Healthy Fighting for Couples--What??

Recently I was asked by a journalist for Martha Stewart Weddings about my best tips for diffusing (and getting through) any fight. Here’s what I sent her:

Can you explain a little bit about how fighting is normal in relationships—especially romantic ones?

This is an interesting question because while it is true that a certain amount of conflict is not only unavoidable but is actually healthy, it depends upon the type of fighting. Healthy conflict is depended upon secure attachment and the ability to hold boundaries. You need to be able to say that “this is my position” or “these are my feelings” and be comfortable that the relationship is strong enough to withstand you holding such boundaries. This also involves a healthy feeling of self-worth, “I am worth being listened to or having my feelings taken into consideration,” and feelings of trust and safety, both physical and emotional, “I can trust my partner”.

Some signs of unhealthy conflict include what John Gottman calls the four horsemen: Criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling (

Having no conflict in a relationship can be a sign of problems, as well. If you never fight, you never resolve problems. It tends to indicate that one or both parties are acceding to the others’ wishes automatically and without thought. This can be based on feelings of low self-worth (I’m not worthy of defending my position), avoidance (it’s easier to submit), or lack of safety (this can range from avoiding the discomfort of conflict up to physical and/or emotional threat of danger). It’s important to note that even healthy relationships have issues that are going to cause conflict because relationships involve two people with both similar and different needs and desires.


What are 5-7 of your best tips for diffusing (and getting through) any fight with your significant other? 

  1. Time outs. Is the conversation getting too heated? Do you find yourself repeating the same thing over and over and still not being heard? You may need to take a break. Engage in some self-care, whatever that is for you (take a walk, go to the gym, read, watch Project Runway, etc.). Refresh, so that you can come back to the discussion able to hear and be heard. Taking a break from the argument does not mean stopping it and never coming back. It means recognizing that you’re in a heightened emotional state and need a cool-down. I recommend not letting a time out last longer than 24 hours.

  2. Learn how to listen. I teach a style of reflective listening developed by Henry Harville called “Couple’s Dialogue”, but there are many different styles of reflective listening. This dialogue involves mirroring, validating, and empathizing. The way I teach it is to have one person be the sender and the other person be the receiver. The sender gets to share their frustration, one or two digestible sentences at a time. The receiver literally repeats what the sender said, mirroring what was said without interpreting it or putting it in their own words. This ensures that the sender thinks about how to discuss their frustration in a succinct manner, and the receiver avoids their defenses rising up and drowning out what their partner is saying. When the sender feels fully heard (often after sending several times, elaborating and fully expressing themselves), the receiver validates what the sender is saying. Validation means expressing to the sender that you heard them, that you can understand why they feel the way they do. This is not necessarily agreeing with them, but rather giving them the space and “permission” to feel what they feel. The final step is empathy. This is stating that, “If I were you, I imagine that I would feel…” This involves the receiver putting themselves in their partner’s shoes, and thinking about how they would react and feel if they faced the same frustration. Then the roles are switched. This gives the receiver space to defend themselves and have their side heard. It sounds (and is) awkward but ultimately assists in defusing the situation and helping the couple draw closer to each other.

  3. Learn how to talk. Avoid criticising your partner, which is when the argument becomes about the person your partner is, rather than the specific action or issue. Avoid contempt, which can be displayed many ways being, including disrespect, name-calling, sarcasm, and body language. Avoid defensiveness. When you’re immediately wracking your brain for an excuse, you’re not paying attention to what the other person is saying. Avoid stonewalling. If you find yourself shutting down, take a break. If you throw up your hands and say, “Fine, whatever you want!”, chances are good you’re going to end up resenting your partner for doing what you just gave them permission to do.

  4. Know your and your partner’s argument style. Are you a pursuer or do you withdraw? Chances are you are one and your partner is the other. Do you find yourself following your partner from room to room to continue the argument? Do you withdraw (physically or mentally) from a fight? Withdrawers tend to need a little space to calm down, reflect, and figure out how they feel. Pursuers tend to get anxious if the argument isn’t resolved RIGHT NOW. Recognize which one you are. Withdrawers, remember that your break is to allow you to refocus and COME BACK to the argument. Take some time to yourself in a safe place to think about the argument and the things you really want to express. Pursuers, recognize that the world won’t end if you take a break from the argument. Take a walk, run, anything to expend some of that anxious energy. If you find your fight spiraling out of control, agree to a time-out and agree to continue the discussion sometime in the next 24 hours when you’re both more capable of being constructive.

  5. Know your go-to defense. Are you a fighter or a flee-er? Do you hide, submit, play dead, or freeze? Once you become aware of the way that you respond when you’re feeling defensive, you can learn to recognize when you need a time out.

  6. Learn how to say, “when you do X, I feel Y”. It’s not about what the other person did, but about how it made you feel. When you’re arguing about the superficial you’re ignoring the roots of the issue. “You never clean the litterbox” becomes “When you don’t clean the litterbox I end up having to do it, and I feel like you take me for granted, and it makes me feel sad and lonely.”

  7. Sex. You have all this pent-up energy, why not use it in something that will bring pleasure? Make sure you have your partner’s enthusiastic consent. After you’ve had this release of serotonin and dopamine and all the “feel good” hormones the argument may not seem so insurmountable, and compromise may be far more easily achieved.