What's Your Relationship "Fighting Style?"

Only one of the four "fighting styles" is considered unhealthy

Portrait of angry young woman face to face with her boyfriend in front of white background
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Believe it or not, fighting can be good for your relationship. It is healthy when partners are able to air the grievances or complaints, and when they listen to and respond to one another. There should be, however, a much higher ratio in a relationship of calm and satisfying moments to fighting moments.  Research by Dr. John Gottman has discovered that this magic number is a ratio of 5 to 1. In other words, there must be at least 5 positive interactions for every 1 negative interaction.

How you fight is also more important than how much you fight. According to Gottman's research with married, heterosexual couples, he found that couples tend to fall into one of four styles of problem-solving, three that are healthy and one that is not.  

Validating

Couples who “validate” are able to let each other know in the midst of disagreements that they each consider the emotions of the other as valid. They may not agree with the emotions, or even the points made, but they are able to validate each other. There is a lot of mutual respect which diminishes the amount and length of arguments in this type of couple. These couples generally have calmer discussions and know how to empathize, negotiate and compromise. Both partners make an effort to listen and understand the others' feelings, problems, and perspective.

Volatile

These couples seem to thrive on constant conflict.  They may have passionate and loud fights, but also makeup as passionately as well.

  These couples see themselves as equals.  They are often both quite independent, and value such independence in their relationship.  These partners are able to be very open with each other about good and bad feelings.  Their intense fights are just a small part of an otherwise warm and loving relationship.

Conflict-Avoiding

These couples are quite opposite from the volatile partners.  They minimize or make light of their differences rather than trying to resolve them.  They are collaborative, polite and respectful in their disagreements.  They feel that they have similar personalities and find happiness in this. They easily let things go and don't sweat the small stuff.  They do not try to resolve most issues that come up.   

Hostile

Hostile couples argue frequently and destructively. Their conflict causes harm and eventually resentment. These arguments include insults, putdowns, and sarcasm. There are clearly more negative than positive interactions in this kind of relationship. Hostile couples’ discussions contain much of what Gottman discovered to be the four primary predictors of divorce: criticism, contempt (disdain, disrespect), defensiveness, and stonewalling (silent treatment). These couples do not listen to each other and their conflicts rise to the level of danger. Some hostile couples attempt to deal with disagreements but do so in an ineffective way. Other hostile couples are more detached and indifferent toward each other. They seem mean and disrespectful to each other. Others may avoid these couples because they are uncomfortable to be around.

The first three styles, validating, volatile, and conflict-avoiding are all different, but these marital relationships are healthy and long lasting as long as they maintain the 5 to 1 ratio of positive to negative interactions. Validators tend to show a lot of self-composure and are quite concerned about each other's feelings. Volatile couples balance their high-octane emotions with tender moments, humor and affection. Even the “avoiders,” though not particularly candid or outspoken, can have a healthy relationship as they do not have a lot of negative feelings to overcome in the first place. They know when to let things slide and turn the other cheek to avert an argument. Overall, the affirmative and accepting aspects of relationships characterized by these first three fighting styles significantly outweigh the harmful aspects.

However, the fourth style – hostile fighting – is unhealthy and those couples who engage in this type of behavior most put their marriages at risk of failure. Those couples who are contemptuous in their interactions with each other, chip away at their foundation and never seem to be able to strike that healthy balance.  If this is your fighting style, it would be wise to seek a trained professional marriage therapist who can help you take a step back, take a breath, and reestablish healthy rules for fighting. It can save your marriage and help you lead happier lives together.