By Kate Storey
FEB 2, 2016
You know that feeling when you can sense a fight coming on with your partner? You get that knot in your stomach, your blood starts to boil, and your mind races. It’s okay to embrace the battle, according to relationship experts Dr. Judith Wright and Dr. Bob Wright — as long as you know what you’re really fighting about.
“Fighting is so good because your relationship is about growing and becoming the very best person you can become. Fights are one of your best tools for learning,” Judith tells GoodHousekeeping.com. “They’re servicing a lot of your unconscious gunk. They’re bringing problems up to the service. They’re letting you know what you care about, what you really desire, what you really yearn for deep inside. They’re teaching you so much.”
The married Chicago-based team wrote a book on the topic, Heart of the Fight, out February 2. They break down the 15 most common fights — and what they really say about your relationship.
1 You’re constantly pointing fingers.
If you find yourselves blaming each other for who ruined the vacation or whose fault it was that you were late for the dinner party, your expectations are probably out of whack. “A couple like this has got some growing up to do to really be able to take more responsibility to go after what they need and what instead of just dumping it on the other partner,” Judith says. “You’ve got to break this belief that your partner’s supposed to make you happy. You probably have some fairytale-type expectations.”
They advise: “Instead of assigning blame in arguments, figure out what you’re so upset about, what went wrong, and how to change it now and in the future.”
2 You bicker over chores.
We all have these fights: You feel like your partner never does the dishes, or he’s constantly leaving the toilet set up. As you probably guessed, it’s never really just about that domestic dispute. “It may look like dirty socks on the floor, but you’re feeling like the other person isn’t appreciating your contributions,” Judith says. “This is often the way power-and-control struggles play out in a relationship: trying to get dominance.”
So instead of fighting over socks, talk about needing to feel valued and ask for help, Bob adds. “Research has shown that in the first 10 years of a relationship, power and control and conflict have been proven to be foundational to the best relationships long-term. And you get to be a better team.”
3 You’re hiding shopping bags.
Fights over finances can strike from a lot of different angles. Maybe one partner is a lavish spender and the other is more frugal, or being short on funds puts a constant strain on the relationship. The Wrights say insecurity about money means uncertainty about your relationship.
“Money symbolizes so many things,” Judith explains. “It symbolizes power and love. People think, ‘If we have enough money, we have enough love.’ It’s very primal. Having resources makes us feel safe and secure. The thought of any scarcity can really trigger some really deep primal fights for couples.” If you and your partner are on the same page about budgeting, that goes a long way to fending off fights — and financial shortages.
4 You try to ignore problems — but vent your anger in other ways.
Giving your partner the silent treatment, making passive-aggressive jabs, or keeping frustration pent up inside isn’t going to fix whatever is bothering you. “For some, it’s this passive settling, this seething, boiling underneath,” says Judith, who likens these fights to secretly giving your partner a middle finger. “If you’re not willing to let this stuff out, you’re not willing to have the intimacy that you could have. It’s really a lack of investment.”
“These types are dangerous because it allows couples to think they’re succeeding for lots of years,” Bob says. In other words, good relationships are worth fighting for — literally — so speak up.
5 You have different sex-pectations.
Rarely are fights just about sexual intimacy, the doctors explain. But these destructive disagreements can often undermine both partners’ self-confidence. One example, Judith says, is when a partner associates sex with a time to be held, cuddled, and feel affection. If they’re not getting that affection during the day, too, it places an unhealthy level of expectations on a couple’s sex life: “You’re trying to meet too many needs with sex. Ideally, you’re feeling already close and sex is your way to express that instead of using that to get close.” This is another area where it’s up to you to ask for what you need.
6 You wish he just knew how to make you feel special.
This fight is a Valentine’s Day classic. “It’s like, ‘If he really loved me, he’d know what to buy me or to take me to the right restaurant,'” Judith says, pointing again to unrealistic expectations. “No! Come on! Being in a relationship isn’t having someone to read your mind. It’s saying what it is you need and want, allowing your partner to know what your yearnings are, what you desire, what pleases you, to really be able to share that. But so many women think, ‘Well if I have to tell him, it doesn’t count.’ Yes it does! It so does!'”
7 You’re contemplating violence next time he slurps.
Some days, your partner’s loud chewing is enough to make your head explode. Good news: The doctors say it’s okay to point out a partner’s annoying habits. If his chewing really is that bad, then, chances are, it’s irritating his colleagues, too. But the criticism has to come from a good place.
“If you have a vision for the way you want him to be seen in the world, for him to be that respected, wonderful man you see him as, then you have a responsibility to give him that feedback,” Judith says. “But it’s in the context of that vision — not just for you to pull out every time you want to attack him because you’re feeling insecure or upset about something.” If you’re nitpicking every little thing about your partner, chances are there’s something bigger bothering you, and you need to lay off them and figure out the real issue.
8 You feel less interesting to him than fantasy football.
You’re not alone. “People are checking out, and it’s really addictive,” says Judith, who points to constant social-media checking and obsessive TV-watching. “These things are a way to not engage. Everyone has them, but they can be destructive to relationships.” Why? They detract from intimacy and “numb feelings.”
The doctors say that these distractions — even your office workload — can also be an indication that you’re avoiding something. “I’ll have men and women say, ‘Did I have a lot of work to do? Yeah. But we also had a fight that morning and I was in no hurry to get home,'” Bob says. “Chances are we’re hiding out in those things because there’s some unexpressed upset or pain, or something we don’t want to share with our partner — and that’s telling.” Perhaps it’s worth scheduling a device-free dinner to talk things out.
9 You’ve got a case of “I told you so.”
If your partner is wrong about something, and your very first instinct is to throw a big “I told you so!” in his face, that’s not good. “You not getting enough affirmation in the day-to-day,” Bob explains. “If you’re really affirmed by your partner, you don’t need to rub things in their face like that.” These fights can build walls in between partners, so lose the sarcasm and have an honest conversation.
10 You fight about how he “always” or “never” does something.
It can be tempting to talk in absolutes like this, but it’s probably pretty rare that your partneralways or never does a particular thing. “[These] fights often stem from a sense of helplessness about the other meeting your needs or heeding your requests,” the Wrights wrote in their book. “The minute we put the words always or never into the fight, it’s easy to denigrate into versions of first-grade-type fights of ‘I do not,’ ‘You do too.'”
11 You’re telling white lies.
Or you’re keeping big secrets. Either way, fights that involve lies or broken promises can be a big problem — even if they’re not about huge deceptions, like affairs. “Couples tend to manage each other,” Judith says. “They’ll present something in a certain way. Or say, ‘I’ll wait until he’s in a good mood,’ or ‘I’ll only tell him this part.’ You haven’t built up a sense of trust or an agreement that you’re really going to be partners. Best friends tell each other everything.”
When it comes to untruths big and small, it’s important to face them, because they can have lasting effects. “We want our partner to see us in a certain way and we think, ‘If he really sees who I am or what I’ve done or how I’m feeling, he or she wont love me anymore.’ So we try to keep this persona, and we don’t want to share the darker parts of ourselves,” Judith says. “This is a bind in relationships because then your partner can say, ‘I love you’ and you think, ‘You wouldn’t really love me if you knew this about me.’ This is so damaging to intimacy.”
12You go crazy if he says, “You’re just like your mother.”
We all have things in common with our parents, but that can often be a touchy subject. And when a partner points similarities out in a fight, it’s usually not said as a compliment. “You use it against the other person because, whether they hated that parent or they worship that parent, they have strong unfinished business,” Bob says.
Judith explains the low blow:. “It’s shows that you’re not really able to talk more deeply about what it is you really need, want, and feel. It’s like throwing a bomb rather than really letting the other person know the details.” Instead, ask yourself — or your partner — what’s the real issue at hand?
13You expect him to be the same as when you were dating
Change in a relationship can be a great thing. But if one partner feels like they’re being left in the dust, they can feel betrayed or distanced. “When someone starts to grow and change and their partner is threatened, the person decides not to grow anymore and can become afraid of the change themselves,” Judith says. “The happiest and healthiest relationships are the ones where you bring more back into the relationship.” The key, she adds, is to support each other’s efforts to learn and grow.
14You’re often embarrassed in public.
When your partner blurts out something you really wish he hadn’t, there are a lot of different ways to deal with it. You could ask him about the comment later in private, or you could accuse him of humiliating you on purpose. Bob says that when the latter becomes the norm, a couple has stopped empowering each other. Judith adds: “It’s not that we shouldn’t be able to talk about stuff, but certain couples use it to put their partner down, in order to one up. That’s dirty. If something is bothering you, say it to each other and don’t use the public to make the point.”
15You always side with your parents.
Blending families can be a complicated, sometimes sticky, endeavor. In The Heart of the Fight, the Wrights tell the story of a client who consulted with her parents before any major decisions — often calling them before giving her husband the latest news. This is a sign of immaturity, the doctors say.
“It’s time to stop defining yourself as your parents’ child. It means both of you really growing up and claiming, ‘This is my woman; this is my man; we are a family,'” Judith says. “That’s where the bond needs to be. It doesn’t mean you can’t visit families, but you have to decide your own values, and how you spend your holidays, and what are your traditions and your rituals as a couple. That’s what builds the relationship.”