There’s nothing like the beginning of a relationship rather it’s in Harlem or Hoboken. That giddy, soft-focus feeling, when every mushy pop song out there seems to be written just for you. But what about the day the music stops? The first time a couple fights is like Cupid’s arrow in reverse; just like that, all the gooey love turns into yelling and name-calling. It’s a shock, especially after that glorious honeymoon period. Both sides end up wounded and wondering, “What could have gone so wrong?”
Not to worry — good news is at hand. Not only is nothing wrong, but there are all kinds of ways it can get better.
Learn the Ground Rules
“Some people believe that happy couples don’t fight,” says psychotherapist and relationship expert Dr. Patty Ann Tublin. “Not true. The difference between happy and unhappy couples is how they fight — constructively or destructively.”
The key is to fight fair, and that means obeying a few simple ground rules. For instance, stay on topic. “Don’t say ‘Oh and another thing … ’ and drag in all kinds of different issues,” says Tublin. “Stick to the subject.” Another important rule: If things start to get out of hand, remove yourself from the situation. “If there’s name-calling and shouting, just say, ‘This conversation isn’t productive anymore. Let’s revisit this at another time.’”
Check Your Expectations
Even before the argument begins, it helps to recognize what’s normal. According to Alisa Bowman, author of Project Happily Ever After, not every dispute needs resolution. Relationships have limits. “Your significant other is not going to be your everything,” explains Bowman. “You won’t always agree, and you won’t always be able to convert the other side to your view — sometimes you have to agree to disagree. And that’s OK.”
Equally important is understanding that there’s no such thing as winning. “If you win,” says Bowman, “then the other half loses, so in the end you both lose. Your relationship is in worse shape than it was before.” What’s more, the “loser” may harbor resentment, which may in turn fuel the next fight. And so the cycle continues.
In Bowman’s experience, many fights boil down to a feeling of not being heard, but we react to this feeling dysfunctionally. “We raise our voices, and that just escalates the fight. It causes people to shut down. Paradoxically, the louder you yell, the less you are heard.” The solution, she says, is to say less and listen more. “If your girlfriend’s yelling at you, don’t fight back. Listen and ask questions. If you know how to do it, you feel really powerful. You can say to yourself: ‘I know I’m a good person, you know I’m a good person, you’re just forgetting it right now.’ It’s like a Jedi mind-trick.”
There’s nothing easy about Jedi mind-tricks, of course, especially in the heat of battle. But you can practice without having lots of fights. “Everyone knows someone who talks too much or who’s angry and bitter,” says Bowman. “They’re the ones you practice on. Just practice listening.”
Understand the Triggers
Couples tend to fight over relatively trivial matters, but beneath that complaint, there often lies a more profound emotional issue. “It’s usually a core issue from childhood that’s triggered when we fight,” says marriage counselor Sharon Rivkin, author of Breaking The Argument Cycle: How to Stop Fighting Without Therapy. “And in order to really fight fair, we need to know what we’re actually fighting about. So I ask people: ‘Why did it make you so mad when he arrived late? Have you ever felt this way before?’”
Digging into one’s childhood to process a blowup over tardiness may sound a bit extreme, but the very act of asking these questions and looking beyond the fight is itself helpful. “No one knows what is going to trigger your girlfriend into feeling upset until it has happened,” explains Rivkin. “But once you learn what that trigger is, you gain empathy and compassion for her. It will bring you closer.”
Finally, don’t wait for your 15th fight to start putting this advice into action. “Your first fights are precious, because at the start of a relationship, you’re more likely to be kind,” says Rivkin. “Once you let resentment build, then that can change — some couples actually try to trigger each other into fights, and it becomes all about blame and shame.”
So when that first fight starts, embrace it. The honeymoon period may have ended, but your real relationship is just beginning.