finding better times to communicate when both partners are calm, or even integrating yoga or meditation into your world. Yoga and meditation enable you to be less reactive to stressful situations. When I go to yoga regularly, I am a much better partner as I am calmer and kinder.
Make up! Most couples fight. What is critical for the long-term health of a relationship is the recovery after a fight. No recovery can lead to resentment and further anger. Develop a way of coming down and connecting after a fight. This can be a ritual of apologizing (“Wow, I am really sorry about how I acted.”) or maybe a ritual of appreciation (“I was really angry. I am calmer now and I wanted to tell you how much I appreciate you coming back together to talk with me.”) or maybe a ritual of affection “I am sorry. <<hug>>” Of course, offering regular affection, kindnesses, and positive statements about the relationship and each other forms the foundation that allows a couple to come down and connect following a fight. 85% of those who learn to effectively repair fights stay happily married.
So, no, your relationship isn’t doomed if you fight. But if you fight nasty, it might be. Learn to fight better, apologize sooner and make up sweetly.
Erin Oldham, Ph.D. is a researcher and relationship & divorce coach. Erin works with people as they navigate getting into, sustaining and getting out of relationships. She also works with people as they negotiate divorce and the post-divorce world. Erin has a Ph.D. in Psychology and has been researching child well-being and the formation of healthy relationships among children and adults for 20 years. She is approachable, pragmatic, empathic and effective. She facilitates intriguing, engaging workshops on these topics as well. Email her here.