A couple years ago now, a study published in The Journal of Marriage and Family looked at how couples’ “fighting styles” affected their likelihood of divorce. It was the largest and most intensive study of its type, and it made some interesting, if not altogether astonishing, findings.
The primary result was that individuals tend to have one of two approaches to conflict -- either they prefer to continue the conversation (or argument) until things are thoroughly talked out (the study calls this the “constructive” option) or they withdraw, either to avoid conflict altogether or to cool down before revisiting the subject (the “destructive” option). In couples where both individuals have the same style, divorce was much lower than if one person was constructive and the other destructive.
I found this study a little sketchy for a few reasons: for one, the notion that always pushing the argument is always “constructive” is sort of weird to me, as that feels like a value judgment, and the fact that this is the approach far more common to men seems too obvious to ignore. Also there are plenty of times, in my own life, where forcing a difficult conversation is like so anti-constructive it’s practically a homemade bomb being thrown back and forth.
More than that, the study authors place an emphasis on the ability of women -- who are the “destructive” ones, naturally -- to change over the course of the relationship, and become more “constructive,” thereby saving their marriages:
… [O]ver time, wives were less likely to use destructive strategies or withdraw, while husbands' use of these behaviors stayed the same through the years. "The problems that cause wives to withdraw or use destructive behaviors early in a marriage may be resolved over time," Birditt said. "Or, relationships and the quality of relationships may be more central to women's lives than they are to men. As a result, over the course of marriage, women may be more likely to recognize that withdrawing from conflict or using destructive strategies is neither effective nor beneficial to the overall well-being and stability of their marriages."
Ew. So basically, women learn to fight like their partners to meet their partners’ needs, while burying their own. That is kind of gross, even more gross than the assumption that the characteristically masculine approach is always the “constructive” one. There are loads of people who simply don’t do face-to-face conflict well, and who avoid it because that is better for their mental health. TOO BAD, HETERO MARRIED LADIES. Learn to fight or get divorced!
For all its problems, I was, for my part, somewhat relieved when this study first made the news, because most of the media coverage of it trumpeted the idea that marriages in which both participants are compulsive fighters tend to last, contrary to the notion that a lot of fighting always means a couple is on the road to divorce.
I was relieved because my marriage is at least 50% fighting. Possibly more. We fight about freaking everything. We fight about inappropriate metaphors and the order in which food should be eaten. We fight about the placement of the dental floss on the bathroom counter and how Tupperware should be organized. We fight about politics -- a LOT -- and social justice issues -- WAAAY A LOT. We fight about career decisions and major life choices. We fight about the last time we went to the movies or shopped at a particular store, or who bought what thing when and from where. We fight about who will get up to turn off the light before going to bed.
Although our fights are rarely vicious or personal, we do fight about something, large or very very small, pretty much every day. It’s just how we roll. Neither of us is made miserable by this; my husband frequently tells me how awesome he thinks I am and how happy I make him, which I find somewhat bewildering (frankly, I don’t know how anyone could live with me and my constantly argumentative nature, especially about tiny semantic points) but accept as truth.
That said, our fighting has historically made our families, and friends, and like, strangers in public spaces super uncomfortable. My in-laws in particular get really mad -- ironically -- when we argue around them, I guess not understanding that this is our normal dynamic and that repressing it is probably worse than actually fighting, like we do.
Today over on the Huffington Post, columnist Leslie Rasmussen describes her own fighting-style shift, much in the style of the study mentioned above, as she learned to fight with her husband after having grown up in a low-conflict family:
My husband's arguing style is so far from my quiet parents', that I when we had our first fight, I started packing my bags. Well, in my head I did. I do not remember what the fight was over, but I remember he raised his voice and I was completely thrown off. To him, it was no big deal. To me, our marriage was over. My husband is from a big Italian family where arguing is considered just an exchange of ideas. When I would go with my husband to visit my in-laws, you would often hear any number of generations yelling at each other, and a moment later hugging and laughing.
The suggestion that the fighting styles we grew up with influence how we ultimately fight in our own relationships is probably pretty accurate a lot of the time -- I grew up constantly engaged in shouting matches with my single dad, and my husband comes from a similar “big Italian family” as the one Rasmussen describes. It makes sense that we would learn these behaviors early.
Still, a big part of any successful relationship is learning to disagree with each other effectively -- I’d even go so far as to say learning to argue, to full-on fight, is essential. Learning how to have difficult conversations and come out of them satisfied is not so different from learning how to have good long-term sex with a partner -- sometimes tricky and sometimes embarrassing, but a necessarily evolving process for everybody to be happy. In both cases, you must get know your partner’s quirks as well as them learning yours, and then the both of you must adapt, ideally via mutually beneficial compromise.
I mean, it’d be great if every relationship just clicked together permanently like perfectly aligned pieces in a jigsaw puzzle, but this is rarely the case -- or rather, it’s rarely the case beyond the first couple of years.
There was a period in which I worried that our constant fighting might mean my own relationship was doomed, but that was mostly because I had bought into the idea that there is one “normal” way to be married or otherwise long-term partnered. The fact is my husband and I have been this way since we met; there literally has never been a stage in our relationship in which we did not bicker with one another on a continuous basis.
There is, strangely, an affectionate intimacy about it, about our mutual trust that we can fully be ourselves -- and have vigorously opposing opinions -- with each other and know that our marriage is not threatened by any of it. I don’t know about anyone else, but I really only argue with people to whom I am extremely close. When I learned to appreciate our fighting as a sign of the strength of our relationship, I quit worrying about it.
Of course, not everyone likes to fight, and uniformly valuing the full-blown argument over a preference for time out -- which I sometimes need myself -- is not cool either. Every couple is different, and what works for one pairing may be disastrous for another.
Are you a fighter? Or a withdrawer? Do you fight with everyone or only a select group of intimates? And are you cool with fighting in public or do you prefer everything to happen behind closed doors? This last will help resolve an ongoing argument with my husband, so thanks in advance for your help there.