I’m showing my age, however this old cigarette slogan from the 60’s captures my subject perfectly. I’m talking about fighting in committed relationships, fighting to promote closeness and intimacy, fighting to avoid stagnation and divorce, fighting that clears the air just as a thunder storm sweeps out smog and leaves the air cleaner and everything brighter and more beautiful. I realize that “fighting” is a loaded word and that there are myriad ways of fighting dirty that are dangerous and harmful. Even healthy fighting usually feels frightening and dangerous part of the time. But once a couple gets good at healthy fighting, they develop a faith that propels them through those unsettling moments, a faith that says, “We’ve gone through rough patches before, and hard work on our parts will get us to a better place.”
My former co-therapist, Millie Kagan, and I observed three stages to a healthy fight. The observations came from our work with couples and also from our own marriage experiences. In the first stage, one partner “has the courage” to say something like this: “I’ve been feeling upset with you about…” In the ideal world and sometimes when the marriage is going exceptionally well, the other partner might say: “Tell me more . . . ” But, in most cases, the other partner will get defensive and try to put it back on the speaker. Stage one is hot, emotional, and should be kept short. In stage two, partners need to separate emotionally, and sometimes physically, to cool off and think over their own part in the conflict, their contribution to the mess. Stage Three begins when one partner has the courage to say something like, “I’m ready to talk it over, are you?” Stage three is calmer and requires lots of good listening and the ownership of one’s part in the struggle.
Good fighting doesn’t have to be loud or look the same from couple to couple, but I believe that it is essential to growth in committed relationships just as thunderstorms are frightening but essential to bluer skies and cleaner air.