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Why Couples Fight and How to Fight Better, Not Less

couples fight better

Most couples argue, it’s part of being in a relationship and not seeing eye to eye one hundred percent of the time.  To me, that’s okay.  Sharing a difference of opinion means you feel comfortable expressing yourself, and as long as you aren’t screaming at one another and throwing profanities around then fighting is okay.  Consider it part of the territory of being in a relationship, no matter your sexual orientation or preference.

No two people in a healthy relationship are not going to agree on everything all the time. This doesn’t mean that you two are constantly at war, it simply means that both of you have opinions and both of you want to express those opinions and be heard. If you feel like you can’t say what’s on your mind or that the other person is going to blow up at any little hint of criticism, then you might want to consider if your relationship is a healthy fit for you.

So what is okay to fight about and how do we fight better, not less? Keep reading because I am about to fill you in on why couples fight and how fight better so that those stress points don’t ruin your relationship.

What Couples Fight About.

Leading experts in the field of relationships and marriage counseling, John Gottman and his wife Julie Schwartz Gottman together have over 40 years of experience working with couples.  In their research, they concluded that couples fight over five main topics.

  1. Free time
  2. Money
  3. Housework
  4. Physical Intimacy
  5. Extended family

Providing counseling to couples in my practice, I would say I have to agree.  Nearly every argument shared by couples, in one way or another, seems to boomerang back to these five points.

1. Free Time.

Whether it’s the need for attention in a particular moment or simply wanting to spend your weekend with your significant other after a long week, fights about free time and how each of you spend it are bound to come up.  If your partner spends too much time reading, golfing, playing video games, watching sports or trolling the Internet (and you feel hurt by it), have a conversation about free time and how to maximize time together. Requiring too much attention or needing attention from the other person and not getting it is one of the biggest points of contention in even the most stable relationships.

2. Money.

Money causes stress. Having not enough money causes stress, having too much money causes stress. Every single couple is going to have a disagreement about money—and you should. Discussing money means you’re talking about it and not ignoring the elephant in the room. If you have different opinions about how the money should be spent, you should discuss those opinions and try to find common ground. It’s important to keep in mind that you were raised by two different sets of people, in two different households. Even if you grew up attending the same church, going to the same schools, and are in the same socioeconomic class, you might have very different ideas about money. Share your concerns and try to find some middle ground.

3. Housework.

Laundry, dishes or grocery shopping, some fights are less about the actual chore and more about balance, equanimity and control.  The next time you find yourself in a yelling match about who should wash dishes, empty the recycling bin or take your goldendoodle to the pet store for a nail clipping, take a moment and ask, “What is this fight really about?” Do you feel unsupported, unappreciated or something else? On the surface, fights might appear to be about housework, but emotions are behind each action and response.

4. Physical Intimacy.

From lack of desire for sexual play to coping with a sex or porn addiction, the need for the right balance of physical intimacy frequently tops the list of stress points for couples.  Most likely, when the relationship started, sex was hot and heavy.  Each of you likely engaged in sexual play and sexual fantasies to please your partner.  As time moves on, relationships change and so does the intensity, frequency and desire for sex. While physical intimacy can change for a number of reasons, if your sexual needs aren’t being met, it’s important to discuss this with your partner. No one looks forward to these conversations, but they are necessary if you hope to address your concerns.

5. Extended Family.

Another common battle many couples will have is about in-laws or other family members. No matter how good a match the two people themselves are, the in-laws (the meddling type or not) on either side of the partnership can start to cause friction in the primary relationship. Maybe your wife’s mother’s opinion about how and when you are planning on having children doesn’t match her preconceived and possible unreasonable expectations and your wife listens to and relays those worries back to you. Maybe your husband’s father is constantly trying to micromanage your career. Maybe it’s absenteeism on behalf of one of the in-laws that’s creating conflict or the drunk uncle who gets trashed at every family event, hitting on your niece.  Either way you slice it, family can bring out strong emotions in even the calmest of partners. If you have strong feelings about someone in the family, it’s important to talk about it, but tread lightly knowing that family ties are strong, despite family history.

How to Fight Better.

Disagreements are going to happen. Here is how to fight better so that it doesn’t drive a wedge between the two of you:

1. You actually have to have the fight.

Lots of couples will avoid fighting at all costs. What this usually means is that very real issues in the relationship will just build up until they have completely taken over and explode. It’s also important to talk about the big issues. For example, if one member of the couple wants to have kids, but the other does not, this is something that needs to be discussed. If one member of the couple has applied for a job in another state, what is going to happen if s/he gets that job? These are topics that a lot of people avoid talking about until they become serious problems. Having the discussion early on can avoid simmering emotions from becoming boiling ones.

2. Let the other person talk.

A fight should not just be the two of you yelling at each other. This is a horrible way to communicate, making you both defensive and ensuring that nothing is actually going to be fixed. If you find yourself stampeding over each other to get to your next point, you are not having a productive fight. You need to slow down and take turns talking. Let the other person say what they want to say and actually listen to it—don’t just wait for your turn to talk again.

3. Stay on topic.

Don’t allow a discussion about how money is being spent to become a fight about how the other person leaves their wet towels on the carpet in the bedroom. When you are fighting about something, stay on that topic. Allowing yourselves to branch into other topics ensures that the fight is going to last for hours and that nothing is actually going to be resolved when it is over (if it ever ends). Staying on topic will also help stop fights from devolving into name-calling arguments.

4. Set rules and stick to them.

You need to make rules for your fights that you stick to. This might include not interrupting each other, no name calling, no branching into certain topics, etc. Whatever has caused a fight to go poorly in the past should be avoided in future fights. Couples that want to stay together and develop a stronger relationship learn from their past fights and do not keep making the same mistakes over and over again. They set rules so that they do not devolve into the same bad habits.

5. Buy a white board.

Sometimes it’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.  (A close family friend taught me this one.) If your fights tend to devolve and become unruly, buy a white board and say what you want to say there.  Your fights might last a bit longer if you’re leaving messages evening after evening, but it’s not what you say, it’s how you say it. Writing messages minimizes hurtful messaging, name-calling and hearing the scorn in your partner’s words.  Often, words that burn when spoken become just words on a whiteboard. Buying a white board might be the best thing you could do for your relationship.

If you have other tips I’d love to hear them.  Write a message at the end of this article or drop me an email at [email protected] If you and your significant other would like support in your relationship, contact Cope Better Therapy and design a treatment plan tailored to your goals.

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Cope Better Therapy

Lori provides counseling to adults and couples in a comfortable environment in Rittenhouse Square. Through Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction (MbSR), she helps individuals live fuller lives.


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Philadelphia, PA 19103
(267) 326-1147


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