How to Throw Down: The Benefits of a Happy Fighting Marriage

“May you have a happy fighting marriage.”  The old man grinned and drummed his fingers against the armrest. I stared with a mixture of rage and confusion at this therapist who had just doomed me to a life of conflict. And just because he is ninety-four years old and can still ride a horse doesn’t mean he has all the answers. Ok, perhaps a great majority of answers but not all of them. Still, here are a few of his points, as filtered through my comparatively youthful vernacular:

Fighting draws battle lines. Every relationship needs healthy boundaries. “No dear, it is not ok to have dinner with your ex-girlfriend.” There are nice ways to communicate this, but if the message isn’t getting through to your partner, turning up the volume is not a crime.  That fifth  put-down in front of your mother after you asked him nicely to stop? Really? Let him have it.

Fighting helps work out the knots. Let’s say the two of you get into a huge blow out over money, or sex, or children (or all three, god help you) and finally, at 2AM, resolve the problem. The two of you can now sleep a little better knowing that this issue, at least for now, has been put to bed. With one less difference to mitigate, greater closeness and intimacy is achieved.

Fighting is a form of intimacy. To put it simply, suddenly you are in each other’s faces: you are loud, you are close, it is heated. Sounds like sex to me.

Fighting is a tool for demonstrating love. We pick fights in order to experience the love and reunification of making up afterward. This is not, of course, to be conflated with any form of physical, emotional or psychological abuse.

Fighting builds the relationship.  Think of a volcanic eruption–you have seen the videos of the lava flows as they roll popping and spitting into the ocean. That’s the fight. New information is bubbling out of each person: unmet expectations, old baggage, childhood trauma, etc. In a real sense, new ground is being created. When you are done fighting, and the lava has cooled, your “island” has grown.  In short, there is more relationship there than when you started.

“But aren’t there more productive ways to fight?” I asked, “I mean, despite the benefits, if you’re tearing each up all the time, it’s bound to do some lasting damage.”

The old man nodded, very slowly. Straight out of a Tolkien novel, my therapist is 6’4’’ and incredibly hairy. He claims he is going to live to 125.  I know this not to be a hope but a choice. The old man does as he pleases.

Listen to your partner: Every so often paraphrase what he or she is saying, or as may be the case, yelling. Say, “So what I hear you saying is…” Follow this with, “Did I get all that? Did I leave anything out?” Sometimes your significant other just wants to be heard. Letting him or her know this can both diffuse a fight and move the conversation in a more productive direction.

Avoid name calling. Just don’t do it. That’s dirty fighting. I don’t think this one requires an in-depth explanation.

Don’t throw things. For one thing, they often break, or break the thing they hit–especially if that thing happens to be someone you love, or the head of someone you love.

Avoid Youstatements. While this may sound trite, this advice has been hammered into me by the old man, over a dozen extremely thick text books, and virtually every clinic in which I have been reluctantly inclined to seek extremely meager employment. But even under extreme duress, I eventually saw the light. Here are a few You-statements:

You always yell at me.

You were late for dinner.

You started this fight.

Let’s say I happen to get into a disagreement with my therapist. Instead of finger pointing, I bring the issue around to how I feel in the moment, to what I am processing/experiencing:

I feel hurt and enraged when you tell me I am being arrogant

When you sit there saying nothing I want to scream in your face.

When you are an asshole, I want to throw this ash tray at your head.

That last item is an example of a common mistake, since it pointed the finger by implying that my therapist was, in my educated opinion, acting like an asshole. Back to the previous example, one can also shift You to We, i.e. “You started this fight”  changes to  “When we fight”. Here, two very different statements contain basically the same factual information.

Ritual. Plan out a set activity in the event a serious meltdown cannot be avoided. The old man had such a plan whenever he fought with his wife. And because he didn’t look enough like a tree already, would go sit by this large oak on his property and write down everything he wanted to say. She would do the same (under a different tree, presumably). This ritual helped mitigate an escalating situation while allowing each party time to think objectively about what they wanted to say.  In other words, ritual brought order to chaos.

Ritual Also brings consciousness to the fight in the sense of “we are in this fight, this is getting out of hand, and we need to do something productive about it and this is what we are going to do”.  Consciousness, the old man maintains, is the great elixir of all our problems. In fact, all the points outlined here tie in to an increased level of consciousness—from drawing battle lines in the sand to examining childhood trauma—all concern bringing forth ideas, attitudes or states of mind that would otherwise remain below the surface.

“So did all of your fights have a good outcome?”

The old man says nothing, ignoring my ridiculous question. He stares at me with eyes set at least three inches into his skull, silently expressing his final point: Know when to give in and simply admit that the other person is right.


One thought on “How to Throw Down: The Benefits of a Happy Fighting Marriage

  1. My ears pricked up at, “There are nice ways to communicate this, but if the message isn’t getting through to your partner, turning up the volume is not a crime.” Thanks for this, Ben. I’m reminded also of the fact that when our partners aren’t hearing something there’s often a deeper communication issue. If I can’t hear you saying we should go out for an ice cream cone, getting more pushy about it won’t help, for example. We might both be talking about ice cream cones or even spending time together, but we’re essentially having two different conversations. Right?

    I do NOT hear you saying that intimacy comes from conflict de facto, or even that conflict is a display of intimacy. But that the two necessarily go hand in hand, and that we could all to learn to argue better.

    I’m reminded of how limited communication-retraining interventions have been in couple therapy, on the whole. Have you checked out Dan Wile’s work? Particularly, ‘After the Honeymoon’ might interest you. (Just kidding–I haven’t read it yet; but I DID workshop with Dan for a week and got his handouts). Anyway, I like the idea is that conflict accentuates the dynamics that can slip through the cracks of romantic illusions, but that those dynamics and forces must be identified for what they are–and treated softly, as invitation. We look for the soft underbelly of anger, blame, resentment.

    It might be a fool’s errand to rely on ‘fighting better,’ since there seems to be something inherent to love about conflict. But how much more significant is the question of what we do with that fighting, and how can we learn to argue more consciously?

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