Some fighting is normal in a relationship — until it’s not.
By Margot Brown — Last updated on Jul 13, 2023
Photo: Dean Drobot / Shutterstock
Most mature adults who are just starting out in a relationship are realistic about the fact that, sooner or later, they will inevitably have a disagreement with their partner about something.
Once you’re past the honeymoon stage, relationships that last require at least some amount of compromise, some serious sacrifice, and not always seeing eye-to-eye along the way.
But much fighting is normal and how much is too much?
Striking the right balance can be confusing when you’re not sure how to determine what counts as a healthy vs. unhealthy amount of conflict.
Is it normal to fight in a relationship?
Some fighting is considered normal in any relationship, particularly as you become more comfortable sharing emotions and being vulnerable with each other, as long as you express yourselves in ways that aren’t hostile or otherwise unhealthy or abusive. In fact, a little arguing in a relationship is actually a good sign — much better than zero arguing.
Having the occasional argument indicates that you are two separate people with your own perspectives and opinions.
A 2016 study reported that “conflicts are necessary and valuable for the evolution of a marriage” and that when they “are properly managed can help couples learn from each other and improve their relationships.”
So, an argument here and there is normal and not necessarily a danger sign.
An exception would be if you’re in a new relationship and start arguing right off the bat.
Without a looking glass to see what the future holds, you have to figure out if this is the wind up to what is likely to be a relationship full of increasing tension, unhappiness, and arguments about almost everything due to a mismatch of core values between you (money, education, kids, socialization, etc.), or if it’s just an adjustment period between two people getting to know each other.
The way you handle your first arguments together is an important predictor for the future of your relationship.
Jack Schafer, PhD., states that, “Couples who survive their first big fight increase the probability of their relationship surviving over time.”
Is it normal to never fight in a relationship?
There are few couples who never fight at all.
After some time together as a couple, you come to know each other well and understand the triggers and differences that are likely to lead to arguments. If you’ve reached that special place where you love each other despite each other’s idiosyncrasies, you may be able to avoid conflict for the most part.
But if you’re earlier on in a relationship and you never fight, that could be a red flag.
Do you get really frustrated or angry but find yourself stuffing it to appease your partner? At the very least, If you don’t speak up, it could be a prescription for future resentments, unhappiness, or poor health.
Never having an argument could also be a symptom that one or both of you are checked out or actively avoiding conflict. You may have decided it takes too much energy to argue, and that it’s not worth the bother.
Another possibility is that one or both of you may have an anxious or avoidant attachment style, according to a study published in 2022.
What kind of fighting is healthy versus toxic?
This depends on what you mean by fighting. When you think of what counts as fighting with your partner, do you mean arguing and/or screaming, or do you mean bickering and/or nagging?
Are we talking about verbal knockdowns and drag-out fights where all bets are off and where name calling, pillow throwing, and mean insults are hurled at each other like kids in a snowball fight? If so, that sounds ugly, and is certainly not good.
When fighting isn’t productive and neither one of you is coming from a place of trying to solve a problem together, it’s unhealthy for you, and for your relationship.
Kristen Fuller, M.D., writes that “Toxicity comes in all forms: name-calling, physical abuse, lying, gossip and all the internal turmoil that results from being in an unhealthy relationship.”
She also explains that, “These types of relationships involve a lack of support or respect, are filled with conflict, and involve at least one partner who seeks to undermine the other.”
This may not always be easy to notice at first, making it difficult to recognize at first for those who have been in relationships for some time — perhaps even years.
If your partner is controlling, manipulative, or consistently shifts blame on others, refuses to admit to their mistakes or apologize for their actions, these are all signs of toxic fighting and an overall toxic relationship, according to Fuller.
Fighting and arguing that becomes physically, emotionally, or psychologically violent is abusive and unhealthy.
In particular, physical aggression such as pushing, pinching, slapping, kicking, choking, punching, and the like should be totally off limits.
Deep down in your gut, if you feel that it’s gone too far, you’ll know it and you’ll feel awful. You’ll wish it had never happened. What you say to each other in the heat of the moment is engraved in concrete and neither of you can take back those ugly words.
Just like anything else, toxic fighting can become a habit.
After a while, arguing and fighting becomes your way of connecting with each other. In these cases, the arguments are all negative, but at least each of you still has the energy (negative attention) to keep at it.
You argue, yell, blame, slam doors and ignore each other. The unfortunate part is that it’s the only way the two of you communicate, so you justify to yourself that it’s better than nothing!
This simply isn’t a healthy dynamic, no matter which way you slice it.
Likewise, the peace you feel after chronic fighting is not part of a healthy relationship.
After the fighting, you might feel relieved and relaxed. You might subconsciously enjoy that respite after the buildup and release of tension.
However you describe it, it’s an unhealthy pattern that is not conducive to growth and evolution within yourself or your relationship.
The authors of a 2022 research article published in Frontiers in Psychology state that, over time, “inadequate conflict resolution” predicts the deterioration of satisfaction in relationships, “along with the appearance of more abusive and violent behaviors within the couple.”
How much fighting is too much?
If you’re fighting every day, all the time, and that’s your mode of communication, then hopefully you know, having read this far, that’s too much fighting.
Generally speaking, though, it’s not about the frequency of your fighting. Sometimes, more fighting is better than less fighting, because you’re letting out frustrations as they arise instead of bottling them up.
It’s more about how you handle fights with your partner.
If you are worried about the amount of fighting in your relationship, ask yourself these questions:
Is arguing the new norm for you? Does it seem like everything’s an argument with one snippy remark leading to another?Do you spend more time trying to navigate the relationship than just being yourself? You’re constantly on guard as to what to say and how to say it.It’s been so long that you’ve lost track of how much fun you used to have just hanging out with each other. You genuinely can’t remember the last time you did.Could it be possible that the two of you’ve grown apart? Was everything great at the beginning and now … it’s just become a scrapbook of old notes and photos in a dusty corner of your distant memory?You find yourself living with a spouse who’s almost a stranger. They’ve stopped showing up emotionally in the marriage. When you look at them, you see how unhappy they are, both at home and at work.It’s not just them — you look at yourself and you don’t like how you’ve changed in this relationship. You thought you had a good grip on the wheel while navigating life and love, but now, when you look in the mirror, you see a shipwrecked stranger?
In short, if it feels like a problem, it is a problem.
How to have more productive fights and arguments
Results from a study published in 2022 concluded that the most effective way for couples to improve their relationships include trying to understand their partners’ needs, discussing their problems, and showing their love for one another.
Communicating with each other requires that you honor each other’s perspective.
It’s time to get real. This is a huge step, but totally doable.
When either one of you has an issue you want to address, schedule an agreed-upon time to talk and make it a priority to keep the appointment.
Make sure it’s in a place where you can give one another your undivided attention, with plenty of time to talk.
Begin by letting them know that you want to hear them as well and that you want to know what does and does not work for them in regard to a solution.
Each of you owns a piece of the pie.
You each have to own your behavior in this marriage. You can be the first to own your part in this relationship by asking them what they need from you.
During the conversation, be sure to do the following:
Be honest with yourself and try to consider your partner’s point of view to gain a better understanding of the situation.Be honest with your partner, and voice your feelings so you won’t have any reason to hold any grudges later.Maintain a calm tone of voice, using “I feel” statements.Shift your attitude from thinking of this as a fight to thinking of it as a conversation so each one of you can participate in fixing the problem.Hear them out and try to be empathetic.
If things begin to get heated, you may want to take some time to cool off and do something alone that relaxes you (e.g., a walk, yoga, listen to music, etc.), then come back to the discussion with a clearer head.
Once you have hashed everything out, resolved the issue, and agreed on how to move forward, be forgiving of one another and move on, without dwelling in the past.
If things don’t improve over time, consider seeking professional help from a couples counselor or marriage therapist.
Either way, you will be redirecting your marriage into a healthier, stronger, more sustainable love connection!
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Margot Brown is a doctor of psychology, licensed marriage and family therapist, and the author of Kickstart Your Relationship Now! Move On Or Move Out, a guide for communication between couples.