The golden rules to fighting and thriving in relationships

Relationships are a curious thing. I mean, have you observed how some couples are stuck in a dead-end repetitive conflict loop? Having the same (seemingly mundane) argument on repeat without any satisfying resolution? In time, their conflict-infested relationship erodes all the meaningful connection they once enjoyed and is needed to lubricate a healthy coupling. While conversely, other couples bicker and fight frequently, but counterintuitively, thrive. In short, they work. Despite all the conflict. Is there perhaps an art to couples fighting that the latter excel in?


Georgie Kalozoe-Card, a relationship therapist, discusses the golden rules to a couple fighting and thriving. She explains that, underneath, almost all our fights relate to one of three hidden agendas (that need to be bought to light if we want a happy relationship). 

Until recently, relationship therapists’ well-worn mantra was that if warring couples learnt to communicate more effectively, a hunky-dory relationship would ensue. Consequently, therapists put the schooling of good communication skills at the heart of their treatment strategies (listening, speaking one at a time and using ‘I’ statements - yes, all the therapy cliches!).

But then new research came out that challenged the simplicity of this narrative. When psychologist John Gottman studied more than 2,000 couples over two decades, his jarring conclusion was that a significantly large percentage of couples who fight frequently were not poor communicators at all. In fact, they were often potent communicators of their slights and longing. How do we make sense of that?

How are seemingly warring couples managing to maintain connection and longevity? Does this not go against all the accumulated wisdom? Well, it appears there are some golden rules to arguing that these couples knew intuitively. Gottman called these couples ‘Master Couples’. 

When Master Couples fight, they adhere to the following rules:

  • They don’t go off-topic but stick to the argument at hand. Crucially, they never resort to personal attacks to win the argument.
  • They don’t display contempt towards their partner when arguing (this typically plays out in the therapist's room as rolling of eyes when the other is talking). All the data highlights a high trait of contempt as the biggest predictor of divorce.
  • They don’t stonewall (withdrawing from the relationship as a way to avoid conflict).
  • During arguments, they don’t employ defensive and manipulative behaviour, such as positioning themselves as victims to win arguments or ward off attacks.

Crucially, Master Couples are not stuck in the endless loop of arguing over the same things. As Esther Perel, psychotherapist and author of Unlocking Erotic Intelligence says, “Most people have been having the same fight for years.”

Jane, a former client of mine, had been arguing with her husband Steve for nine years, seemingly, about the dishes he left in the kitchen sink. “I mean, I’m bored of my own voice,” she said in our second session. “I’m constantly angry and frustrated with him. I only have to see a dish in the sink and I’m triggered.” Steve was defensive for our first sessions. “She totally overreacts. She doesn’t appreciate the things I do in the house and as soon as she starts now I just switch off because she’s so bloody unreasonable. You can’t talk to her when she’s like that.”

”Well, why don’t you just clean up then!” screamed Jane. “I do!“ screamed Steve back.

And so they went round and round in the conflict loop, unable to find the exit. Of course, it wasn’t really the dishes that Jane and Steve were arguing over. The contents of their - and all our arguments - are irrelevant. To get to the core of what we are really arguing about, we need to look deeper to unearth the hidden agenda that lies beneath the contents; it is always a need that is not being met by our partner.

Perel asserts that couples fight over three main issues:

1. Power and control - Who holds the power in the relationship? Who gets the final say? Who holds the purse strings?

2. Care and closeness - Are you there for me? Can I trust you to be vulnerable? Will you hold me when I’m sinking?

3. Respect and recognition - Do you respect my contribution to our coupling? Do you still hold me in high regard even though I earn less than you? Do you respect my worldview even if it’s different to yours?

Underneath almost all our fights there is one of these three hidden agendas at work.

How to break a conflict loop in your relationship

So, how do you uncover what you’re really arguing about to break free of the conflict loop? The first step is to engage in what us therapists call 'inner inquiry'. Next time you find yourself becoming disproportionally angry with your partner, before reacting, ask yourself what has triggered this uncomfortable reaction.

Is it really about the dishes or an unmet need for respect and recognition?
Why am I so mad that you are going to the pub with your mates? Is there perhaps an unmet need for care and closeness? Am I really sad because I feel our distance and want to meaningfully connect with you? I guess, I’m lonely but I’m scared to tell you. It makes me feel vulnerable.

Or perhaps I’ve become hyper-alert to any slights that alert a core belief that “You don’t respect me.”

Once triggered, in the midst of your emotional disturbance you need to slow down before reacting. Advances in neuroscience science reveal that emotions fire two and a half times more rapidly in the brain than thoughts do. Thus, in order to not react directly to the triggered emotion (and no good ever comes from that place), you need to have bought yourself enough time for your thinking and feeling faculties to team up and work together to work out a healthy response.

Crucially, we have to find a way to speak to each other from our primary vulnerable emotions such as fear and sadness rather than our secondary emotions such as frustration and rage, which typically only illicit defensiveness and keep us stuck in the conflict loop. It is from our vulnerability, our hurt and sadness, that the other is able to attune to us from a place of compassion. And it’s from this place that the real work of healing and reconnection gets done. 

Once Jane had uncovered the hidden agenda underneath her rage at Steve’s reluctance to do the dishes (which was for respect and recognition) and she was able to connect with the hurt that lay beneath, she was able to express her longings directly. During our sessions, she experimented with speaking to Steve directly from her vulnerability, rather than her triggered emotions.

“When I come home and see the dishes piled in the sink it hurts because I feel that you don’t recognise or care about how much my job takes out of me. I’m spent and it feels like you don’t care and that makes me feel unloved.” Instead of getting defensive, Steve felt compassion for Jane, which elicited a desire to do the work to change.

Once Jane felt Steve understood how her unmet need for respect and recognition bled into their relationship, she was able to hear how scared he was of losing her because he felt he was always “getting it wrong”. It was through their shared vulnerability that they emotionally reconnected and found their way back to love.

So, when it comes to relationships, fighting really can mean thriving. As long as it’s done masterfully, and following the golden rules. Most potently, getting under our repetitive conflict themes to uncover the unmet needs at work; so we can relate directly from our vulnerability, build deeper connection, and new relationship muscle.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

Share this article with a friend
Show comments

Find a therapist dealing with Relationship problems

All therapists are verified professionals

All therapists are verified professionals