Is Fighting A Sign Of A Dying Relationship?

Photographed by Lauren Perlstein.
In a new mini-series, we unpack relationship myths with expert and couples therapist Esther Perel. She answered our questions about bad sex, honesty, and cheating. Today, is fighting a sign of a doomed relationship?

Q: My S.O. and I fight ALL the time. Is this a bad sign?

A: Interestingly enough, whether or not a couple fights isn’t a sign of a good or bad relationship. John Gottman, a researcher who focuses on signs of divorce, says that volatile relationships (in which conflicts erupt passionately) can be just as stable as conflict-avoiding relationships and “validating” relationships where couples calmly work out their problems.

“It’s not conflict that is generally the main marker of a good relationship, as much as the issue of repair,” Perel says. “There are plenty of couples who are maybe quite volatile, but they know how to make up.”

Gottman’s research, Perel says, found that a couple’s stability is defined more by the way a couple interacts, especially while fighting. Do they turn towards each other and engage? Or do they turn away and dismiss their partners in everyday interactions? Do they show contempt or do they show kindness?

“Conflict, disagreement, discord, competition, jealousy. These are all intrinsic elements of relationships,” Perel says. “What makes a good relationship has nothing to do with conflict. What makes a good relationship is appreciation, making people feel they matter, and they’re in your life not because they do the dishes. It’s about reliability and dependability, that they have your back. It’s about trust, basically.”

It’s the difference between fighting to hurt and fighting to heal. “You can have very contentious couples who are tight, who appreciate each other, who can fight each other without feeling like you’re going to knock them out,” Perel says. But it’s important to have that trust that you aren’t going to be hurt — with your partner’s contempt or criticism. Just like with honesty, partners can criticize kindly — and get through fights stronger than before.

Let’s face it: No relationship is going to be completely conflict-free. “We need to fight, we need space to fight,” Perel says. "And a thriving relationship is a relationship where it’s safe enough to fight without destroying the whole thing.”

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