“When Harry Met Sally” is one of my all-time favorite movies. But I never realized, until recently, how its entire plot is about the titular characters fighting.
That’s the central theme. They disagree almost all the time, yet still fall in love.
When our favorite couples fight in television and movies, we call that “chemistry.” That’s what’s been etched in our brains from pop culture, and even watching our own parents.
Anyone who’s been in or around a couple at some point in their life knows that that couple has fought, and will probably fight again. One survey found that nearly half of married couples believe fighting once per week “helps keep the lines of communication open.”
Other studies have suggested it’s not whether or not you fight that matters— it’s how you fight. Couples that can resolve daily conflicts are more stable. Couples who don’t have a higher chance of splitting up.
But what happens if you never resolve that conflict? If you find yourself having the same argument over again, is it a sign you should pick your battles?
“It doesn’t mean you should stop the conversation,” clinical psychologist Clinton Moore said. “But it’s important to reflect on why the fight keeps returning and see if you can fix the source of the issue.”
This can be difficult. Moore said that conflict is emotional, so it’s easy to fall into unhealthy habits, like stonewalling your partner.
Sometimes, the argument might be about something that seems small. That’s OK — it’s good to get those opinions out in the open, especially early on.
“It is not the issue that is crucial but rather developing healthy skills to ‘hang in’ with each other and deal with conflicts,” relationship and family psychologist Fran Walfish said.
“Most people either position defensively and attack their partner, run for cover, fall silent or collapse into tears of hurt and helplessness.”
None of those are particularly helpful ways to deal with conflict.
In other cases, the argument might appear to be about one thing, but might actually stem from resentment in the relationship. A good way to spot this: you’re more concerned with winning the fight than resolving the issue.
“Remember, you can be right, or you can be happy,” Moore said. “At the end of the day, the best couples are the ones that make space for all parts of each other. When you have this type of openness, fights will still happen but there’s a better chance of them resulting in real change.”
Studies show that resentment is a product of unresolved conflict. So if you’re disagreeing over something, try to resolve it instead of letting it stew.
If your partner has a concern, listening is key.
Walfish says this is all about respect; you don’t have to agree with everything they’re saying, but they deserve your validation and understanding.
It’s common to want to interrupt your partner or think about your own response while they’re talking. But the only way to truly listen is to be intentional about it.
“Everyone is entitled to their own feelings, so do your best not to criticize, judge, belittle your partner or minimize the importance of her feelings,” Walfish said. “When a person’s negative feelings are not validated, they will likely get more powerful, grow and create a barrier in the relationship.”
It’s natural to feel defensive. Listening will give you a chance to cool off before you respond to your partner. And once you do, try to keep the disagreement on topic. Don’t compare your partner to other people, or bring up things that happened years ago.
When you’re in a fight with your partner, you’re coming in with the belief that your viewpoint is right, and theirs is wrong.
But remember that we all go through this world looking through different lenses based on our backgrounds.
“Accept the fact that all of us grow up with messages of bias,” Walfish said. “Know where biases and judgments exist within you. Own it. Then you can decide whether you want to alter those beliefs.”
You don’t have to alter your beliefs. But knowing where yours come from can bring you closer to knowing where your partner is coming from.
Chances are, you have some responsibility in whatever issue you’re fighting about. It’s your job to own up to it and be accountable.
These are all good skills to build together, Walfish said. You’ll need them if you want to stay together during big life crises, such as a medical scare or the death of a loved one.
If you’ve never fought, you might not know how to deal with conflict when the pressure is turned way up.
Disagreements are hard, and it’s easy to want to brush things aside and deal with them later. But confronting the tough stuff now is worth it.
“Don’t wait for something terrible to happen,” Walfish said. “Make improving your relationship and lifelong happiness of you and your partner your motivation.”