How much fighting is normal, and when is it too much? Unfortunately, there is no easy answer. Growing up, I saw my parents argue maybe five times. Of course, they had things to fight about, but they kept them inside or made a strong effort not to fight in front of my brothers and me. This wasn’t healthy, as it taught us that conflict was not okay and led to bottled-up resentment.
My wife’s family argues quite a bit compared to what I experienced, and they seem to move on a few minutes after it’s over. They don’t consider this fighting but everyday communication and part of having a family where each person has unique wants and needs. People who see them and aren’t used to this model often get uncomfortable.
There is no definitive normal. Some cultures also differ on what is and is not considered proper amounts of disagreement. What is more important is how people fight. The Gottman’s discovered that the degree of criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling are key to the happiness and survival of a couple.
They define criticism as an attack on the other person’s character. If someone says, “I don’t like when the dishes pile up,” they may just be expressing a need. If they say, “What’s wrong with you? Can’t you do anything right? You never do the dishes,” they take the communication to an unhealthy place.
Fights that start with criticism often naturally lead to defensiveness. While one person hears criticism, their mind is likely thinking of ways to defend their actions or turn the blame back on their partner. Sometimes this goes back and forth, and couples forget what they were arguing about.
Contempt is a worse form of criticism where one person talks down to the other as if they are superior. For example, “I would never leave a pile of dishes in the sink; that is so lazy of you.”
Stonewalling is more typical in men, who often don’t see a fight going anywhere and decide it’s better to not talk about it and hope the problem goes away by itself. It is metaphorically putting up a stone wall and closing oneself off. This can be particularly difficult for the partner to deal with, as they often assume their partner is thinking the worst when they don’t know what is going on in their head.
Of course, physical violence or emotional abuse is never healthy.
So it’s not necessarily the quantity of fighting that goes on, but how it takes place. Some couples also have differences in being direct versus more passive. For example, a person who is used to talking straightforwardly may not realize that a more sensitive partner sees their communication as an attack. Successful couples find a degree of compromise in how they address sensitive subjects. Does the fighting lead to problem resolution? Are you closer as a couple as a result? Do you makeup and have an even stronger relationship?
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