Why must couples fight?

Marital arguments can bring partners together as they learn to solve their problems.

One question I am often asked by couples seeking therapy is whether fighting in their relationship is healthy. Well, have you ever stopped to think why so many of the sitcoms on television use marriage tension and conflict to get their viewing audiences to laugh? Bill Cosby summed it up very nicely by saying, “If you can laugh at it, you can survive it.”
Fighting in marriage is as natural as anything else that couples do together. After all, unless you’re married to a clone of yourself, two individuals are bound to have loads of issues that divide them. Fights may be caused by such little things as leaving dishes on the countertop or bigger issues such as whether to have another child or move to a different city.
Did you ever notice that mood shifts could cause strife between you and your spouse? Often people aren’t always aware that they are in a bad mood, but nevertheless, they act out their bad mood against their partner.
Couples tend to forget that the person they are married to is a separate individual. Arguments may flare up around different standards of behavior, values, political beliefs, sexual desires or child-rearing philosophies. Some spouses also get angry at their partner’s limitations. I’ve seen marital tension complaints because one partner can’t organize and clean the home, and upon closer examination it simply is the other person’s learning disability in being organized that is at fault, not the individual.
Sometimes, couples fight when one party wants to change his role, which the other person envisioned was fixed for life, such as deciding household chores or making a decision to go back to school to pursue a new career. What one expects in a marriage can change over time. People change, and if these changes are not dealt with openly, they become the source of a lot of tension and conflict.
Believe it or not, research has shown that couples who stay married fight as much as couples that get divorced. So what is the difference between these two groups? Couples who stay married seem to be good at focusing their disagreement on the issue that is in conflict, not the person. Couples who divorce seem to lose sight of the actual issue or problem that needs to be dealt with and instead quickly prepare for battle.
These couples seem to perceive a different point of view as a personal attack rather than a difference in perception or preference. Instead of looking for a solution to the problem, they are quick to begin to name call, make character assassinations or, worse, devalue the other person’s right to have a different opinion. Sometimes interpretations are made like, “You’re angry at me because your father always treated you like dirt!” or “You’re just stupid.”
So, my advice to couples is that when a fight is inevitable, remember to focus on saving your marriage, not on winning the argument. If your anger gets out of hand, and most people have had times when this has occurred, try some cooling-down exercises. Deep breathing though your nose and exhaling slowly through your mouth can calm you down. If you get too excited, take a time-out from your argument and take a walk. When you’re calm, you will be more in control and deal with your conflict more rationally.
Remember, even when you feel you are absolutely right, don’t let your ego get out of control. Instead, make an effort to validate what your partner is feeling even if you strongly disagree. Work as a team and aim for trying to figure out what the problem is so that you and your partner can come up with some solutions that both of you can live with, rather than those solutions that pull you apart.
While fighting in marriage is scary for some, marital fights challenge couples to use their creative emotional and intellectual resources and can bring couples together as they learn to solve their problems.
The writer is a marital, child and adult psychotherapist practicing in both Jerusalem and Ra’anana.