What Couples Need To Know About Healthy and Unhealthy Fighting

In my many years as a family therapist, I have often seen the unintended consequences caused by chronic conflict-avoidance between a couple. Since we ALL avoid conflict to a certain extent–a necessity for the survival of a couple–I thought it might be useful to talk about what HEALTHY and UNHEALTHY conflict looks like.

First, the  UNHEALTHY. In my family  therapy practice nearly all couples come in with some version of chronic, unresolved fighting. In fact, that’s often their ticket of admission. Much of the tension in all of our relationships have to do with the daunting task of fitting two crazy people into one living, breathing organism called a Couple.

I’ve often said that all marriages are “mixed” marriages: All intimate relationships are inhabited by two people whose upbringing, family language and family culture are vastly different from each other. Learning our partner’s “culture” and–more difficult–understanding and accepting this foreign culture can be the challenge of a lifetime. The artistry with which we navigate these bi-cultural relationships often determine the health of our relationships.

Unhealthy patterns of conflict can take a number of different forms, but, in my experience, I’ve noticed two general types: The Disconnect and The Immovable Object.

The Disconnect: I’m reminded of a couple I saw many years ago. They were sitting quietly on the couch in my office, politely responding to my questions, a cool, outwardly calm relationship. Shortly into the session–my first meeting with this couple–I commented, “Boy, you guys are really fighting like cats and dogs!” They looked shocked. But it was true, and they, on some level, knew it. Their language with each other–both verbal and body–revealed a barely concealed hostility that had been building for years.

Sometimes these Disconnect couples come in to therapy for a “depression” in one partner, as was the case with that couple. Or they may come in following the discovery of an affair, or because of a problem with a child. They rarely come in for “couples’ therapy”, since they’ve avoided letting themselves know they have a problem. The good news is that, for many couples like these, removing the mask, giving them permission to air tensions, and beginning to explore  areas of unaddressed conflict usually ends with the couple in a much better place. The process may be difficult and painful at times, since they’re typically not used to delving beneath the surface of the relationship. But, in my experience, the vast majority of couples end up feeling  it’s worth the trip.

The Immovable Object: The other type of couple with a pattern of chronic, unresolved fighting is when one of the partners refuses to move. Or learn. Or acknowledge failure, or flaws. The rigid partner. This person comes in both genders, from my experience. It’s never an easy couple for a therapist to deal with, and, if things don’t change, if doesn’t look good for the long-term health of the couple.

Usually the fight involves a chronic pattern of one partner wanting to feel “heard” and the other partner shutting him or her down. That’s a rough outline, since of course there’s a lot more to it, but that’s the general drift. In these cases, the Unmovable One often has great difficult becoming a “patient” in the therapy. Usually, for historical reasons related to their upbringing, they over-protect themselves against their partner. Often these folks were little doctors in their families growing up, where they had a lot of emotional responsibility and/or authority. They are typically not used to asking for help or being “wrong”. And usually this rigidity plays out in their relationships in the world; They have a rather brittle self-image that resists input from other people.

The fighting with this kind of couple has more heat to it, more intensity. The conflicts are out in the open, and repetitive. The partner of the Unmovable One usually wants acknowledgement, or a closeness that allows for both people’s needs and wants. This  partner is fighting to be heard, and understood. To be included the relationship, fully. Both people usually experience their marriage as a frustrating stalemate.

Of course, the stress-test of marriage proves very difficult for the Immovable Object couple.  Marriage, or any intimate partnership, usually brings with it the humiliation of our false selves. Many of our self-image constructs that we’ve cultivated over the years, in the context of our upbringing and later, undergo some degree of challenge and revision in the process of living as a couple. Our ability to tolerate, to be curious about, our many “selves” is an indicator of our emotional health.

A few words about HEALTHY FIGHTING: First, let me say, a marriage with no fighting is suspect, in my view. Intimacy always involves rough edges, tensions, dissonance as well as harmony. But what healthy fighting contains that the unhealthy version lacks is a crucial ingredient: Understanding.

In healthy fighting, there is resolution. Resolution requires understanding. Each partner–in some way, shape or form,  understands where the other person was coming from, what he or she was upset about, what it meant. Healthy fighting involves process: The quarrel is not swept under the rug, or prematurely squashed. This process involves patience, and the ability to tolerate dissonance and tension along the way. And an underlying sense of commitment to the well-being of the couple helps infuse the fight with a sense of trust.

Some people think healthy fighting is a nicer version of bad fighting. Not true. Healthy fighting can be momentarily ugly, distressing, impolite. Passionate. Even occasionally cruel. But it doesn’t last and it gets worked through. Due to a variety of factors, including personal maturity, the partners are able to re-connect, and to some degree acknowledge hurt, anger, damage done. A share of personal responsibility is usually involved.

Healthy fighting in not Nirvana. It can be learned, but it can’t be taught. My experience has shown me that, through some honest exploration of the relationship, and and a willingness to be open, couples can say good-by to destructive fighting. The couple is now free to move forward.

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