Having a satisfying, healthy relationship with your partner doesn't mean never fighting -- it means learning to fight well. Like me, you've probably often heard that little piece of wisdom, and wondered what in the world it means. How exactly do you fight well? What is the best way for two people to cope with their anger, frustration and hurt, without undermining their mutual happiness?
My husband and I have never completely seen eye-to-eye on this issue (that's right, we even fight about fighting). Of course, we both agree about the obvious no-nos: name-calling, low blows, plate-throwing, etc. But having been raised in very different regions of the country, in families with very different habits of emotional expression, we approach our arguments with very different ideas about what constitutes "fighting well."
My husband is from Minnesota, where niceness is the norm and feelings are for keeping to yourself, thank you very much. When conflict arises, he vastly prefers to not talk about it, believing that if we just ignore it, the conflict will probably just go away. Emoting makes him very uncomfortable.
I was born and raised a Catholic from New Jersey, where feelings are most definitely for sharing, with anyone who will listen, whether they want to or not. When something upsets me and I try to keep it to myself, I feel like a ticking time bomb. My husband often jokes that in my universe, nothing "goes without saying" -- and when I'm angry, that definitely goes with saying.
So which of us is right? When conflicts arise, should you suppress the urge to express your anger, point out your partner's flaws and shortcomings, assign blame and demand change? Or should you fully engage in battle, letting the accusations and emotions fly? It's hard to know which strategy will work best in the long run. Arguments can be emotionally painful and exhausting, and they can often make mountains out of molehills. Then again, tackling a problem head on, however unpleasant, can be constructive. It can motivate both partners to bring about the changes that are necessary for lasting happiness.
Thankfully, recent research might just put an end to all the fighting about fighting. The best way to deal with conflict in a marriage, it turns out, depends on how serious or severe the problem is. Did your spouse drink too much at the party last night, or is he drinking too much every night? Did she splurge a little too much on clothes last month, or are her spending habits edging you closer and closer to bankruptcy? Did he invite his mother to dinner without discussing it with you first, or did he invite his mother to live with you without discussing it first? Little problems and big problems require very different approaches if you want to have a lasting, happy marriage.
In two studies by James McNulty and Michelle Russell, newly-married couples were brought into the lab and videotaped discussing an area of difficulty in their marriage. Six to eight months later, they were contacted again for a follow-up interview that included questions about their marital satisfaction.
The researchers found that in the context of relatively minor and insignificant problems, direct fighting strategies -- like placing blame on your spouse for their actions or expressing your anger -- predicted a loss of marital satisfaction over time. Flying off the handle when he forgets to take out the garbage yet again, or when she spends a little too much money on a pricey pair of shoes, is going to take its toll on your happiness in the long run. You really are better off letting the small stuff go.
On the other hand, in response to major problems, these same direct fighting strategies predicted increased marital satisfaction! In other words, expressing your feelings, blaming your partner and demanding that they change their ways will lead to greater happiness when the conflict in question is something significant -- something that if left unresolved could ultimately tear your relationship apart. Issues involving addiction, financial stability, infidelity, child-rearing and whether or not you live with your mother-in-law need to be addressed, even if it gets a little ugly. Couples who battled it out over serious issues did a better job of tackling and eventually resolving those issues than those who swept big problems under the carpet.
So when you are deciding whether or not something is worth fighting over with your partner, ask yourself if, in the scheme of things, the problem is a 10 or a two. If it's a two, try letting it go. But if it's a 10, let the battle begin. You'll both be happier that way.
Incidentally, it's worth pointing out that in these studies, indirect fighting strategies -- like passive aggressiveness, moodiness, insinuation, sarcasm and deflecting responsibility -- were always negatively related to marital satisfaction. So if you're going to be unpleasant with your spouse, make sure you are clear, honest and constructive. If you're not going to really address the issue, there is nothing gained from being a cranky jerk. The goal is to bring about change, not make your partner miserable (no matter how tempting that may seem when you find yourself staring, once again, at your neglected and overflowing trashcans).
For more on getting what you want in your relationships, at work and everywhere else, check out my new book "Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals." Or, visit my website The Science of Success. Follow me on Twitter @hghalvorson.