When it comes to relationships, conflict is inevitable. But it doesn’t have to be emotionally distressing or callous. Couples can disagree and, yes, even fight while still showing compassion and respect for each other, according to psychologists.
In fact, clinical psychologist Deborah Grody says, married couples who don’t have any conflict are often the ones who end in divorce. “Relationships that can’t be saved are relationships where the flame has completely gone out, or it wasn’t there in the first place,” she says. When one or both partners are indifferent toward their relationship, they don’t care enough to even fight, according to Grody.
That said, frequent heated and hurtful conflict is certainly not healthy or sustainable, either. You can have conflicts with your partner in a constructive way, and it may actually bring you closer together, according to a 2012 paper published by the Society for Personality and Social Psychology. Researchers found that expressing anger to a romantic partner caused the short-term discomfort of anger, but also incited honest conversations that benefited the relationship in the long run.
If you want to navigate conflict with your partner in a healthier and more productive way, keep these things in mind during your next argument:
Be curious about your fights
During counseling sessions, Noam Ostrander, an associate professor of social work at DePaul University, often asks couples, “What does the 5:30 fight look like on weekdays?”
“They sort of smile because they know,” says Ostrander. That’s because, Ostrander says, couples often have the same fight over and over — almost following a script — without solving anything.
A common cause of “the 5:30 fight,” Ostrander says, is one partner wanting to tell the other about their day, and the other partner avoiding it — needing a minute to decompress after getting home from work. This likely leads to one partner accusing the other of not caring about them, and the other partner feeling attacked.
Instead, Ostrander encourages couples to pinpoint what triggers this repetitive fight, and try out ways to compromise instead of allowing the conflict to erupt. Rather than following the same old script, notice that you fight when one person gets home, and suggest a new way around that. “You can say, ‘What if we just pause, say hello or kiss hello, give it 15 minutes, and come back together,’” Ostrander says. This way, both partners can communicate that they do want to hear about the other person’s day and together, find the best way to do that.
Schedule a time for conflict
Despite having even the most open lines of communication, conflicts are still bound to happen. And when they do, it’s helpful to choose a time to talk through problems, according to Grody. “If you start to have a fight, say, ‘Let’s pick it up this evening, or another time when there’s time to discuss things,’” she says.
Setting aside time to work out disagreements allows both partners the space to regroup and prepare, Grody explains. They can think about the best way to communicate their feelings in a calmer, more rational way, so as to avoid the instinct of being defensive or accusatory. “Most of the time, things are said on impulse in the heat of anger,” says Grody. “But the words stay with us.”
Call a timeout if you or your partner needs one
During an argument, it’s common for one or both partners to enter “fight, flight or freeze” mode, according to Ostrander. Humans enter one of these modes when they think they may be in danger, he says. “Fight or flight” refers to when stress hormones activate to give people more energy to either fight the stressor or run from the situation. And “freeze” mode occurs when a person simply does not react at all, in hopes that the stressor loses interest in the fight, he says.
When a couple is in this precarious zone, problem solving is highly unlikely, because each person is solely focused on reacting to the perceived threat they feel from their partner. And if only one person is in the “fight, flight or freeze” mode, while the other is trying to resolve the issue, it can frustrate both people and escalate the fight, Ostrander says.
“If you’re really upset with someone and they’re trying to problem solve, it can feel like they’re not even listening,” he says. “I often encourage, in those moments, that someone needs to call a timeout.”
And you can frame this timeout in a way that doesn’t make your partner feel like you’re simply walking away. “Perhaps somebody says, ‘Okay, I want to have this conversation. I need like 10 minutes to calm down. I love you, I’m not going anywhere,’” Ostrander says. “‘We’re going to come back to this, we’re going to figure it out.’”
When returning to the discussion after the brief hiatus, both people will be in a better place to make real progress, Ostrander says.
Make requests instead of complaints
Fights often start with the same two words: “You always.” Rather than asking their partner to do something they’d like them to do, like cleaning up around the house, people jump to make accusations, according to Ostrander.
“You’re not getting what you want, because of how you’re asking for it,” he says. It’s easier for people to ask their partner why they never do something than it is to simply request that they do it.
Saying, “I’m not feeling great. I’m stressed about the way the house looks. Would you mind picking some stuff up?” is more direct and respectful than putting your loved one down for his or her failure to meet your need, Ostrander says. It’s also more likely to result in your partner completing the task.
Listen, and ask your partner for clarification
When the time comes to sit down and talk about solving conflicts, Grody says the most important thing couples can do is to listen — without interrupting. This can be more challenging than it seems. If your loved one says he or she doesn’t feel heard, for example, you should listen until your partner is finished speaking, according to Grody. Then, ask for clarification if there is something you don’t quite understand.
Asking, “what makes you feel like I’m not listening?” is a much more tactful way to address your partner’s complaint than simply saying, “well, I’m listening, so you should feel heard,” Grody says. Making sure you’re holding eye contact and positioning your body toward your partner when he or she is speaking will also signal that you are listening. These small adjustments can prevent countless fights down the road, Grody says.
And of course, during any fight, insults and character assassinations should be avoided at all costs, according to Grody. “Once it gets to the point where there’s name calling and things like that, the discussion should stop,” she says. “It’s not going to go anywhere.” Couples can come back to the conversation when both parties have had time to cool down.
Learn the right way to apologize to your partner
Just as people have different love languages, Ostrander says we have different apology languages, too. It’s not enough to recognize that you’ve hurt your loved one and you owe them an apology: You have to know them enough to tailor your apology to their needs, according to Ostrander.
“Some people want big gestures and some people want, ‘I’m really sorry I hurt your feelings, and I will take steps not to do that again,’” says Ostrander. “The process is figuring out what’s meaningful for your partner.”