A lot of couples receive advice at some point in their relationship that, “fighting is a healthy part of a relationship.” While it is normal for a couple to hit a bump in the road at some point, not all fighting is created equally.

It depends on how you define “fighting.”

What do your “fights” look like? Evaluate the volume and tone of your voices, your body language, and what type of language you both use. Most importantly, what is the outcome of these fights? Are you left feeling angry or defeated? Do these fights make you feel closer or more distant to your partner? Are you establishing new goals?

Ultimately, there is a difference between “fighting,” having a disagreement, and working through a problem in the relationship.

Fighting is not healthy, but disagreements and conflict resolution are a healthy part of a successful relationship. Success in working through relational challenges is all dependent upon how you and your partner approach the issue and your communication styles and skills.

What Is Unhealthy Fighting? How Do We Avoid It?

Fighting is an unhealthy attempt to communicate a problem or concern with your partner. Psychologist John Gottman spent years studying couples and how they communicate. He defined what he called “The Four Horsemen” (hyperlink to the Gottman Institute) of bad fighting: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling.

1. Criticism

It is important to note that this is different from having a complaint about their behavior or decisions. A complaint is informing your partner of how they are affecting you with their actions. Criticism is an attack on who they are as a person.

For example:

Criticism: “You never think about others. You forgot about our date tonight because you just don’t care about me.”

Complaint: “I am upset you forgot about our date tonight because it made me feel like it was not as important to you as it was to me.”

How to avoid criticism: Gentle Start-Up

The difference is using “I” statements vs. “You” statements. Using “I” statements ensures you are keeping the focus on how something made you feel and not accusing them.

2. Contempt

Contempt is the single greatest predictor of divorce in married couples. It encompasses anything that would make your partner feel unwanted or attack their character. These types of interactions are meant to make your partner seem lesser than you.

For example:

“You don’t feel appreciated? Could you need any more validation? I run around all day doing things to keep us afloat and do I get any ‘thanks?’ NO! What do you want? A parade every time you do something good?”

This also includes name-calling, mocking, sarcasm, belittling, and anything disrespectful. Contempt is not only bad for the health of your relationship but your physical health. Research shows couples who displayed contempt were more likely to get sick.

How to avoid contempt: Build a Culture of Appreciation

It is important to have conversations when neither of you is highly emotional, hungry or tired. It is a good idea to take breaks during tough conversations when one of you begins to get overly angry, upset, or frustrated. Make sure you are always using a calm and steady voice to keep yourself cool-headed.

During this time, remind yourself of all the things you appreciate about your partner and their positive traits. This allows you to de-villainize them at that moment and remember why you are together in the first place.

3. Defensiveness

Defensiveness is a response to the first “horseman”, criticism. When a person feels attacked, a common response is to become defensive. When someone is defensive, they offer an excuse and often try to switch the blame back onto their partner. Using statements like “you always” or “you never” can put your partner on the defense. Trying using terms like “I feel _____ when you ___”.

For example:

Question: “Did you submit your application for that new apartment as I asked you to this afternoon?”

Defensive response: “I had 4 classes today and I had a project due at 6! Do you think I had time to do that? Maybe if you would stop nagging me every evening to do things for you, then I would’ve had time to do it today!”

How to avoid defensiveness: Take Responsibility

The best way is to accept blame and take responsibility for your actions. It is important to be honest with yourself and your partner and offer an explanation. It’s even better if you can take corrective action.

4. Stonewalling

Just like Defensiveness is a response to criticism, stonewalling is a common response to contempt. Stonewalling is when one person draws away from the conversation. This can look like not responding, tuning out, being distracted or just walking away.

How to avoid stonewalling: Physiological Self-Soothing

Just like contempt, taking a break from the conversation to cool down is a great way to avoid getting to a place where you can no longer respond. When returning to the conversation, it is important to use “I” statement to communicate with your partner what made you feel that way and how you would like to communicate going forward.

Remember, your partner can’t read your mind, and it’s dangerous to assume they know what you are thinking or feeling.

Always remember you are on the same team.

If you remember nothing else, remember that you and your partner are on the same team. Work together not against one another. Think of it as you and your partner versus a problem instead of you vs. your partner. With this, you two can work through any problem that life may throw at you.