Anyone who has been in a serious relationship has probably experienced the pain of a relationship fight.

Some couples are lucky enough to enter into a romantic relationship already equipped with the skills necessary to have an argument without seriously hurting each other but most of us have to learn this skill.

If you’re married and you want to stay married, you need to learn how to work through conflict with your spouse without doing damage. Research from the ‘Early Years of Marriage Study’ shows a direct correlation between how couples fight, and rates of divorce. Researchers studied nearly four-hundred couples over a sixteen year period and found that 46% of participants had divorced during the course of the study. Destructive fighting styles were a common factor in predicting divorce.

Even if fighting doesn’t lead to divorce, it is devastating to couples when there is constant tension and conflict in a household. If you fight without restraint your quality of life will suffer, your ability to handle outside pressures will suffer, your ability to deal with secondary relationships will suffer and your emotional and physical health will suffer. The damage isn’t limited to you and your partner. Children raised in homes where parents are verbally and/or emotionally abusive to one another often suffer myriad problems including but not limited to: fear, insecurity, increased acting out, problems in school, emotional stunting, increased risk of future addictions, increased likelihood of being in abusive relationships as adults, and the list goes on.

Fighting without doing damage is therefore a skill worth learning. One of the hardest things in the world is learning how to work through a difficult situation with the person you love without resorting to:

Name calling
Lying—typically without realizing we’re doing it
Shutting down emotionally
Stonewalling (shutting your partner out and refusing to talk to them)
Bringing up unrelated, painful issues
Getting defensive
Being manipulative

The opening line of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina is, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

I believe this to be true. Happy couples have a lot in common with one another. They: put their spouses first— above everyone and everything else in the world, work through conflict with love and compassion, communicate openly about issues large and small, consider each other’s feelings before making decisions, regularly express love, apologize with sincerity when they make a mistake, forgive each other’s transgressions, support each other, ease each other’s distress, and help each other through painful or difficult times. They also tend to face major life stresses as a team: rather than turning on one another, they band together to get through painful life situations.

Unhappy couples are unhappy in their own ways. From addiction to adultery to physical or emotional abuse, from putting walls up between them, to never working through problems but instead shoving them under the rug … there are countless ways to be miserable in a romantic relationship. The one thing miserable couples do have in common with one another is that all unhappy couples fight in destructive ways.

The wonderful news is that you never have to have a painful, destructive fight with your spouse or partner again. Conflict is inevitable in every relationship. Even in the healthiest, most loving relationships there will be times when conflict occurs because of outside stress or lack of communication, or for any number of reasons. This is true for everyone. But once you learn how to work through conflict with love and compassion, you will find that: conflicts occur less frequently, when conflicts do occur they will be less intense and won’t result in lasting damage, and you will be more likely to address things before they become a serious problem because you will know that you can talk to your partner without fear.

One of the problems with destructive fighting is that one or both partners usually walk away feeling wounded, angry and attacked. Additionally, the issue at the center of the fight is often left unresolved. It takes time for people to come back together after an ugly argument and during this time, the feelings of love, connection, and safety are lost. Couples tend to retreat to their corners and they don’t come out because they see their partner as a source of love and comfort, they come out because they eventually get tired of being angry.

If a couple fights once every few weeks, or even once a month, and it takes a week for them to come back together emotionally, they are spending a huge chunk of time fighting or recovering from a fight.

This is not the recipe for a warm, loving relationship. Over time, this kills relationships.

So how do we learn to work through disagreements in a loving way? This is the easiest and the most difficult thing in the world. A good couple’s therapist can teach you how to resolve even the most painful disputes without being hurtful. This kind of therapy should teach you the following:

How to recognize the physical cues your body is sending you that causes you to go into fight or flight mode so that you can anticipate a fight before it begins
How to slow down your communication with your partner so that you don’t say things you will later regret
How to respond to your partner’s pain/anger/confusion/distress with love and compassion rather than defensively focusing on their specific language
How to listen, rather than waiting for your turn to talk
How to communicate your feelings in a way that is constructive and more likely to lead to resolution of the problem
How to negotiate so that both parties feel loved, supported, and heard
How to resolve painful issues so that they are less likely to be a problem again

I’ve had a lot of success in teaching these techniques to many couples who were previously on the precipice of divorce. These skills have improved their relationships and helped them heal and enjoy a loving relationship. If you think you or your partner might benefit from learning these techniques, please don’t hesitate to reach out to me.