Couples often ask us during their assessment if they are fighting more than normal. In asking, "How often do couples fight?" they really want to know if they fight too much.
We typically advise them that the frequency of fighting is not a good indicator of a successful relationship. Even though some couples may have frequent spats, they can still have a strong bond. On the other hand, couples who don't fight may be headed toward a crisis.
It’s not frequency; it’s how they manage conflict.
In the 1970s, Dr. Gottman and Robert Levenson began studying couples. They observed how couples handle a disagreement over 15 minutes and then tracked them for nine years. They were able to accurately predict (at over 90% accuracy) which couples would stay together and which would divorce.
The key to a lasting relationship was the balance between positive and negative interactions during the conflict. Gottman called this the "magic ratio," being five positive interactions for every negative one.
Healthy conflict is not about avoiding conflict altogether. It's how a couple deals with conflict. resolution or frequency.
In healthy couples, arguments arise from each partner having different needs, beliefs, and outlooks. Most of these are innate and impossible to change. According to John Gottman, almost seven out of ten marital conflicts are not resolvable.
This means that couples must learn how to manage these differences through creative strategies, communication skills, and active repair efforts. Ultimately, couples need to accept that these differences are a part of the relationship. Instead of seeing them as threatening, they can learn how to appreciate and embrace them.
When fighting with your partner causes trouble.
Subjectively, two significant arguments per week feel like constant fighting. At this level, clinical psychologists see it as a significant stressor on their nervous systems. When couples argue at this rate, they typically stop feeling like friends. They feel misunderstood and underappreciated.
What separates couples fighting in a healthy relationship from those who chronically fight is the overall tone of the argument. When they are able to make effective repair attempts when tensions start to rise, they can keep the interaction positive.
Conflict avoidant personalities
Happy couples typically concentrate on matters that can be addressed and resolved.
Do you hardly ever fight?
Conflict-avoidant partners are most comfortable focusing on areas of mutual agreement. They want to prevent or stop fights because they are uncomfortable with the thoughts and feelings that accompany them.
Wanting to avoid confrontation, they try to emphasize their similarities. They do not bring up topics that could lead to disagreements. They are more likely to praise the positive aspects of their relationship. They avoid having to ask for something they need from the other person.
Conflict-avoiding couples are both independent and interdependent. This means they maintain clear boundaries but still have areas where they connect and depend on each other. The overall quality of their interactions is satisfactory for the couple.
While conflict-avoiding couples may not have a lot of positive interactions, they have few negative interactions as well, maintaining the five-to-one ratio.
This couples prize agreement and engage in people-pleasing behaviors. Merely thinking about asking their partner to do something causes them to feel nervous.
Conflict-avoidant people don't see the value of fighting in a relationship. Partners feel anxious about expressing troubling true feelings. They may see very little value in working with a relationship coach to learn how to manage and resolve conflict. For them, it is enough to take a deep breath and focus on the positive.
This is a workable marriage as long as there are no pressing issues that become painful or impossible to ignore, which can offset the magic ratio. When issues can't be ignored, these types of couples don't have the necessary skills to resolve them.
Destructive patterns such as passive-aggressive actions and unspoken resentments predominate. Time to visit a family therapist to learn to talk more plainly.
Patterns of Conflict Avoidance
Couples who attempt to avoid conflict may suppress their frustration, anger, and other negative emotions in order to avoid fighting. However, this often builds up pressure over time, leading to sudden outbursts.
When these explosions occur, the couples tend to be taken off guard and confused as to why it happened. We provide guidance to these couples on how to handle conflict in a more effective way and teach them to be aware of their actions in order to prevent further issues.
My husband and I fight a lot.
On the opposite end of the spectrum are couples who find themselves in frequent conflict.
Couples who are volatile in their relationship express a lot of emotion during arguments. They debate intensely and are often characterized by laughter, humor, and shared amusement.
They express insecurity and anger but no contempt. They are careful about hurt feelings. Their lives intertwine and overlap with permeable boundaries between them. They value connection and honesty in their communication.
Despite their strong emotions, they are not disrespectful or insulting. When functional, they also have a ratio of five positive interactions to one negative.
It Most Certainly is the Wrong Question…
Relationship experts like Gottman makes it clear that conflict is inevitable and conflict resolution isn't inevitalbe. When couples say: “we hardly ever fight,” we are curious to learn how conflict is managed in the relationship.
For couples, it can be difficult to broach the topic of conflict. It has been taught that conflict is always a negative thing; however, in an intimate relationship, it can be beneficial. Successful couples have the ability to have healthy arguments, while those who are not as comfortable with confrontation may have difficulty.
Gottman’s research tells us that conflict is an inevitable and unavoidable aspect of intimacy. Learning how to fight fair and manage conflict in a “good enough” way is our science-based work.