Conflict in any meaningful relationship is inevitable. No two humans process life in the exact same way, and each of our unique stories is the result of a distinct combination of triggers, thought patterns, and emotional responses. For any of these reasons, couples can occasionally (or often) find themselves in disagreements—which can quickly escalate to fights.
But instead of viewing arguing as a bad thing, experts agree relationship conflict can actually be healthy—an opportunity to learn more about your partner and how you can work together as a team. Of course, it can be hard to view it that way when your blood is boiling, your tolerance has collapsed, and you’re drowning in a sea of discouragement. The struggle can be real—but there are strategies to tackle the tension when issues arise.
“If a couple told me they never fight, then I would be worried,” says licensed marriage and family therapist Kiaundra Jackson. And while she emphasizes that fighting is indeed normal, there are certain red flags that might signal your problems would be better served by seeking the help of a counselor or therapist.
If you and your partner are dealing with infidelity or frequently find yourselves giving ultimatums, calling each other names, starting fights involving your children, making threats, or constantly bringing up other people’s opinions of your relationship, she recommends visiting a professional.
Certified relationship coach Steven Dziedzic—and founder of the marriage counseling app Lasting—says the way conversations begin largely impacts how they will unravel. This should challenge couples to be intentional about how they start a dialogue.
The way you begin has three parts, according to Dziedzic: your tone, the actual words you say, and your volume. If any of those is harsh, the conversation is likely to go downhill from there, so it can be key to reflect on how you tend to begin discussions with your significant other. “Ask yourself: Do I empower them, or do I put them into an attack stance when I bring up issues?” Dziedzic recommends.
In the midst of a conflict, try to look at the world through your loved one’s eyes. Attempt to understand how they’re seeing the issue and what they’re feeling, then ask questions to clarify, recommends Dr. Gary Chapman, marriage counselor, speaker, and author.
Once you get the gist of where they’re coming from, he advises saying something like: “I think I understand what you’re saying, what you’re feeling, and it makes a lot of sense.” Chapman adds, “That one sentence is powerful, because you’re no longer an enemy, you’re now a friend.”