How I Went from Fearing Fights with My Husband to Starting Them

How I Went from Fearing Fights with My Husband to Starting Them

“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.

24 Comments

  1. You and Warren have found constructive ways to hash out your differences. You both have self-respect and respect for each other. Because of that, your marriage is based on trust.

    I cannot imagine a firmer foundation for any relationship.

    My wife and I are not identical. We have our differences. I used to avoid fights too.

    I am much better now about speaking out earlier. Dealing with our differences early on means that we actually spend less time fighting and more time enjoying each other.

    Thank you for sharing your story. It is my hope that more married couples learn how to fight well.

    Reply
    • Hi, Dave. You’re right that it is the foundation for mutual respect and trust that makes the fighting a productive part of a good relationship. I’m so happy you’ve learned to speak up…I think a lot of this comes from our upbringing and how we were taught to view fighting. My parents never fought in front of me, so I thought every time my husband and I got angry with each other it was the beginning of the end. I’m so glad to know this isn’t true!

      Wishing you and your wife productive fights and even more productive happy times together! :)

      Reply
    • Hey Betsy,

      I am not married yet but i am in a relation and i know how a small fight turns up big and then it goes nowhere.
      Luckily even we have set up such rules which help in dealing with each others problems and moreover it increases the understanding levels between two individuals.

      Nice write up :)

      Reply
  2. Hello Betsy Talbot. It’s a good blog and the way you show how to fight just I have thought long before, I haven’t marred yet, so I hope to find a girl who out in reason and know how to fight.

    Reply
    • Hi, Josen. Finding a partner you can live, love, laugh, and fight productively with is the key to a very strong and happy relationship. Good luck!

      Reply
  3. Maybe I’m interpreting this piece differently than others, or its just the style of writing, but it sounds like there are other issues than just the way you two resolve issues. Anger and aggression jumped out at me reading this article.

    Constant or regular fighting, IMO, is not a good sign in a relationship. Yes, every couple has disagreements and even an occasional argument. But regular fighting sounds like a hostile and emotionally abusive situation. Nobody should be starting fights. Maybe it’s semantics here but again, it sounds like there are lots of other issues and maybe some covert forms of abuse or invalidation going on…that’s speculation of course but from what I can gather from this piece, it does not sound like a healthy situation.

    Reply
    • This is an interesting interpretation, EM.

      I do appreciate your concern, but it’s a huge leap to take an article about a communication insight in a normal relationship to diagnosing two strangers as having a “hostile and emotionally abusive situation” with “covert forms of abuse or invalidation” and “lots of other issues” when nothing like that was stated.

      Reading between the lines (or “speculation,” as you call it) is rarely a worthwhile exercise – and this is an excellent reminder of why step #1 in the article is so important. We fight only about one thing at a time, no layered meanings or additional stories or motivations spun from words that were never said. Your comment is a prime example of how easily you can get off topic when you try to read between the lines instead of focusing on the actual words that were said. This leads to wild tangents from the original fight/discussion and you get further and further away from the solution and common ground you first sought. The goal here is “productive” fighting and discussion in a healthy relationship.

      Reply
      • Hi Betsy, I too found EM’s interpretation of your article a little puzzling. I thought it was a positive article and could appreciate everything you said. It may have been the word fight that sent him down the negative trail. Anyone who writes for a living knows that the title of an article is all important in grabbing a reader. Fight is a power word. Disagreement is not. I think what you are really addressing is disagreements in your relationship with your husband. And, it sounds to me like you two have a wonderful agenda for dealing with them.

        Keeping your fight (or disagreement) about one thing is so important. You hit the nail on the head when you spoke of wild tangents. How many times have we all started arguing about one thing and then piled on all the excess baggage that we’ve been carrying around that has nothing to do with that issue?

        Also assuming that the other person has the best intentions goes a long way. When we don’t feel attacked we find it a lot easier to find middle ground. Coming to understand that people could disagree with me, and it didn’t mean that they didn’t like me, was huge. For so long whenever my husband didn’t agree with me I saw it as attack, which was silly. He just had a different opinion than mine. I still deal with that insecurity once in a little but I’ve come a long way.

        I also blog and have received some pretty outrageous comments. Sometimes people want to find hostility where there is none. I had to chuckle because I was trying to figure out how to respond to one I received today and checked out your article for a distraction. I loved what you wrote and went on to read the comments. Bingo, there’s a guy who totally didn’t get what you were saying. I guess it just goes with the territory. Keep up the good work my friend. I totally get you.

        Reply
  4. Reading this brings to mind a few things I have learnt over time about Constructive Criticism.

    The ability to say what you need to in the best way and I must admit it that this is a very tricky yet critical art to master.

    When we fail in this area we often find ourselves boiling with unsaid words or having to take back lots of them that were said in the wrong way.

    Betsy, I do understand when you say that one might fear to speak up because they are worried a loved one might leave them. I have been there and up to today I still struggle with this.

    The times that I have been able to say what I need to and found someone on the other end who is understands that I do not say what I say because I hate them have been the most revealing moments of my life.

    Thank you for Sharing. Did I mention that I love your site? :-)

    Reply
    • Lyrical Treasure – what a fantastic name!

      Maybe you grew up like me in a family where fighting didn’t happen in front of the kids? I think this is why I initially thought *every* fight or disagreement was the beginning of the end. I simply didn’t have the framework back then to know that fighting could be a GOOD thing in a healthy relationship and a way to resolve issues and move forward in understanding and love. I’m so thankful we’ve learned how to do this, especially since we’re now business partners as well as life partners!

      Constructive criticism is one of the best lessons I’ve learned as an adult, both personally and professionally, and I’m glad you mentioned it. I wrote about it a lot in our new book. Lashing out feels good in the moment, but thoughtful consideration in both hearing and giving criticism is a great path for personal growth. I’m so happy you are a proponent of this as well, Lyrical Treasure. (I’m going to keep typing your name because I like it so much!)

      Wishing you much luck as you open yourself up to greater understanding in your relationships, Lyrical Treasure. :)

      Reply
  5. Don’t remember having big fights, ( in more than 30 years) sometimes I wish we would. We disagree, then it’s goes quiet for a while and it’s really hard to get the message across, when the moment is pass

    Reply
    • Hi, Marie. Fighting (and not necessarily “big” fighting) is good for clearing the air once and for all and not letting those moments pass (and continue to accumulate). Though after 30 years I’m sure you’ve figured out a thing or two about strong relationships. :)

      Reply
  6. Appreciate your reply Betsy. In scenarios where many details aren’t provided (and perhaps rightly so for brevity’s sake/time constraints), it does leave it open to interpretation. The title, and the use of the word ‘fighting’ throughout do conjure up images of…well, lots of fighting.

    If anyone feels they have to fight in a relationship to be able to express themselves, a wish or a need, or to be respected, does not sound like a healthy environment.

    Perhaps it’s just semantics and your writing style, no one here knows what the others relationship is really like. Again, being assertive is good, yet if you have to ‘fight’ all the time for basics like common courtesy and respect, that is a symptom of a larger issue. Anyway, most people wouldn’t want to be fighting a lot in their relationship nor wanting to start a fight with their mate. To each their own and if fighting often is what makes the two of you happy, that’s great.

    Reply
  7. This is freaking brilliant!! I am planning to share with hubby – if we can make the same agreements you and Warren did – I imagine my thoughts about fighting will change like yours did.

    Reply
    • Hi, Tracey. The older I get, the more obvious some of these lessons seem…and the more I wish I’d known them when I was younger! Assuming the best intentions and fighting about one thing at a time have truly transformed our communication, and I hope you have a similar success story in your relationship, Tracey. Good luck!

      Reply
  8. Great post, Betsy. I’ve been married since 1990 and it took me a LONG time to learn that fighting didn’t mean we have a “bad” marriage. My favorite part of your wisdom? “Fighting is as necessary to love as affection.” So true. Thanks.

    Reply
    • Hi, Marcy. How is it that we get this fight=bad message in the first place? It has truly transformed my life to realize it is a necessary part of growth and love and not a harbinger of doom every time we have cross words. Fighting is good when it is used productively. Thanks for joining in the conversation, Marcy.

      Reply
      • Thanks for responding, Betsy. Best of luck to you and your husband!

        Reply
  9. Love this post Betsy!

    And I’m with you — Fights can be good therapy if done well. Esp. your rule #1 strikes a chord.

    Thank you!

    Pooja

    Reply
    • Hi, Pooja. This one rule has given us back HOURS of our lives!

      Reply
  10. The article had given me the impression that Betsy was being mistreated, bullied or worse by her husband, and that she had to fight back (non violently). I honestly viewed it as an abusive situation and was concerned for her well-being. I was trying to convey that if you feel like you have to fight for basic respect, courtesy, basic rights, it may not be a good scenario. I may not have done good job conveying my thoughts. My comments weren’t meant to be critical.

    I, and many others, holistic healers, yogis, and traditional counselors would agree – it’s not healthy to be fighting a lot in a relationship. Strife and tension are harmful.

    I’m sorry some have misinterpreted my dissenting opinion as being negative. Maybe I’m practicing my right to fight (aka disagree) lol. So many serious ppl here. I just believe frequent fighting is harmful and don’t want to see anyone emotionally or physically harmed…but rather harmonious. I’m okay w folks disagreeing w/ me and don’t see the need to invalidate or shame as some do. Fortunately most adults are okay with cordial disagreements – this is just the internet. My sincere hope is Betsy’s relationship blooms and prospers and she is happy.

    Reply
  11. H Betsy,
    What this piece brought up for me was the importance of standing in our truth and authentic emotional experience. Doing so takes courage and trust but it is so important for ourselves and our relationships. When we express when we are frustrated, sad, happy, conflicted, or whatever it may be (while doing it with care and compassion) we grow and so do our relationships.

    Reply
  12. Hii Betsy :)
    First of of lemmi know u its my 1st blog reading n thus the 1st comment as well ;)
    Secondly I respect your feelings and the way you depicts your storyline. But touch-wood by God’s grace my husband is kind of human who doesn’t want fights… according to him even a harsh tone brings negativity in your aura. Which will definitely give negative impacts on your wok and mental peace.
    So, for me as well if u have love, mutual understanding, faith and respect in your relation, then there is no need of any constructive fights or disagreements either.
    “Husband & Wife” relation is so pure and dependent that partner should have in-depth feeling that why would his/her partner suggest any thing wrong, why would he humiliate you, why would he disgrace you….. Actually ‘Both represents each other’.
    Thus for me too fights are not at all necessary no matter its constructive or destructive. Fight is fight. Even if we are disagree we can talk and can come to a mutual conclusion.
    Though I agree conclusions vary from person to person and relation to relation.
    Gud Luck for your Future :)

    Reply
  13. Thanks for sharing this! I try to avoid conflict as much as possible in all of my relationships, because, like you used to assume, it could spell the end of the relationship/friendship/business arrangement/etc. I’m starting to get past that, but your post really helps bring the key components of what a fight should be into focus. Great post!

    Reply

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