Fighting with your partner can feel pretty yuck.
But even though it doesn’t feel great, bottling up hurt or anger risks damaging the relationship beyond repair.
So it is actually important to hash things out — as long as the conflict is handled the right way (hint: rage texting isn’t healthy).
And because I learnt everything I know about arguing from watching Ross and Rachel in Friends (“We were on a break!”), I asked the experts for their advice on what makes a good fight.
One important note though: If you are in a domestically violent relationship, this advice may not apply to you. As Relationships Australia regional manager Helen Poynten says, “not fighting can be a survival mechanism”.
Why you need to express anger in a relationship
When done respectfully, arguing is a chance to get things off your chest, heal and move forward.
“Everybody blows up at times” and pushing down those emotions isn’t healthy, says psychologist Annie Cantwell-Bartl.
“The acknowledgement of anger is really important because in any intimate relationship anger will come up,” she says.
Hiding anger can also be really confusing for our partners, Ms Poynten says.
“If you’re sitting there with your arms crossed and saying nothing is wrong when you partner asks what’s up, that’s confusing.
Not taking an opportunity to talk about how you’re feeling may see you unleash in an unhealthy way down the track.
“I’m always a bit concerned when people say I don’t fight … because we’re all human,” Ms Poynten says.
What does a healthy fight look like?
Every couple is different, so describing exactly what a useful fight looks isn’t black and white.
But there are things that will help contribute to a “good” one.
A healthy fight will:
- Be respectful: “If you’re agenda is to belittle or hurt someone, then you can’t have a good fight,” Ms Poynten says.
- Include ‘I’ statements: “Use the ‘I’ statement; I feel hurt, I feel not heard. As opposed to ‘you’ statement; you don’t hear me, you did this,” Ms Poynten says.
- Stick to the issue: “If you are talking about a whole lot of stuff from another time, that’s not healthy,” Dr Cantwell-Bartl says.
- Be about the thing, not the person: “You wouldn’t call someone a loser for never doing the washing up, you’d say, ‘I’m really angry I keep on having to do the dishes’,” Dr Cantwell-Bartl says.
- Give one another space to cool off: “Work out whether the person or you need space first, then come back together and talk,” Dr Cantwell-Bartl says.
- Take place in person: “Because 70 per cent of our communication is non-verbal, when you’re pushing all that emotion into text message [for example], it’s so fraught with misinterpretation,” Ms Poynten says. Context is also something you are more likely to get face to face, adds Dr Cantwell-Bartl.
A healthy fight won’t:
- Be violent or abusive: “Violence in any form is never acceptable — and that can be verbal abuse, physical, financial, emotional or psychological,” Ms Poynten says.
- Include humiliation or name calling.
- Rehash old ground: Unrelenting fighting (arguing about the same thing all the time) is counterproductive, Ms Poynten says. If that’s you, it’s important to break the cycle by getting in touch with the underlying issue.
- Block communication: “If the partner won’t talk to you or goes out and gets drunk or goes to bed and slams the door, it’s really hard to arrive at a better place,” Dr Cantwell-Bartl says.
How do you know if you had a respectful fight?
“A good fight is when you come away feeling OK and there’s a confidence the issue can be resolved,” Dr Cantwell-Bartl says.
If you feel like your needs have been met after an argument, that has likely been a good exchange, Ms Poynten adds.
A bad fight may leave you feeling even more angry, or hurt and frustrated.
Both experts recommend seeing a professional counsellor or psychologist if bad fights become a pattern.
What we can learn from a healthy argument
Conflict is a chance to grow individually and as a couple.
“If your conflicts are within those respectful boundaries of your relationship, you can learn and grow and develop together,” Ms Poynten says.
It’s also a chance to understand where your partner is coming from. Often how we handle (or avoid) conflict is a result of our upbringing.
Dr Cantwell-Bartl anger can be misdirected, and it’s helpful to analyse what’s really going on.
“We can learn that often the anger is coming from another place in or life,” she says.
“If we have a shithouse day at work, sometimes we come home and take it out on our partners.
“Or behaviour in your partner is reminding you of another time in your life… that was unresolved and I’m still angry about it.”