Relationship conflict, as with most things, is best in moderation.
On the one hand, fighting is a universally unpleasant experience. There’s even evidence that stress from repeated fighting can harm couples’ physical health. For example, this study found that day-to-day arguments between couples can exacerbate the symptoms of certain chronic illnesses. Another study found a link between hostile bickering and a higher incidence of leaky gut, a condition in which bacteria escape from the digestive tract into the bloodstream.
On the other hand, conflict isn’t always inherently a bad thing. On the contrary, some fighting is essential for the health of a relationship. “If you’re not fighting at all, this usually means it’s not safe enough to have differences,” says Mark B. Borg, a New York City-based clinical psychologist and co-author of Relationship Sanity: Creating and Maintaining Healthy Relationships. (In the leaky gut study, it’s worth noting, the findings didn’t apply to couples who calmly worked through their disagreements.)
It’s not easy to argue constructively, but it’s an essential skill to develop. And as you improve at it, your relationship improves, too. Below, experts lay out a mix of strategies — preventative, spontaneous, reflective — to help you successfully navigate troubled waters with your partner.
Identify, and then tweak, your fighting patterns.
Most people tend to fall into one of several categories when it comes to conflict resolution. Some try to stay away from disputes altogether, or withdraw from them (avoidant). Others can get fixated on winning the fight at all costs (competing). Still others will prematurely let go of their gripes in order to move on (accommodating). Unlike avoidant people, explains Katie Krimer, a New York City-based psychotherapist, those who tend to be more accommodating will engage in a fight; they’ll just bury the hatchet before things have truly been hashed out, often at the cost of ignoring their own concerns.
“Couples who are collaborative are really interested in working as a team, and consequently increasing their intimacy even as an outcome of conflict.”
None of these are healthy resolution mechanisms — but to move past them, you and your partner first have to identify the label that most closely applies to each of you, Krimer says. Once you understand how each of you tends to fight, you can more effectively train yourself to adopt a different style, like compromise (letting go of things you can’t change and finding a middle ground) and collaboration (working like a team to find a solution).
“Couples who are collaborative are really interested in working as a team, and consequently increasing their intimacy even as an outcome of conflict,” says Krimer. And unsurprisingly, collaboration and compromise tend to be the most productive conflict styles. One 2011 study in the Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy found that couples who adopted the collaborative style to address misunderstandings were the most satisfied in their marriages, followed by those who typically used compromise. (The couples that resorted to competing were the least satisfied in their unions.) Other studies have found similar support for both styles, while linking avoidance and competition to worse marital outcomes.
Learn how to really apologize.
Apologizing isn’t as simple as saying “I’m sorry” and waiting to be forgiven, but it does start with a true expression of remorse. Too often, Krimer says, someone will offer up an “I’m sorry you’re hurt,” rather than acknowledging that they’ve done something to cause that hurt. A 2016 study on effective apologies found that owning up to mistakes is the most crucial step of the process. (To make an apology truly rock-solid, the authors noted, there’s another important step: promise to make things better by taking concrete action.) And in another study from 2013, when people felt their partners had apologized sincerely, their anger faded more quickly.
Borg says that owning up to your role in the fight helps you reclaim your agency in making things right. “I’m not telling you to be self-critical or blame yourself, but to take responsibility so you can contribute to the solution,” he says.
But don’t feel compelled to do it immediately after the fight’s taken place. Other research has shown that the timing of apology can make a significant difference in how a conflict gets resolved; if you wait to apologize later, rather than right after an argument, your partner is more likely to be satisfied with your apology.
Let yourselves cool off.
You can memorize all the conflict-resolution research that’s ever been published and still fail to implement it in the heat of the moment. Emotions like anger and fear can make it hard to think rationally, which is why relationship experts urge couples to take a little time to cool down after a fight has occurred before trying to resolve things.
Being mindful of your mental state also helps to defuse high-voltage couple drama.
Cooling off doesn’t mean, though, that you should disengage or shut down — just that you should take a pause before continuing. Katherine M. Hertlein, a professor in the Couple and Family Therapy program at University of Nevada, Las Vegas School of Medicine, explains that it takes about 20 minutes for the body to calm back down to baseline after being in a fight-or-flight state. “But I suggest couples to take 40 minutes off, just to make sure they’re appropriately calm.”
Being mindful of your mental state also helps to defuse high-voltage couple drama. For a 2016 study in Hormones and Behavior, researchers asked 88 couples to discuss a conflict-inducing topic and measured their stress hormone levels before and after the conversation. People who had been mindful during the fight — meaning they were able to step back from their experience and approach the situation with an attitude of curiosity — seemed to bounce back fairly quickly to normal levels, compared to the participants who hadn’t been particularly mindful.
Hertlein says if a couple is really struggling to cool off after a few hours or even days, they could try emailing each other. “It allows space to slow down to be able to really say what you want out and be a receptive listener,” she says. An initial email can be a good jumping-off point for a thoughtful in-person dialogue.
Lean on your network.
Getting through a conflict is easier if you have outside sources of support, a common-sense fact that research backs up. One recent study, for example, found that newlywed couples who had access to emotional support from family and friends weren’t as stressed by marital spats as ones who had no community to lean on.
“Friends can help us make sense of things happening with our partners,” says William Chopik, an assistant professor of psychology at Michigan State University. “They can also give us advice, or provide us with a break to relax and not think about it for a while.”
If you want to turn to friends for advice, Krimer suggests reaching out to those who are good conflict role models. “These are people or couples,” Krimer explains, “that have healthy ways of negotiating conflict, have a great communication style or ability, demonstrate self-awareness, and don’t idealize their relationship, but still make it a high priority.” You and your partner might even seek advice jointly; one 2014 study found that couples felt closer to each other after enjoying an intense conversation with another couple.
Have a plan.
Understanding your fighting patterns is crucial, but it requires a lot of practice and communication to be able to unlearn ingrained bad habits. In the meantime, it helps to set some universal boundaries for healthy fighting early on in the relationship — for example, no name calling or use of profanity. “The last place you want to start setting up boundaries for your fight is in the middle of your fight,” says Borg. Find a time when you’re both happy to talk about what’s allowed and what’s off-limits, as well as triggers from past relationships.
From there, give your significant other some leeway when it comes to following the ground rules you’ve set down. “Allow yourself and your partner to not do very well at it for a while, because you’ve had these patterns all your life,” says Borg.
And whether you’ve just fallen in love or have been married for decades, it’s helpful to be aware of evergreen fight starters. A 2009 study in Family Relations found that the top three hot-button topics among couples, for instance, are children, division of labor, and money. “Being aware of how thorny topics affect you and your partner is extremely important,” says Chopik. “So be vigilant and deliberative with how you argue and discuss these topics.”
Hertlein contends that understanding why most fights happen — regardless of the topic — will go a long way in prepping couples for future relationship battles. One study from 2001 identified two main reasons why couples clash — perceived neglect and perceived threat. “Fighting about one person not doing chores might really be a fight about that person feeling that their partner is neglecting the relationship,” explains Hertlein. “In another case, fighting about chores might be that one person in the relationship doesn’t feel like they’re in control (perceived threat) and are trying to get back in control by ordering their partner to do chores. You really have to think about what the motivation is.”
Choose the right words.
Take time to carefully consider what you’re saying, and focus on understanding and moving the conversation forward rather than building clever arguments or one-upping. Chopik recommends leaning heavily on open-ended questions, like: “How do you feel about this?” and “What will make us both happy?”
Psychiatrist Scott Haltzman, author of The Secrets of Happily Married Women: How to Get More Out of Your Relationship by Doing Less, emphasizes the importance of replacing “you” statements with “I” statements. “Stating, ‘I feel abandoned when you answer your phone at dinner,’ gives your partner a chance to both recognize the problem and find ways to solve it,” he says. “In contrast, ‘Why do you always have to answer your phone?’ focuses on your partner’s faults.”
Take time to carefully consider what you’re saying, and focus on understanding and moving the conversation forward.
To make those “I” statements even stronger, research suggests you try to incorporate the other person’s perspective. “I’m concerned about your health, and I think you should go to the doctor” is fine. But “I understand you’re busy with work, but I’m concerned about your health, and I think it’s important for you to find time to go to the doctor” might be more effective.
And make sure you stay focused on the problem at hand. “Don’t dredge up things like ‘Oh, by the way, you didn’t take out the trash last Tuesday,’” says Chopik. “That’s not helpful if you’re talking about a problem related to in-laws.”
Do regular feeling check-ins.
So many spats could be avoided if concerns were addressed when they first appeared. But at least one study has shown that people are often bad at gauging their partners’ emotional state, and especially at knowing when their partner is sad. To prevent negative feelings from festering, it could be helpful to set aside some time regularly — perhaps once a week — to check in on how the two of you are feeling about each other.
“People think if you formally check in, you’re taking away from the love and the relationship, but you’re not,” says Krimer. “A relationship takes effort, it takes choice, and anything that takes effort and choice needs to have a check in.” If they’re truly distracted, don’t force them into it at the moment, but definitely muster the courage to do this exercise regularly.
“See what they say. Maybe they will say, ‘I don’t want to do these check-ins; it’s a little stupid,” says Krimer. “Maybe they will say — oh my god, I’m so glad we decided to do this.”