Why Fighting Can Be Good for Your Relationship

Fighting is something all couples do. Make yours effective (rather than destructive).

Understanding the Arguing Process

To complicate matters further, most couples' arguments typically center on immediate, concrete issues - say, one partner's habit of leaving socks on the floor, or another partner forgetting to fill the car's tank with gas. Nevertheless, explains Godek, "what you think you're arguing about is rarely the underlying reason for the fight." Take the socks-on-the-floor argument: It's more likely about respect, space, or power issues than it is about neatness.

But why do we use such inconsequential issues as socks on the floor to get at the real reasons we're moved to argue? Because, says Godek, human beings are complex. "We don't always make common sense—we make emotional sense, or try to. If I feel a certain way, I don't always need a reason." Nor, sometimes, do we even know the reason ourselves.

That said, Godek offers guidelines to help pinpoint the emotions that lurk behind common arguments. It may vary for the two of you or be different at different times, but these are often on the mark: Arguing about money is rarely about money; it's about power. Arguing about sex is rarely about sexuality; it's about intimacy. Arguing about chores is rarely about the chores; it's about fairness. Arguing about jealousy is rarely about fidelity; it's about maturity. Arguing about work is rarely about the work; it's about time. Arguing about relatives is rarely about them. It's about expectations. But since arguing is by its nature a logical process, he notes, it breaks down when we apply it to emotional issues. That's why many of us are more comfortable shouting about the socks than confronting deep-seated issues of fairness, responsibility, power, or control.

Of course, emotional outbursts go nowhere, although they refuse to die. The key, says Godek, is to get at the underlying emotions. Pinpointing feelings is devilishly difficult, he says, "but that's what can ultimately make fighting rewarding." Anne and Skip are living proof. Today, after a year and a half of marriage, they've weathered—and benefited from—many heated discussions since that first big fight. Recently, Anne wanted to hire a housekeeper to stay on top of cleaning chores—but Skip refused for economic reasons. "I had always spent my money the way I wanted to," says Anne. "But in our marriage, Skip was more in control of the purse strings. When I tried to tell him I didn't feel like I had an equal say in how we spent our money, he told me I was silly, and we fought."

Once Skip understood the emotional issues behind their argument, it clicked as to why it was so important to Anne. In this case, a heated argument paved a way to grasp the emotional issues underlying their fight—and to recommit to making joint spending decisions. Now, they've agreed to hire a housekeeper on an occasional basis.

The trick, obviously, is for both members of the couple to understand and express their emotions. And that's not always easy in the heat of the moment. "The real skill is to determine the purpose of the fight," explains Godek. "Then you can really deal with it." And what if one partner is more even-tempered than the other? "That's fine," says Godek. "As long as both styles of fighting are accepted." For example, he says, say a hot-tempered woman marries a calm, placid man. During arguments, the even-tempered husband should not assume that his feisty bride is in need of advice or calming down when her emotions flare. "It's not fair for one person to put the other in too tight a straightjacket," he says. Nor is it right for the emotional partner to eschew the value of logic. Both parties must believe that emotions are just as valid—if not more so—as logic when they fight.

Fighting the Good Fight

We all know the rules about "How to Fight Fair": Stick to the Point; Discuss One Issue at a Time; Don't Bring up the Past; and—most of all —Never Compare Your Partner to Your Parents. Well, guess what? Following those old-fangled rules can "suck all the emotion out of an argument," says Greg Godek. Why is that a bad thing? Because while such "clean" fights may look and sound good (call them "Made for TV" fights), without emotional release the core problems may never be addressed or resolved. Plus at some point, most of us need to blow off steam.

So let go if you have to—anything goes! The only rules for an air-clearing argument, says Godek, are no hitting, and no throwing objects directly at your partner. But go ahead and slam doors, make noise, shout obscenities—whatever it takes to get the job done. And remember, the most productive fights occur when both of you relinquish the idea of winning or losing. "Phyllis Diller used to say, ‘Never go to bed mad; stay up and fight!' It's good advice," says Godek. "Stay up until 2 am if that's what it takes. Ask yourselves: Can you get three hours of sleep and still be okay the next day? The answer is yes!"