Do You Fight More Often than the Average Couple?
It’s not unusual for couples to ask us during their assessment...” do we fight more than we should?… What’s normal?… Why do couples fight a lot? How often do couples fight?”
As relationship experts, we gently advise them that it’s not the most helpful question or point of view.
In healthy relationships, the frequency of fighting is no reliable guide to marital bliss. There are strong, vibrant couples that are very volatile and clash readily with one another.
And then there are conflict-avoidant couples that avoid fighting …right smack into a crisis.
It’s not frequency, it’s how they manage conflict
Conflict is not about resolution or frequency.
In healthy couples, arguments organically emerge from hard-wired differences, and these differences are inevitable. According to John Gottman, nearly 70% (69% to be precise) of all marital conflict is basically unsolvable. There is no resolution. There is only creative mitigation, acceptance, communication skills, and careful, ongoing repair.
When fighting with your partner causes trouble
Two significant arguments per week is often seen as a red flag that the couples argue too much. At this level, two fights a week feels like you fight all the time. At this level, clinical psychologists see it as a significant stressor on their nervous systems.
Focus on the Solvable Problems First
I worked with Todd and Emily*, who bickered every morning about getting the kids to the school bus on time. This is a frequent issue I encounter as a family therapist.
Sometimes they were so disorganized that they missed the bus…but, fearing conflict, neither felt comfortable raising the issue.
Eventually, they realized that they had to establish some new rules and break their emotional gridlock.
First, they agreed to wake up earlier: They got up 15 minutes earlier and got their kids up 10 minutes earlier.
They alternated “Primary Duty Days” with one another. One would take the lead getting kids out the door in a timely fashion, and the other would assist.
Make the Good Even Better…
They also had kaizen conversations about how to make the morning routine more streamlined. They started making their kid’s lunches the night before, which saved 12 minutes in the morning. Todd and Emily then began to enjoy 5 unhurried minutes of emotionally connected time lingering over coffee together.
They celebrated their win and didn’t collapse back into chaos. Todd and Emily explained the new rules as a married couples team to their 3 kids. They displayed a healthy degree of parental authority. They improved life by solving a solvable problem.
The Problem with Some “Happy” Couples
Research tells us that couples who identify as “happy” tend to focus on solvable problems. And some couples might prefer to focus on solvable problems because they are conflict avoidant.
Gottman developed a typology of 5 types of couples: 1) volatile couples, 2) conflict-avoidant couples, and 3) validating couples.
Each of these three styles he deemed as healthy and adaptive.
Do you hardly ever fight?
Conflict avoidant partners are most comfortable focusing on areas of mutual agreement.
These couples prize agreement. They become anxious at the mere thought of making an active personal request of their partner.
Patterns of Conflict Avoidance
Conflict-avoidant couples can stuff down simmering resentments and micro-aggressions, building up pressure. Every six months or so…they erupt.
Couples are bewildered by these infrequent marital explosions of kitchen sinking and kitchen-thinking. They are completely unaware that they’ve deferred conflict; they are delaying the inevitable.
We teach Conflict Avoidant couples to assume a broad, self-aware stance in conflictual situations. Our primary focus is on how they manage conflict as a couple.
It Most Certainly is the Wrong Question…
Gottman makes it clear that conflict is inevitable. When couples say: “we hardly ever fight,” we want to inquire how their conflicts are managed.
It’s a shift for most couples when we are reluctant to address that question directly. We explain that successful volatile couples happily argue while struggling conflict-avoidant couples often hesitate to do so. We are socialized to think of conflict in a simplistic way. But a conflict between intimate partners is rarely simple.
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, the end goal.
*not their real names