5 Fights Couples Therapists Want You To Stop Having In 2019

Photographed by Lula Hyers.
When you think about New Year’s resolutions, you probably think of easy-to-track, external goals: leveling up in your career, trying a new fitness routine, finally putting a limit on your soul-sucking Netflix consumption. What might not come to mind is improving how you fight in your relationships. That’s because most people probably want to devote less energy to these spats, not more. But dropping these toxic, counterproductive arguments is one of the most impactful goals you can set for yourself.
Here to help you identify and reframe dangerous fighting dynamics in your relationships are Vanessa Marin, sex therapist, Dr. Liz Powell, psychologist and sex educator, and Sandi Kaufman, LCSW and relationship and intimacy therapist.
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1 of 5
You’re always keeping score.

Stop me if this sounds familiar: The dishes are basically rotting in the sink after days of being unwashed, and you’re both locked in a silent standoff about whose turn it is to do them. Then comes the numbers game. In between jabs of, “But I did it last time,” and “Well, I took out the trash the last two times,” you become entangled in this unwinnable stalemate of chore tallying. And it’s not just the dishes that suffer. While this type of fight is really common with day-to-day responsibilities, it can also surface a lot in conversations about sex.

“If you get really fixated on the specific numbers, it just causes so much tension and even a sense of pettiness in the relationship. You feel like you're constantly being watched and judged,” Marin explains.

Try this: If you’re getting into it over household obligations, Marin suggests breaking up those responsibilities and letting each person handle their own specific chores. Try and divy them up in a fair way, and, as Marin herself does, set an appointment with your partner a month or two later to assess if it’s working.

If your tallying has seeped into your love life, things can get a bit more complicated. But, your best bet is to talk about it honestly. Marin says the first thing she might advise is for each partner to tell the other what they get out of sex. Maybe you’re convinced your partner only wants the release sex provides. But, as Marin explains, “Hearing your partner say, maybe this is the time that they feel closest to you, that they get to experience intimacy with you in those moments, that can really change your perspective about what’s happening.” Opening up can also provide an opportunity to discuss and improve things, like adding in more foreplay or slowing things down.
2 of 5
Expecting your partner to read your mind.

“I think we have some really harmful myths about relationships that we tend to perpetuate as a society,” Marin explains. “One of them is definitely that your partner should just know you so well, even better than you know yourself, and just be able to give to you before you even realize what you need. We really romanticise people taking care of us in that way.” Obviously, it’s fair to expect your partner to have basic empathy, but the problem with hoping your partner can provide without any direction is pretty clear: we often end up punishing partners for something that’s really not their fault.

Try this: Fixing this one requires doing a little work on yourself. Marin acknowledges you may have to ask, “What is it about me or my history or my personal dynamics that makes me struggle to ask for what I want?” But Dr. Powell has a tip to track that behavior in the moment. If you find yourself thinking, “He should have,” or “It’s obvious she ought to,” stop. “Those kinds of phrases are a really clear red flag to you that there's something going on that you may want to examine,” she notes.

“When I find myself using, ‘You should have thought about how I would feel about this,’ Powell continues, “What I mean instead is, ‘I wish you would have thought about how I would feel about this.’” And starting from a place of “I wish” is a way more productive way to navigate a conflict.
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3 of 5
Pushing your partner to have all the same interests as you.

Haven’t we all been sold the image of a couple that cheers each other on at the gym, then goes home and reads the same books so they can have fierce but loving debates about them afterward? It’s easy to feel hurt if someone doesn’t share an interest with you, because it feels like a rejection of a part of yourself. But no one should feel pressured or guilt-tripped into doing something they don’t want to. “Over time, that continues to degrade our relationships and gets both of us further and further from being able to know what's really going on,” Powell explains. And this is true even if one partner eventually acquiesces to the demands. “If we are agreeing to things we aren't really a ‘yes’ to, we're going to end up feeling resentment and anger and hurt.”

Try this: Let this fight die before it begins. Go to that concert or that gym class with a friend who actually wants to. And if you can’t find one, as hard as it might seem, go alone. You will be better off for it, because maintaining your own interests can prevent you from getting lost in a relationship. “I think there's a way that popular culture around relationships teaches us codependency and loss of self, rather than healthy relationships between individuals. And when we lose ourselves, then we have to make our partners do what we want, because we don't have a self without them,” Powell explains.

Of course most people in a relationship will have some common interests; that’s probably what brought you together in the first place. But as Marin points out, a relationship where you share every single avocation would be incredibly boring.
4 of 5
Getting too heated too quickly.

You’re not in fourth grade anymore, but lots of us still find ourselves in heated arguments where we let slip, “Why are you being such a jerk about this?”. Even well-intentioned partners can fall into heated exchanges with some aggressive barbs. After all, when your partner swore they’d work on texting you back but you’re forever left on read, it can trigger some very warranted rage. But simple name-calling is a problem. As Kaufman explains, “When people treat each other in ways that are demeaning or hostile, the reaction is typically a fight, flight, or freeze response. So people will react defensively when they're feeling attacked. When that kicks in, people can't really hear each other. They're just fighting for control and power. Nothing gets resolved when people are in a defensive stance.”

Try this: Go back to basics and bring out the tried and true “I” statements. Kaufman recommends breaking this into three parts: saying how you feel, saying what you need, and then ending on a request. In the example of the terrible texter, you could try, “I feel hurt when I try to communicate with you and don’t get an answer. I need to feel like my partner isn’t ignoring me. Can you check your phone once every few hours?”

Powell also debunks the old adage that you should never go to sleep angry. While texting is a pretty low-stakes example, serious fights often need a cooling off period. “If you're feeling heated and your emotions are high, then it's not the right time to have that conversation,” Powell explains. You can tell someone you love them and go to sleep next to them even if you’re angry.

You may even need to consult an outside party for particularly hot fights. But Powell cautions picking that friend wisely, because that one confidant who’s always your cheerleader no matter what may not be able to see both sides clearly. Find someone who can be honest and push you to see things from your partner’s perspective, too.
5 of 5
Avoiding conflict altogether.

What’s worse than fighting about the things that bother you? Not addressing them at all. If your partner is someone who turns every issue into a passive aggressive joke, like “Hey, guess no one ever taught you to show up on time! Ha ha...ha!” and then immediately gets sullen and clams up, they need to check themselves. Kaufman explains that conflict avoidant behavior often stems from the environment someone grew up in. “If emotions weren't discussed in childhood, they don't know how [to express them]. They were never taught,” she notes. As a result, some people are extremely uncomfortable talking about their feelings. They might mutter comments under their breath and say “nothing,” when you ask what’s wrong, or joke about a problem to avoid addressing how much it really bothers them.

Try this: To help passive aggressive fighters get in touch with their emotions, Kaufman recommends negotiating a timeout strategy before an argument even begins. When you’re not fighting, decide how long your timeouts will last, be it twenty minutes or an hour. Then, when you are arguing and someone is slipping into passive behavior, getting too heated, or withdrawing, initiate your timeout. Take some time to go do something else, but make sure to come back to your dispute, hopefully with a clearer head. For people who hate fighting or struggle to identify their emotions, knowing that you're going into a fight with an exit strategy can really diffuse some of that tension and take some of the pressure off.

The most important thing to remember about fighting is that everybody does it. It doesn’t mean your relationship is doomed or that you’ve failed as a partner. But the more you can use tools to reframe fights as productive discussions and negotiations, the less stressful they’ll be.

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