Are Some Things Unsayable In A Fight With Your Partner?

Photographed by Meg O'Donnell
“YOU! ARE! A! C*NT!”
This is what I yelled at the top of my lungs one Tuesday morning. There was a stunned silence. My anger had crescendoed to a place that surprised us both. When the words tumbled out, in the red mist of our fight, it was as if they rolled across the floor between my boyfriend and me, smashing something precious and irreparable into dozens of pieces in front of us. 
It turns out it was repairable. My words hadn’t broken our relationship, but by using a word I usually only reserve for muttering under my breath when a bus driver sees you at the door and drives off anyway, I had crossed a threshold. 
In that argument, I wasn’t complaining about a thing my partner had or hadn't done. I wasn’t referring to the way he made me feel, or a habit that particularly grated. I was referring to him. And I used the worst word I could find. 
Fights in relationships can feel like brushing out tangled hair. It can hurt like hell, trying to straighten out all the snags and pulls of two people attempting to share one life. And the longer you leave it, the worse it gets, until all you’re left with is a matted clump of emotional mess you keep trying to avoid. 
Yet renowned psychotherapist Esther Perel describes arguing with your partner as “a must.” Most experts agree some confrontation about unresolved issues is a healthy, inevitable, and necessary part of any relationship. 
I was once in a relationship where any fights were shut down before they began. In some ways, I thought everything was great. “No, we don’t fight,” I’d tell my friends. But now I know it was silencing and it had tragic consequences. We didn’t know how to fight, so I didn't know how to tell my partner that I was unhappy. We didn’t give ourselves the chance to resolve the problems as they arrived. Instead, I was left with a giant, tangled knot and decided the only way to deal with it was to cut it — him — out completely. 
Yet experts also agree that arguing too much isn't ideal either. So where’s the line? And how far can, or should, we go in an argument? Is there a line that simply shouldn’t be crossed? Words that shouldn’t be said? Emotional grenades that shouldn't be thrown? 
For some couples, that’s kind of the point of a fight; a space to let it all out. A friend of mine used to throw crockery at the wall when she fought with her ex. When she couldn’t find the words, she reached for a mug. Another friend, especially after a few wines, inevitably ends up yelling "I wish I’d never met you!” She’s said it so many times that her partner practically goads her into saying it, mid-fight, “Oh, here it comes…” he’ll say, rolling his eyes. And so a well-rehearsed dance begins.
“I get really mean,” says Nadine, 31. “I lash out. I know him so well, and I know how to do the most damage. Which is comparing him to his father. I know exactly what I’m doing. It’s terrible." Rachel, 27, says her partner has asked her a million times not to slam doors and storm out. “She says it’s childish and unhelpful. But, when we’re fighting, I can’t help myself. I want to piss her off. So I slam the bedroom door, the front door, all the doors!”  

​​Just because it’s impulsive doesn’t mean it’s okay. It can be incredibly damaging to you and your partner’s wellbeing, mental health and relationship.

Dr Katherine Hertlein
Neither Rachel nor Nadine think their style of fighting is great, but neither of them see it as a dealbreaker. In fact, for Nadine, it serves a purpose, “There is something about going to that place that resets us. We have the blow up, and then in the process of making up, we have the better conversations, the ones we actually need to have. Sometimes those nasty and dramatic fights feel like the only way of getting there”
There is also a biological reason we might go too far, explains Peter Saddington, a counselor and therapist for Relate, the UK’s largest provider of relationship support. 
“It’s our fight-or-flight response," he says. “If we feel we need to defend ourselves from a threat or attack, we release cortisol, a stress hormone, and adrenaline starts pumping.” Essentially, the brain has sent our body into code red, a survival setting. As a result, we’re likely to be more hyper, more worked up, and more ready to fight.
Hannah, 30, prefers to withdraw when things start to heat up. She grew up with yelling parents. “It was pretty unpleasant and it’s not something I want in my house to replicate," she says. "And I do think some things are unforgivable. That’s why I don’t want it to escalate and then we’ll both say something we regret."
While we might see a lighter side to the Ricky and Bianca-style rows our friends relay over wine, there can be a much more serious aspect to them. Katherine Hertlein, PhD, couples therapist, expert advisor at Blueheart, and professor at the University of Nevada, explains that the ‘heat of the moment’ excuse isn’t always going to cut it, and there may be something darker taking place. 
“​​Just because it’s impulsive doesn’t mean it’s okay. It can be incredibly damaging to you and your partner’s wellbeing, mental health, and relationship," she says. For Dr. Hertlein, “Threats to leave should be totally off the table in any argument, because there will be limited ability for each partner to safely say the things that need to be said."
More worryingly, she adds, if going too far is a norm, it can be considered emotional abuse. "The more this type of argument becomes the norm, the more each person loses touch with how much damage they are doing."
Going too far can also be a symptom of other issues that may need addressing: Saddington mentions alcohol, as well as mental health problems, and, as Hannah alluded to, what we learned about fighting from our parents. 
Both experts agree, however, if lines are crossed it's all in how we fix it. They echo Esther Perel: “Our relationships are a cycle of harmony, disharmony, and repair,” Perel has said. “The question isn’t the fighting, it’s the repair."
Saddington says the first thing we must do is to acknowledge that we have gone too far to ourselves. “Things that are hurtful are not easily forgotten, we have to own up to that.” They can be especially damaging, he adds, if what’s been said has an “element of the truth that is hard to deny.”

Things that are hurtful are not easily forgotten, we have to own up to that.

Peter Saddington
Peter’s advice, if you have crossed a line or hit a raw nerve, is to give the other person the time and space they need: “just because you’re ready, doesn't mean they will be." And then, he advises, find a sensitive way to apologize. This might be a letter or an email, something where you can explain yourself fully, and give your partner a chance to calmly digest what you've said. He also says it has to be genuine. Your partner will know if you’re paying them lip service. 
A recent article in The Atlantic interviewed couples who schedule their fights – some called it “contract talks,” others call it “play days” but, essentially, instead of fighting when rows "naturally" erupt, they store up their grievances and have regular meetings to discuss them. The idea is that enough time has passed to allow the couple to speak calmly about the subject, and, together, find solutions to strengthen the relationship. Fifty years into marriage, one couple says the talks “saved” them through many obstacles, including their young child being diagnosed with cancer, a tremendous pressure on a couple. The same couple also said the regular talks created a feedback loop: “The more you do them, the more you feel heard. The more you feel understood, the less you argue.” 
What Saddington and Dr. Hertlein make clear is that we have to take fighting in context — ask what is really going on, underneath the shouting, door slamming, and accusations about who has done the least washing that week. Some might go too far when there’s nowhere left to go; some might not think their fighting is going too far... as others look on in horror.
Fights, like relationships, are deeply personal. We need to understand where these arguments sit in the totality of ourselves and our relationship. When we discover what is really going on, and what that means to us, then we can figure out how to fix it, if, indeed, we want to. 
My partner and I didn’t schedule contract talks after C-Gate, but we did dabble in couples’ mindfulness. It was during a COVID-19 lockdown, and we were in a one-bed apartment. Safe to say, we needed some mindfulness anyway. But it helped massively, leading to much greater patience with one other. And like contract talks, it meant we regularly dedicated some calm and supportive time to one another. Of course, we still fight, and I’m sure we’ll both cross a line again, but it’s comforting that we were able to find a route back. Sometimes stumbling over the edge can be very humbling. It makes you very grateful to be firmly back on steadier ground once more. 

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