4 Ways Fights Start to Ruin Relationships
How to avoid the pitfalls of fighting.
The dumbest fight of my life began in a peaceful alliance.
My then-girlfriend and I were watching a Cardinals game. We were both rooting for the same team. That team finally won the game in a dramatic play where the batter narrowly won a race to home plate.
This should have been a moment of shared celebration. Yet, somehow, we managed to start arguing about the last umpire call. She said it was one thing while I swore up and down that it definitely wasn’t. Again, we were rooting for the same team that already won.
It turned into this heated debate. I stood up and walked over to a markerboard on the other side of the room.
I started writing. She said, “What are you doing?”
I said, “Nothing, just putting a quick quote here, ‘On this date, my girlfriend claimed Rodriguez was safe when…” She came over and slapped the marker out of my hand, knocking the markerboard down with it.
It was an epically stupid fight. I was totally enflaming the situation. But it wasn’t outside the norm. I died on every hill. Every minor disagreement was worth snowballing into a huge fight. And every senseless fight surely had to be won.
Research actually shows that couples who argue regularly tend to stay longer together. But it offers a huge caveat: that their fights are solutions focused.¹ So what are some other forms of toxic fighting that we are prone to?
They let the fight carousel continue
I’ve been on a global crusade to get people to apologize. Non-apologists, “Why would I say sorry if I’m not sorry!”, are a non-starter for me and prospective partners.
Research shows that a high-quality apology is remarkably effective at quelling conflict and boosting long term satisfaction in a relationship.² This means the apology is untethered from explanations that dilute sincerity or bounce blame back at the other. They are professions of humility and higher calling for the other person’s happiness.
What do rookies do? They treat an argument like war. To admit error is to admit defeat. The words “I’m sorry” are like kryptonite. They clinch their jaw. Veins pop out of their forehead. They can’t say it
On the flip side, some use sorry as a bandaid. Excessive apologies, particularly while not providing follow up action, are as damaging as not apologizing at all. Apologies are not like money, you can’t throw them at every problem.
Relationships rarely die in one fatal blow. It’s a low-boil chaffing that erodes the foundation of your love.
They bring up “that one time”
I attended marriage counseling seven years ago during a particularly difficult time in my life. Our counselor had this big fancy Ph.D. and was quite competent. His biggest message about fights: stay on topic.
The moment you start opening other doors, “Yeah, well this is why you thought it was OK to do ____.” is the moment you invite the biggest fights you’ll ever have. If you are arguing about you taking out the trash, the topic should stay on you taking out the trash, not about the budget, last Wednesday, or the kids.
Straying from the issue is how dishes get thrown.
They try to downplay the actual problem
I’ll give you a pretty wild example. This guy I knew, Paul, had this foot fetish that he was open about. I didn’t judge. To each their own. It’s their bedroom. But I did ask a lot of questions as it was rather fascinating.
Fast forward: his girlfriend was out of town. We were at this huge party on the 4th of July. A bunch of people went on the roof to watch the fireworks. Allegedly, he ended up licking some girls toes, per her consent. Weeks later, his girlfriend found out about it while I was at another party with him.
It turned into this huge public fight out back that we could all hear. Paul downplayed it like it wasn’t a big deal, how she shouldn’t have been angry and how it wasn’t even cheating (which is a tough sell, particularly if you have a foot fetish).
Downplaying your flaws or your partner’s concerns have been proven to boost toxicity in relationships.³ They prolong and promote dysfunction. It might achieve temporary peace. But the price is high.
They try to resolve every disagreement this instant
Years back, I was driving and my then-girlfriend was in the car too. We were on the way to dinner at a local country club where her entire family was meeting us.
It was supposed to be a great day. I was in good spirits. The car was humming along. Music was playing. I was looking forward to this dinner.
About halfway there, she springs this major problem she was having with “us” that I thought we’d already resolved. This spun into a back and forth. By the time we pulled into the parking lot for this holiday dinner, we were both upset.
Pick a time to talk that is logical. In business school, they taught us to never negotiate when we are tired, impatient, emotional, hungry, or cranky. I’ve applied this to resolving major disagreements in relationships and it has worked wonders.
You can even schedule a time too. Setting up a time to talk gives you both space to clear your heads and think about how you’d like to resolve things.
I’ve had five long term relationships in my 37 years. If I could do it all over again, my best advice to myself: focus on the big picture. Don’t take the bait and go down rabbit holes.
If you keep the bigger picture as the foremost priority, instead of stamping out a fight as fast as possible, you’ll see huge gains and less pain. Additionally, you’ll be a lot less likely to say things you’ll regret for the rest of your life.
Apologize with sincerity rather than letting fights continue. Don’t feel rushed to solve every problem immediately. Stay solutions-focused during fights. Stay on topic. Know when the timing is bad. Best of luck.
 Rauer, Amy (2020) What are the Marital Problems of Happy Couples?
Shucman, Karina (2014) The Psychology of Offering an Apology: Understanding the Barriers to Apologizing and How to Overcome Them.
 Arriaga, Ximena ( 2018) The Invisible Harm of Downplaying a Romantic Partner’s Aggression