Is There Such A Thing As A “Healthy” Marital Fight? Experts Say Yes & Explain How to Tell the Difference

Two people cannot live in harmony 24/7. Each person has their own personality and desires. So expecting fights to never happen in your marriage is just unrealistic. But, there’s a difference between healthy and unhealthy fighting. Healthy fights can get heated, but couples in a healthy fight don’t attack and put down their partner.

Sarah Smelser, an LPC specializing in marriage counseling, says couples most frequently fight about the budget and their children. In-laws can be a source of contention, too. A healthy fight may start with an unfeeling comment and hurt feelings, but it ends with both sides being willing to communicate and truly listen to the other. “Fighting is an attempt to express needs within the relationship; however, true intention and meaning can often times get lost in translation,” Smelser says. “Couples need to express their needs, wants, and expectations. Knowing yourself, asking for what you need, and being willing to be flexible with your partner will help the communication stay clear and focused,” she explains.

The first thing you need to realize is that not all fighting is bad. “Fighting within the context of marriage can be healthy when both parties avoid certain communication pitfalls,” Smelser explains. “John Gottman describes these common pitfalls in marital communication to be The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse, which are criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling.” It’s engaging in these pitfalls—not the number or severity of the disagreements, as you might expect—that can take marriage fights from healthy to unhealthy.

To keep fights healthy, “Couples need to practice effective communication through actively listening, seeking clarification, speaking in a calm tone, and lastly recognizing their own unique triggers by being self-aware,” Smelser advises. It won’t stop you from fighting altogether, but “Applying those practices will cultivate a space to fight fairly with your spouse.”

Healthy vs. Unhealthy Fighting Examples

Here are two examples of typical marital fights from Alicia Muñoz, a licensed couples therapist. Notice how the fight is handled in both the healthy and unhealthy versions.

Example 1: Joelle & Max
Joelle wants to go to a party with her friends. Max wants to stay home and watch Netflix, but Joelle is pressuring him to come with her, saying he’s turning into a boring old man.

Healthy fight: Max tells Joelle it makes him angry when she makes fun of him because he doesn’t want to do what she wants to do. He tells her it disconnects him from her and leads him to stonewall and withdraw from her. Joelle feels hurt and defensive. She makes another snide comment and goes out to the car. After calming down, she realizes she’s acting childishly. She returns to the house and apologizes, admitting she gets insecure going places alone but doesn’t know how to ask him to come with her in a more vulnerable way. They agree Max will stay home and she’ll go to the party, and they’ll continue talking about ways to be more of a team.

Unhealthy fight: Max doesn’t tell Joelle that her words hurt him, and instead goes to the party in a foul mood, even though Joelle tries to cheer him up on the drive there. Max drinks too much and makes inappropriate jokes that offend Joelle’s friends. On the ride back home, Joelle criticizes Max’s social skills, who tells her he can’t please her because she’s never happy. He did what she asked, and now she’s criticizing him. They stew in silence for days afterward.

Example 2: Kevin & Roy
Kevin has been asking Roy to show him more affection for months, and he’s even specifically asked Roy to greet him and hug him when he gets home. Roy comes home, ignores Kevin, and opens the refrigerator. Kevin stands in front of him with his arms crossed, tapping his foot. Roy looks at him and says, “Are you okay? What’s wrong?” 

Healthy fight: Kevin expresses his frustration in strong, heated language (but without attacking Roy’s character.) “I get so frustrated, sometimes!” He says. “I’ve asked for a hug and a warm greeting from you when you get home so many times, and when you don’t change your behavior, I feel like you don’t care about me.” Roy rolls his eyes and comments on Kevin being too needy. Kevin says it’s not okay for Roy to judge him, leaves the room, and listens to music to calm himself down. Later, Kevin and Roy agree to discuss what Kevin needs and what makes it hard for Roy to give it to him. 

Unhealthy fight: Kevin tells Roy that what’s wrong is that Roy eats all the time, is always raiding the refrigerator, and is getting fat and unattractive. Roy yells at Kevin that he’s one to talk, he hasn’t exercised for over a year. Kevin leaves the room and slams the door. A half-hour later, Roy finds Kevin and tries to hug him. Kevin pushes him away. “I thought you wanted more affection when I came home?” Roy asks. “Too late,” Kevin says. Roy is deeply hurt and he goes into the study to drink by himself. 

Healthy Fights Involve Open Communication on Both Sides 

The worst fights happen when communication is stifled. The longer you suppress your feelings and put off talking about them, the more resentment and wounded pride fester. Stonewalling is another hallmark of unhealthy fighting—and one of the four key predictors of divorce, according to the Gottman Institute.

For example, when Roy shrugs off Kevin’s hug and goes into the study by himself, he’s blocking Kevin out. When one party shuts down, the fight can’t be resolved. The anger and hurt are pushed down and left to simmer until one day something happens and sets off another fight. 

On the other hand, a healthy fight may not always end with a neat and tidy solution. In Joelle and Max’s case, Joelle still went to the party alone but Joelle and Max both agreed to talk more in the future about ways to do more things together as a couple. That’s healthy fighting.

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