Why We Fight


Aug 8, 2017


Most couples accept relationship conflict as inevitable, and, upon marriage, are given a few adages about ‘making it work’ to keep in the backs of our closets along with the uglier wedding gifts. Neither particularly prepares us for when a nasty tone or biting criticism gets tossed out, even (sometimes especially) when it’s us doing the tossing.

So, what do we know about fighting in relationships, really? While all conflict between people – friends, family members, co-workers, lovers – has a similarity, there is something particularly destabilizing about conflict with the person who knows your strengths and weaknesses best, who is supposed to be your rock and partner.

The Swaddle staff dived deep into the last decade’s body of research into marriage problems and came up with a better understanding of ourselves, our spouses, and the fights we share.

Why we fight

All couples fight about the same things – there are studies, if we need them, to prove that unpaid household work, children/childcare, sex, and finances are some of the most common topics. But these themes are usually just outlets for the currents swimming underneath.

Studies of more than 3,500 married people have found there are two basic types of underlying concerns that couples experience during conflicts: “perceived threat,” in which a person thinks that his or her status is threatened by a critical or demanding partner; and “perceived neglect,” in which an individual sees a partner as being disloyal or inattentive and showing a lack of investment in the relationship.

But our partners may never know we feel threatened or neglected – even if we are (we think) telling them.

“People commonly believe that they communicate better with close friends than with strangers,” said Boaz Keysar, PhD, a psychology professor at the University of Chicago and a leading expert on communications, in 2011. “That closeness can lead people to overestimate how well they communicate, a phenomenon we term the ‘closeness-communication bias.'”

Keysar and colleague Kenneth Savitsky, a psychology professor at Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., had conducted an experiment that found spouses consistently overestimated their ability to communicate with each other in the simplest ways.

“Although speakers expected their spouse to understand them better than strangers, accuracy rates for spouses and strangers were statistically identical,” Savitsky said at the time of the study.

We’re also particularly bad at parsing partners’ emotions when fighting with them. In 2012, a study asked 83 married couples to choose two topics of conflict — one chosen by the wife, the other by the husband and talk to each other about them. They were also asked to rate their emotions and those of their partners before and after each discussion.

Couples’ ‘insider knowledge’ of one another might be expected to make it easier for them to read each other, said author Keith Sanford, PhD, an associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at Baylor University. He found that when participants expressed anger, they often also felt sad; but while their partners easily and immediately recognized expressions of anger, the spouses often failed to notice the sadness.

Which is unfortunate, because previous research suggests that genuine expressions of sadness during a conflict can sometimes draw partners closer together and help them break out of a climate of anger.

How we fight

How we fight and what sets us off is highly individualized. Some people are better than others at how and when they’re able (and unable) to recognize and manage their emotions; others are simply different. While that plays into the dynamics of marital conflict, the unit of partnership means fighting isn’t a measure of either individual, but of the relationship.

Yet unhappy couples are not unique in their unhappiness. Most marriages fall into one of five categories when it comes to how couples fight. They are, as described by John Gottman, PhD, founder of The Gottman Institute, a leading think tank and research institution around marital stability, conflict and divorce:

  • Conflict-avoidant couples: These couples try to avoid conflict and focus instead on what they share and agree on. These couples are mostly happy and their positive interactions outnumber their negative interactions by 5 to 1.
  • Volatile couples: These couples are the kind that bicker and enter into a fight spiritedly – but typically with good will behind their debates. These couples are mostly happy and their positive interactions outnumber their negative interactions by 5 to 1.
  • Validating couples: These couples place a high value on considering their partner’s perspective and extending empathy. They are typically able to calm down after (or remain calm during) conflict and reach a compromise. These couples are mostly happy and their positive interactions outnumber their negative interactions by 5 to 1.
  • Hostile couples: These couples display a lot of defensiveness. Their fights include comments like ‘you always’ and ‘you never,’ with little taking of the other’s perspective. This kind of couple can sometimes be a hybrid, wherein one person is a validator and another an avoider. These couples are mostly unhappy.
  • Hostile-detached couples: These couples are emotionally detached and resigned, sniping at each other during a fight. This kind of couple can also be a hybrid, wherein one person is a validator and another is volatile. These couples are mostly unhappy and are likely to divorce.

Of the first three ‘happy’ couples, there is no right way to be. While experts tend to agree conflict avoidance has a lot of risk – namely, if you never address a point of conflict, it can never be resolved — they are quick to note the other two, volatile and validating couples, also have pros and cons.

The important thing, when it comes to couples’ fighting styles, is that the relationship is satisfying to both parties. This baseline happiness allows us to weather, in the heat of the moment, poorly (or spitefully) chosen words. Avoiding negative communication is a key part of any conflict management advice because getting mean can escalate disagreements into full-blown fighting.

But “for people in satisfying relationships, negative communication was associated with having bigger conflicts, but this effect was entirely harmless because big conflicts were always followed by big resolutions,” said Sanford in 2014, summarizing his findings of a separate study.

How we stop fighting

And a big resolution is what all couples want, right? Possibly, but it may not be what we get. Gottman holds that in relationships, conflict resolution is a misleading term; his research has found that 69% of marriage problems never get resolved, but rather, become ongoing marital problems rooted in partners’ personality differences. He uses the term ‘conflict management’ instead.

And resolution may only be what we say — when what we really want is capitulation. Another study by Sanford found that people care less about getting an apology from their partner and more about a willingness to accede to their demands. In the following order, the study found married participants, spanning ages 18 to 77, most commonly wanted conflict to end with the following broad behaviours from their partners:

  • To accede to demands (examples of this could include giving a partner more independence, admitting faults, showing respect and being willing to compromise)
  • To show investment in the relationship
  • To stop adversarial behaviour
  • To communicate more
  • To give affection
  • To make an apology

Even if we get what we want, our ability to move on from fighting in relationships varies. Attachment theory – that our emotional and physical relationship with caregivers in early life influences personal development throughout life — is the hot new concept rocking the field of psychology, and it’s been attributed by some as the lynch pin to whether and how well adults move on from conflict, particularly from conflict with romantic partners.

Children, starting in infancy, can either have secure or insecure attachment to parents (or other primary caregivers). Secure attachment means children feel protected by their parents, and know they can depend on them for safety, attention and need fulfilment. They show some distress when their parent leaves, but can calm themselves with the knowledge that the parent will return.

Insecure attachment has three variations, but each, in some way, boils down to the absence of a surety parents can be counted on.

In a 2011 study that compared relationship conflict recovery to attachment styles in early childhood, researchers found that people who experienced secure attachment between the ages of 12 and 18 months were better at recovering from conflict with their partners 20 years later, smoothly transitioning from intense disagreements to chatting about a topic with common ground. Insecure attachment in childhood saw adults ‘stuck’ on the point of conflict and unable to move on from a discussion of it.

This may seem like our ability for conflict resolution – or management – is fixed, encoded into our personality from the earliest age, but that’s not the case.

“We found that people who were insecurely attached as infants but whose adult romantic partners recover well from conflict are likely to stay together,” said Jessica E. Salvatore in 2011, lead author of the study. “If one person can lead this process of recovering from conflict, it may buffer the other person and the relationship.”

How we can fight better

The amount a couple fights from the start is essentially the amount they’ll always fight, according to a 2011 study that followed nearly 1,000 couples for two decades. So perhaps the best way to deal with relationship conflict is to get really good at it — together. Below, we’ve included some tactics for managing conflict that emerged from studies that specifically examine marital happiness.

Consider the third perspective.

There are more than two sides to any fight, and finding the perspective where no one wins or loses is the premise upon which marriage counselling is built. This is the recommendation of Andrew Christensen, UCLA professor of psychology and lead author of Reconcilable Differences: Rebuild Your Relationship by Rediscovering the Partner You Love — Without Losing Yourself.

Couples can do this together mid-conflict, or they can do it independently over time; a 2013 study found that three 7-minute writing exercises in the course of a year, during which participants were asked to think of their most recent disagreement with their partner and write about it from the perspective of a neutral yet well-wishing third party, eliminated declining marital satisfaction.

Figure out what will resonate with your partner.

The tricky part is this may not be what resonates with you. It’s a tactic called ‘strategic communication.’ A 2015 study found that some people found taking a coldly logical approach was most effective in enlisting their spouse’s efforts to manage financial uncertainty (e.g., laying out budgets and numbers), while others found emotional appeals (e.g., pointing out that an expensive purchase would mean less money to spend on their children) more effective. It should be noted the study only examined communication and conflict related to financial instability, but there’s still a lesson to be learned here.

Say thank you.

A 2015 study found expressions of gratitude were the biggest, most consistent predictor of marriage satisfaction.

Change your ‘I’ to ‘we.’

Yeah, you might sound smarmy, but a 2010 study that analysed couples’ conversations when they disagreed found those who used pronouns such as “we,” “our” and “us” behaved more positively toward one another and showed less physiological stress. Using “you,” “I,” and “me” pronouns was strongly linked to unhappiness in a marriage. Researchers posited that using plural pronouns helps create a shared identity that makes facing and overcoming challenges – whether a small tiff or raising kids – easier.

Finally, don’t rule out therapy.

If you feel like you’ve tried everything to manage the fighting in your relationship, and nothing has worked, therapy shouldn’t be ruled out. A 2010 study found roughly 30% couples who were “chronically, seriously distressed” and fought frequently, who then underwent one of two different types of therapy, were “normal, happy couples” five years later. For another 16% the marriage had improved and was tolerable. The factor that predicted improvement? Both partners were committed to saving the marriage and working on their behaviour.


Written By Liesl Goecker

Liesl Goecker is The Swaddle’s managing editor.


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