Do You and Your Partner Fight the *Right* Way?

Two hands pointing at one another


Spoiler: It’s not about how often you argue. 

Whether it’s about a hot-button political issue or what to watch on Hulu, all couples bicker. But that doesn’t necessarily mean your relationship is in danger — in fact, it often means you care. “Conflict just means you’re close to something or in this case, someone, that matters,” says couples counselor Steve Irsay. 

Still, having heated disagreements with your partner on a regular basis isn’t exactly healthy, or even sustainable, for couples who want their love to last. 

The good news is that learning to fight in a constructive way can actually bring you together instead of driving you apart, according to a study by the Society for Personality and Social Psychology. While the emotions that often go along with conflict (anger and frustration) aren’t always fun, the honest conversations that come from these confrontations can help sustain the relationship in the long-term.

If you want to learn how to navigate arguments better, consider these tips below: 

Lead with “I statements”

It’s better to lead disagreements by stating how you feel instead of criticizing or attacking your partner, which tends to put them on the defensive. This strategy is technically referred to as a “soft start-up,” according to the renowned Gottman Institute, which specializes in marriage counseling.  

Sometimes this small difference in approach can make all the difference to how your partner responds. “It’s great if you can take responsibility, even if your partner’s being critical, but of course it’s a lot easier for your partner to take responsibility if you’re expressing it in a gentle start-up,” says licensed psychologist Vagdevi Meunier, PsyD. 

Keep in mind that this might feel counterintuitive at first, and Irsay acknowledges that it’s certainly easier said than done. “We’re just so conditioned to see what the other person is doing and start with that, because it’s right there in front of us,” he says. “But to turn our attention inward and get clear on what’s going on in there and then be able to share that with somebody — that can take some working up to.”

Actively listen

Hear your partner out first, instead of formulating your response right off the bat: Meunier even recommends taking out a notebook, and writing down what your partner is saying, including how they’re feeling. This is a tool she picked up from John and Julie Gottman, the married duo behind the Gottman Institute and the nation’s foremost researchers of marriages and families. 

Similarly, licensed psychologist Mia Foley, Ph.D. points out that using this method will help you and your partner better understand each other. “Ideally, we should trust that there’s a reason that our partner feels the way they do,” she tells us. “And they trust that there’s a reason and that we feel the way we do, so talking about it, even if we’re upset, is likely to lead to greater understanding,” she says. 

Learn to fight fair

This is the number one tool that many people lack when navigating a long-term relationship, according to Meunier. “Most of us — either because of what we saw with our parents or because we didn’t see any fighting between our parents — all we learned about fighting was from adolescents,” she says. “We tend to fight to win; we tend to fight competitively.”

So what does fighting fair actually look like? It means avoiding the use of belittling or contemptuous language that can often manifest in name-calling. “If you care about the person and respect the person, you’re more apt to treat them in ways that are going to feel good, even if you’re mad at them,” says Foley. 

Still, there’s a less-confrontational approach to arguments that can be just as damaging. Irsay warns that being passive aggressive, such as using sarcasm or being overly appeasing, are also “not super helpful,” because they tend to shut down arguments and prevent a couple from working through what may be a recurring issue. “Sometimes it’s about actually not getting out of a fight, but getting into a fight and letting it actually open up,” he says.

Know when to call a timeout

During an argument, it’s common for one or even both partners to enter “fight, flight, or freeze” mode. This is when stress hormones activate to give people more energy to either fight the stressor or run from the situation, but “freeze” mode occurs when a person simply does not react at all in hopes the conflict will go away. 

When a couple enters this zone, Irsay says the discussion can often break down and are no longer productive, because each person is solely focused on reacting to the perceived threat they feel from their partner. “When people are in that place, that’s a good time to table it,” he says.

But Meunier recommends setting a clear timeline for when you both should come back to the discussion, such as a couple of hours, so you both can get some fresh air and time away to collect your thoughts. 

Offer a genuine apology

It takes two to fight and it also takes two to apologize. That’s why Foley believes placing blame on any one person can be unhelpful because oftentimes you each played a role. “Both members of a couple understand that neither is perfect, and so each falls short in some ways,” she tells us. “Ideally one partner apologizes, and then so does the other.” 

But what does an effective apology look like? Irsay suggests someone could say: “‘I’m sorry I hurt you when I didn’t look up from my phone when you got home. I realize that made you feel unimportant and like I’m not excited to see you after a long day apart.’” This way you’re acknowledging your role in the falling out and your partner’s feelings. 

If you’ve reached the bottom of this article and are feeling overwhelmed by all these potential changes in your approach, don’t worry: These skills can be learned and improved over time. “All of us come into relationships with whatever past experiences we have,” says Foley. “Some of us get a more user-friendly bag of tools than others, but these are absolutely learnable skills.”