“Whenever you are confronted with an opponent, conquer him with love.” ~ Mahatma Gandhi

I used to do anything to avoid a fight – back down, shut up, laugh awkwardly, tiptoe around, leave the room, go for a drive, call a friend, take deep breaths. I thought every fight had the potential to break up our relationship. Fighting was awful, a gut-wrenching experience where I pushed down the ugly words I wanted to say to try to keep the peace and save the relationship.

My husband thought our relationship fine. I was mad because our relationship was not fine.

I was hoping for things to magically change, for my husband to read my mind, and for the discomfort to go away, all without changing myself, saying what was on my mind, or feeling any discomfort.

Ridiculous, isn’t it?

Why I Had to Start Fighting

In 2010 I took this distorted view of problem resolution on a trip around the world with my husband Warren. We were together constantly, often living out of hostel rooms or studio apartments, and starting a business together at the same time. It was an ambitious goal for any couple, but even more so for a pair inexperienced at fighting well.

My old ways of dealing with impending fights no longer worked. First, I had nowhere to go since we were traveling together. Warren was usually the only person I knew, or at least knew well enough to confide in. And I certainly couldn’t tell him if I wanted to avoid the fight.

There were far more decisions to be made in our new lifestyle than the one we left behind. We had to decide where to stay every single night, where to eat three times a day, how to find transportation, find the wifi password in every new place so we could work, decide what to do every day, locate the laundromat, and a dozen other choices and decisions. Avoiding each other or holding a grudge just didn’t work when so many decisions had to be made together every single day.

This fear of fighting could have easily ended our relationship, right at the point we were living out our biggest dream.

Three Steps to Fighting Better

Fighting is as necessary to love as affection. Without it, small problems grow big, misunderstandings never get straightened out, and relationships can’t grow. People can’t grow unchallenged, either. But it took me a while to learn this.

After a big fight about my inability to deal with problems in the moment, we had a breakthrough. We chose to change the way we looked at fighting, which changed how we did it and how I felt about it.

First, we made a rule that we could only fight about one thing at a time. No dredging up the past or complicating the fight with other problems. This change alone made our fights much shorter. And because we had no distractions or wild tangents, we came to a resolution to the original problem. The fight was less dramatic, which meant I didn’t fear it as much.

Second, we agreed to always assume the best intentions of the other person. This means if Warren says something to me, I have to assume he’s coming from a good place even if he doesn’t say it well. No jumping to conclusions or adding motive where there isn’t any; we have to give each other the benefit of the doubt. We’re not out to get each other, and reminding ourselves of that in the small everyday comments and actions has mellowed us out so we don’t get mad over stupid things as much. This helped me see that Warren wasn’t going to leave me because I said something bad, and I shouldn’t imagine a breakup every time he said something I didn’t like.

Last, we agreed to take feedback and criticism as something based on our actions, not on our core selves. I can tell Warren I didn’t like a dish he cooked without it meaning he’s a horrible cook. He can tell me how to perform a task in our business better without meaning I’m too dumb to do it right the first time. Our egos have stepped to the side of these comments, so we’re less defensive than we used to be. Fighting is more about problem resolution now than lashing out and defending ourselves. It’s more about actions we like or don’t like than it is liking or disliking each other.

These three changes have allowed us to fight more productively and quickly get back to the everyday romance and comfort of our relationship. These changes have also taught me that fighting is a way to clear the air, make continual improvements in the relationship, and keep us both in alignment with our goals and dreams.

Fighting in a relationship is a lot like cleaning house. If you do it on a regular basis, it doesn’t take long and makes life more enjoyable overall. If you only do it once a year, you’ll have to live with a lot of trash and dust before you finally get uncomfortable enough to hose the whole place down.

What is your attitude toward fighting, and how has it worked out in your relationships?

Betsy Talbot

Betsy Talbot and her husband Warren are the authors of Married with Luggage: What We Learned about Love by Traveling the World. Through their popular books, engaging weekly podcast, and revealing Sunday emails, they share the unconventional wisdom they've learned about living, working, and traveling together since 2010. Find out more about modern love and partnership at Married with Luggage.