The Power of Fighting Fair

Transforming Rocky Relationships Through Healthy Disagreement 

The Power of Fighting Fair
The Power of Fighting Fair

Transforming Rocky Relationships Through Healthy Disagreement 

Sandra and Dan sat across from each other, arms folded, avoiding eye contact. The atmosphere was tense after another argument about the division of household responsibilities boiled over. “We can’t keep fighting like this,” Dan finally said quietly. “I know,” Sandra agreed, “But I don’t know how to talk about this stuff without getting so emotional.”

Like Sandra and Dan, most couples will surely disagree and get upset with each other. Conflict itself is not the problem - it’s whether couples can productively manage disagreements. Drawing from over 40 years of research with over 3,000 couples, Dr. John Gottman's work has helped to identify a clear distinction between constructive conflict and destructive fighting. Not all conflict is created equal. By understanding the difference between healthy and unhealthy disagreements, couples can learn to navigate rapids in the relationship - avoiding damaging fights and emerging with greater understanding.

What Does Healthy Conflict Look Like? 

No couple, no matter how compatible, will always agree on everything. In the research, Dr. Gottman found that 69% of marital conflicts are perpetual problems - underlying differences in personality, lifestyle preferences, and values that never entirely disappear. The key is not eliminating conflict altogether but engaging with these perpetual problems constructively. Healthy conflict exists when disagreement maintains respect, builds understanding, and ultimately brings couples closer together. 

Here are some hallmarks of healthy conflict, according to Dr. Gottman:

Focuses on the issue, not attacking the person. While emotions may run high, healthy disagreements focus on the specific behaviour, not generalized attacks on a partner’s character or personality. Rather than “You’re so selfish and lazy,” the complaint centres on the action: “I’m upset that you didn’t help clean up dinner like you said you would.”  

It involves compromise and cooperation. The goal is finding a solution that respects both people’s needs—not for one person to “win” at the other’s expense. Partners display teamwork, understand each other’s perspectives, and brainstorm mutually agreeable solutions. Even if disagreement continues on some level, the understanding and willingness to compromise strengthen the relationship.

Leads to greater intimacy and appreciation. Working through disagreements and reaching resolutions deepens empathy, compassion, and respect between partners. It also helps couples understand each other’s differences and learn more about their needs, fears, and dreams. Over time, this builds confidence that the relationship can weather challenges. The potential for growth and deep connection is within your reach.

What Does Unhealthy Conflict Look Like?

While healthy disagreements build unity, destructive fighting does the opposite - creating distance and negativity that become barriers to intimacy. Damaging conflict, as characterized by contempt, criticism, and stonewalling, can lead to a downward spiral of mutually harmful or isolating patterns. Unhealthy conflict looks like this:  

Personal attacks and insults. Unlike complaints centred on specific issues, destructive fights involve attacking a partner’s core character—insinuating they are incompetent, stupid, lazy, or otherwise deficient as human beings. Contempt conveys disgust and a global disrespect for who one’s partner is at their very core.

The Four Horsemen. Based on the research, criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling are the most likely patterns of interaction to cascade into damaging outcomes. Criticism moves from complaining about behaviour to attacking a partner’s very character. Contempt takes criticism further with insults and mockery. Defensiveness triggers a counterattack rather than owning flaws or cooperating. Finally, stonewalling shuts down communication by withdrawing from the interaction.

Focus on winning, not understanding. Rather than compromising, destructive conflict assumes things must end with one person getting their way and “defeating” the other. Partners display an unwillingness to understand each other’s perspectives, offer validation, or explore solutions that respect both sides’ needs. This “winning at all costs” mentality leads both people to lose. 

Creates emotional distance and negativity. Unlike healthy conflict, which leads to greater closeness, unchecked fighting creates an environment of hostility, resentment, and isolation within the relationship. Partners emotionally withdraw, communicate less openly, and feel angry and cynical about each other and the relationship.

The Antidote: Fighting Better for Deeper Connection

The difference between healthy and unhealthy disagreements is not about avoiding conflict altogether. Eliminating all passionate debate leaves a relationship feeling flat and dull. According to the research, disagreements are inevitable—how couples engage matters most. Dr. Gottman's studies reveal that constructive conflict is a skill that can be learned. With practice, couples can navigate even intense arguments without contempt or stonewalling that drives relationships apart. Here are some tips. Remember, you have the power to overcome unhealthy conflict.  

  • Pick battles carefully. Decide which issues are perpetual problems needing compromise and which are temporary issues expected to be resolved. Fighting over every little thing exhaust goodwill and patience. 
  • Fight gently and respectfully. Conflict signals caring about an issue - but volume and intensity are not measures of love. Gentle statements focused on behaviour have the highest chance of being heard. 
  • Search for compromise. Seek win-win solutions that meet both people’s core needs—even if disagreement continues on methods. Identify common goals, be flexible in brainstorming options, and offer concessions.
  • Repair and reset. Take breaks before destructive patterns take hold, showing engagement even in disagreement. Come back and express appreciation for still-admired partner qualities.

Improving conflict skills may benefit from couples counselling. Dr. Gottman notes that therapy often includes teaching healthy communication habits and identifying dysfunctional patterns impeding resolution. With practice, couples learn to allow passion and disagreement while cutting off criticism and contempt before they turn to damaging outcomes. Success comes not from avoiding conflict but from engaging with it wisely - maintaining the respect, compassion, and goodwill that form the foundations for an intimate, lasting marriage.

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