How Much Fighting Is Too Much? A Couple's Guide to Fighting Fair
Some research even shows that how you handle conflict in your romantic life may have less to do with your relationship and more to do with how you were raised. But regardless of all the small arguments, or how your mother messed you up, enduring screaming matches multiple times a day with your spouse, or stonewalling your boyfriend post-argument may mean that your disagreements have gotten the better of your romance. It's helpful to know the hot button issues in relationships, and the red flags indicating that it's gone from lovey-dovey to knock-down, drag out.
The three main areas that couples argue over, according to experts, are money, sex and kids. Psychotherapist Tina Tessina, author of "Money, Sex and Kids: Stop Fighting about the Three Things That Can Ruin Your Marriage", says that couples bicker about overspending, differing opinions on what to spend their money on, and financial infidelity. Sex brawls focus on incompatibility, or infidelity. Parenting styles and the to-have-or-not-to-have kids debate also fuels many a fire.
Tessina has also "seen splits over problems with extended family (including in-laws and exes) and of course alcoholism or other addictions." But Nancy Dreyfus, couples therapist and author of "Talk To Me Like I'm Someone You Love: Relationship Repair in a Flash", says, in addition to the actual issues, how couples relate to these issues is the issue -- so the content-oriented upsets around money, sex, in-laws, and the ever-popular, "I can't stand how you are with the kids" are not inherently deal-breakers if there is relatively good listening and respect in the mix.
The Fighting Formula
Now that you've uncovered some of the issues that you might be fighting over, is there a formula for exactly how much of it is normal, and how much is too much? While all couples are different, there is a baseline. "All couples fight, and the unhealthiest ones never do," says Dreyfus. "What I mean by 'unhealthy' is that an absence of conflict would mean two people who were never self-defining and therefore, never speaking -- their often divergent -- truths." Research shows that your relationship is in the clear if you experience four to five feel-good encounters to every less-than-pleasant one. "It's a corny analogy, but a useful one -- a relationship is like a bank account: If you keep making withdrawals without consistent deposits, you are soon going to find yourself bankrupt."
When the Gloves Come Off
When you find yourself in the midst of a fight, remember that your emotional, and physical, health rely on the type of fighting going on between you and your partner. Research shows that women who perceive their partners as "arguing with warmth" actually have significantly reduced risk of heart disease than those who don't, says Dreyfus. "What's striking about this is that we are not talking about women who don't argue being healthier -- but those who perceive that the friendliness doesn't leave the relationship in the midst of conflict," she says. "I think it is crucial for partners to consciously agree that they want to remain partners in conflict -- not adversaries."
For Jessica Graves-Toliver, the fighting in her relationship began before she was married. "It could start for a number of reasons, but most often it would be something as simple as a timeline that did not add up," says Graves-Toliver, an operations manager in Cincinnati. Throughout their relationship and marriage, infidelity was a huge issue resulting in many a fight; money was another. "He would lie about money; checks from commission were always cashed, he never had stubs," says Graves-Toliver. "In hindsight, of course, it was always a way for him to hide money for his affairs."
Most often, the couple would fight in the morning or late at night. The fights would sometimes continue through email at work and last for days. "He would always cave in, because I was the center of our social lives and our family life and he needed me to know kids' schedules," she says. "We could go months at a time at peace, but then there would be weeks of hell. Eventually, there were times of domestic violence, he broke furniture, put holes in walls, even bruised my arm trying to get me to stay in the room. It was finally enough."
A Healthy Fight
While some fights are brutal, there is such a thing as having a discussion about differences without making it an argument. Yelling, throwing things, making nasty comments or becoming violent is childish and destructive to the relationship; but really in every fight, the question is of motivation: Are you speaking in order to connect, to help your partner grow or to put your partner down? "I have witnessed screaming matches where there was love in the space," says Dreyfus, "and intellectual 'mature' debates that felt like ice."
Seth Meyers, author of "Dr. Seth's Love Prescription", says couples who tend to argue almost as an intellectual form of sparring aren't necessarily unhealthy. "When it gets unhealthy is when the arguments become personal and one or both members of the couple feel attacked, criticized, or not supported," he says.
I personally have friends who are the epitome of intellectual sparring. Growing up with starkly different backgrounds, they would have intense, heated political debates, which I saw firsthand during the last presidential election. At first, many of us weren't sure their relationship would make it past election day. But once the dust settled, their relationship was still strong. Even during their debates, the tone was never angry, just the two of them challenging the beliefs of the other.
When It's Gone Too Far
The minute voices are raised, says Tessina, fighting has gone too far. Dreyfus agrees that things have gone too far when you feel invisible, frightened and too unsafe to speak your truth. "When I'm working with a couple in a therapy session, I won't touch a relatively mundane issue like 'whose family will we go to for Thanksgiving,' until I sense the couple is basically liking each other," says Dreyfus. "If they are liking each other, they will find a way. If not, their respective families will start feeling like the Sharks and the Jets."
Certain issues that will ultimately break a relationship include lying and infidelity, like in the case of Graves-Toliver, as well as substance abuse and addiction, situations where one party puts work, socializing or something else before the other person, and when an individual feels he or she is "shrinking to fit" to meet the other's needs, feeling marginalized.
Dr. Seth says that a few of the warning signs that the fighting has gone too far include dreading going back home at the end of the day, having flashbacks of hurtful things the other said or did to you that continue to make you feel bad, and having your friends or family comment that they feel uncomfortable with the two of you because the interaction inevitably gets combative.
"In reading back through my journal I see the word SMALL all the time," says Graves-Toliver. "I was constantly insecure, I would come home just to make sure he was home and not on his phone. I stopped going places with my friends because I felt like I always had to be by his side. Every time he went to the bathroom in a restaurant in a bathroom I thought he was on the phone or texting someone else."
Of course it's tough to heal a breach as big as broken trust.
Tips for Fighting Fair
If you want to be sure that you're fighting the fair fight in your relationship, Dreyfus has a few tips for couples. Create a written kind of "flash card," which she says will reinstates goodwill instantly because the effort spent on retrieving and flashing the card -- free of voice tone --conveys a sincerity that both of you have been fighting to regain. She also suggests couples use the age-old "Time Out" sign to indicate that the person needs a break to calm down. The responsibility is on the person who calls the break to come resume the discussion after about 20 minutes.
Of course, every couple needs to figure out exactly how to best stay cool, collected and ready to have rational discussions -- not fight -- with one another. Tell us: How often do you and your man argue, and what things do you spar about most frequently?
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Vanessa Voltolina is an editor and freelance writer living in New York City. She covers health, nutrition, fitness and relationships. Find her on Twitter (@vvoltolina) and read more of her stories on her website.
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