When should we be worried about our couple conflict?

Many couples fight. You won’t see this on their Facebook or Instagram pics but I’m telling you they do. I would love to see partners posting pics of real life together, the good, the boring and the ugly. As a couples therapist, I see it all. Here’s the thing, it’s all normal. Even fights are a normal part of couple relationships. They just don’t usually feel normal.

Even though fighting with our partner is normal, how do we know if our fighting is unhealthy? How do we know how much other people fight? How do we know how other couples experience conflict? Do other couples also find their conflict brutal and soul-destroying? So when should we be worried about our conflict?

I was speaking to an old school friend at a reunion recently who said she and her husband have two huge fights a year. They yell it all out, sharing with each other just how inadequate, useless, annoying, and horrible they believe each other to be. They have a cold war for about 5 days. Then it’s over. No residue. Should they be worried? No, not at all. Other couples let it rip much more often.

Living with another person, day in day out, for years and decades can be difficult. We both have different hopes, desires, or ideas of how we want to live life, how to have a relationship, or how children should be raised. There will always be differences between us. On top of this, we all change throughout life. I’m certainly not the same person I was at 25 or even 40. We all change because life changes us through our experiences. These changes in us are felt in our relationship too.

To determine whether we should be worried about our conflict we can:

  1. Attend to our feelings

We should be worried when our couple conflict makes us feel repeatedly bad about ourselves, our partner, and/or our relationship. This typically doesn’t happen after one fight, but after repeated episodes of conflict. I call these cycles of conflict.

When fights are ongoing and intense, we need to pay attention to changes in how we feel in the relationship. Are we becoming more anxious? Are we finding our partner scary? (I’m not talking about domestic violence or abuse) Are we feeling depressed or flat about our lives? Are we less motivated or struggling to connect with others? Is it harder to face the day ahead? Is our sleep becoming disrupted?

Feeling this doesn’t mean our relationship is wrong for us or that we need to get out. It means there are things we need to sort out as we are both being triggered by each other and it’s now hurting us both. Often partners try to resolve their conflict themselves. Many work extremely hard to understand why they’re fighting or what they’re fighting about, yet there is often another episode of conflict around the corner.

  1. Listen to our internal stories – our ego

When we first met our partner our internal stories, created by our ego, we’re more likely to be positive. However, the more we engage in intense and soul-destroying conflict with them our stories alter and become more negative.

We need to listen to how our ego speaks to us about our lives together. Do we create stories of our partner being cruel or dangerous in any way? Do we perceive them as a threat? Do we tell ourselves that they are responsible for ruining the relationship we wanted to have? Are our stories filling up with resentment? How often do we tell ourselves or others these negative stories?

When we view our partner in this way it alters how we relate to them – as a threat. In fact, we’re biologically wired to fight with them or run away. This is our very primitive fight or flight response. We are biologically wired to keep away from people, animals or environments we perceive to be hurting us – and this can include our partner.

The way we treat or behave towards our partner will be altered by the stories we tell ourselves about them. If the stories are negative and how they are the reason we are unhappy, then we put this into the relationship – even if we try to hide how we feel. We don’t normally want to be intimate with someone we experience as a threat, and this impacts our sexual relationship too.

  1. Listen to the children – they will let you know

If you have children, they’ll let you know if you should be worried about your conflict. You can even ask them how they feel about it. As a parent in conflict, answer these questions honestly.

Do the children get involved in your conflict and try to mediate you both or do they become the judge and jury? Why do you believe they do this?

Do the children scatter quickly when you fight? Do you know what they’re doing or how they feel when they scatter? Are they fearful of the conflict or that you may separate?

Do the children throw themselves into the line of fire in the conflict? If yes, they are trying to move the conflict away from the two of you, deflecting the focus onto themselves. Despite them looking brave in this moment, they’re doing this because your fights feel less safe to them than staying out of it.

Do they try to cheer you up or make you smile during or following conflict? If they do this, they are playing a role in your conflict as they feel a responsibility to make you feel better. This is role reversal as it’s the parent’s role to cheer the child up – not the other way around.

When children play a role in their parents’ conflict, they are losing freedom to be a normal child. Most importantly, the conflict hijacks their normal emotional and physical development. Children need their parents to find a way to stop fighting.

If you have any questions or are unsure whether you should be worried about your couple conflict you can contact me directly on lissy@lissyabrahams.com.