Fighting Well for Both Partners to Win!

Why is fighting (hot conflict) or avoidance/emotional distance (cold conflict) scary for so many people? I think the answer can be found in the underlying fears that people rarely speak about…

  • the fear of being abandoned
  • the fear of being rejected
  • the fear of being hurt if your feelings/needs are dismissed (emotional deprivation)
  • the fear of a relationship ending & feeling like a failure
  • the fear of anger (your own or someone else’s) & someone being hurt by it

When we’re in the heat of battle with our partner, we’re not likely aware of or discussing any of the fears above. Our reactions are so automatic when we feel threatened that, without thinking, we’re either in fight, flight, freeze, hide, or submit mode.

And oftentimes the issue we think is the cause of the argument (“the content” – sex, mess, kids, work, money, substance abuse, etc.) is surprisingly NOT what’s primarily fueling the fire. I’ve found that it’s more often “the process” that breaks up the couple, or the way they interact on a deep, non-verbal level  that either feels supportive or threatening.  In “cold conflict” cases, it’s the emotional distance that’s the death knell of their relationship when one or both partners’ avoid addressing concerns they have about their partner or the relationship.

The question begs, “So, how can couples discuss the content, which feels critical to them, take into account their partner’s and their own nonverbal behavior, and when appropriate respond sensitively to their partner’s underlying fears listed above?

With my couples’ written permission, I have started filming parts of their couple therapy sessions, so they can SEE how their facial and body expressions positively and negatively affect their partner and vice versa, in addition to how effective or ineffective they are at “managing” their partner, (ex. Softening their message to appear an ally or comforting their partner if s/he appears flooded with emotion.

During the video playback (sometimes intentionally muting the sound), the couples have expressed how illuminating it is to see how they impact one another! The power of watching oneself in real time has influenced these couples to be more aware, attuned and sensitive to their partner’s feelings and needs regarding emotional safety and security.

My “Top 10 Tips for Fighting Well” were informed by the best researched couples therapy models today, my work with couples, and reflection of my own marriage (almost 20 years). The tips go beyond communication strategies, such as using “I” statements, and get to the heart of the matter so you can have a more loving, safe, and secure relationship.

Tip #1 Emotional & physical SAFETY must be honored.

Fighting well does not include any form of abuse (emotional, verbal, physical, or sexual) or threats of abuse. Rationalizations, such as “I’m just emotional” or You’re too sensitive or you drive me crazy or No one else tells me this bothers them” hurt you (you don’t grow), your partner, and your relationship! It’s emotionally intelligent to be sensitive toward others, aware of and adept at expressing all of your emotions, and for partners to support one another in doing so.

However, if your partner finds you threatening (even if this was unintentional) – your face, body language, tone, and/or words- you have to change your behavior (just as you would if a boss reprimanded your communication style). This includes threatening to leave the relationship, which is a form of emotional abuse, and again would not be accepted in the workplace. Instead of making threats, consider expressing your hurt directly and proposing solutions, such as couples therapy. A couple’s job is to protect each other in public and in private.

Tip #2 Slow down and sit face to face and eye to eye with your partner.

This will allow you both to get attuned with your partner’s and own emotions, internal bodily sensations, energy, facial expressions and body language. Some partners might start with a five minute meditation (with their eyes closed) before having a potentially difficult conversation or a few minutes of silent eye gazing since this too can calm your nervous systems. You’re preparing yourselves to have a more collaborative, sensitive, and heart to heart conversation.

When we slow down and focus solely on our conversation with our partner, we’re better able to access our “ambassadors” (high corticol brain areas), which are responsible for skills such as empathy, intuition, memory, logic, reason, etc. and sitting face to face, eye to eye allows you to appear more like an ally, which will engage your partner’s “ambassadors”

In a TED Talk entitled, “Relationships are Hard, But Why?”, Stan Tatkin, PhD, MFT explains the opposite dynamic as well. Our fights spin out of control because real time is too fast. And when we feel threatened, we act and react with our primitives [subcorticol parts of our brain], which enable us to survive in the world.” However, these primitives also block our ability to see what we’re doing or think clearly. As a result, couples REPEAT their same points over and over and then forget the argument because their hippocampus (memory center) is not operating. This is why it is so helpful for couples to see and discuss one of their arguments on film in my couples therapy sessions!

Tatkin, whose PACT model primarily draws from neuroscience, arousal regulation, and attachment theory, is adamant about partners staying in each other’s eyes in close proximity during difficult conversations because when eyes are averted, the “primitives” can take over! He has also found that the brain’s threat reaction system becomes more activated when you see faces at a glance or to the side.

Consequently, Tatkin dissuades couples from having sensitive conversations and arguments text, email, phone, and even walking or sitting side by side. My husband and I tried this out and experienced a significant positive change when we turned our bodies to face each other on a park bench versus the argument we had on our walk to the park.

Tip #3 “You can be right or you can be married” – Harville Hendrix, creator of Imago Couples Therapy

To get what you want, you have to ensure that your partner gets what s/he wants. Top negotiators understand this! They study their opposition well to know their fears, hopes, and desires. And they often LEAD with this knowledge so as to relax the other party…You have to think in terms of mutuality, collaboration, and concern for your partner’s interests.” Tatkin

On the other hand, if you care more about “being right” about everything, “winning” the argument, ONLY getting your needs met, it could be that your or “primitive” areas of your brain are running the show, which means you look more like you’re at than in love! Partners who refuse to respect their spouses needs and “voice” will likely end up alone.

Tip #4 “Manage” (take good care of) your partner well by knowing how to soothe, calm, and comfort him/her

This is a “game changer” for most couples because this is a very different approach since we’re naturally more focused during an argument on trying to articulate our thoughts and feelings in order for our partner to hear us and agree with us! Yet, this perspective tasks us with the job of emotionally being in tune with our partner and if we detect his/her distress, expertly relieving it!

This approach often prevents arguments from escalating and most poignantly moves partners to a collaborative and caring stance in which they focus on their partner’s well-being and interests more equally with their own.

Partners treat each other with MUCH more compassion, which reminds me of the Love and Logic parenting program that guides parents to ALWAYS provide a huge dose of EMPATHY before delivering any consequence or limit. A real life example occurred with my husband years ago. This is what I wish I had said, “I can see how difficult this is for you. I see the distress on your face. I wish I could support your plan to visit your parents, but right now I need to rest at home and learn how to be a mom to our 3 month old. How about you visit them on your own? That way we can both take care of our needs?”

Tip #5 Show friendliness & even playfulness even during an argument

According to Tatkin, “One of the best ways partners can avoid war, especially when distress is mounting, is to quickly wave the flag of friendliness. You circumvent all the angry words that make up a fight, and instead communicate with a single gesture.” (ex. A peace sign with your fingers)

Remembering to take a few calming breaths before speaking can also help you be more intentional about having a friendly, respectful tone of voice and a caring expression on your face, in which you can “make it clear that you understand where your partner is coming from and open the door to a friendly discussion about your respective points of view” (Tatkin).

If you have the gift of a keen sense of humor or are naturally playful, this can often diffuse conflict as well when used in a sensitive manner and with a partner who responds well to lightheartedness at times of conflict. One example Tatkin offers in his book, Wired for dating, involves a female partner who gets upset with her boyfriend for not picking up after himself. She says, “Okay, handsome man, you’re not getting away with your slobbery” and winks at him. And her boyfriend responds playfully as well.

Tip #6 Make quick “repairs” of emotional wounds

I often show my couples therapy clients an apology card written to my son by his 4 year old friend, Addy. The transgression, according to my son, was that she looked at him the wrong way and it hurt his feelings. Because Addy has such a kind heart and the innocence of a child, she asked her mother to help her write an apology note to my son. The card has 6 words on it, “Dear Eli, I’m sorry. Love, Addy.” The sincere apology worked, and Eli and Addy are friends again today.

Observing the children’s understanding of the power of an apology is both inspiring and confusing when I think about how difficult it is for so many of my adult clients to apologize. My hope is that we all can re-learn what these children are teaching us.

In applying their lesson, whenever you observe that your partner is in distress or if s/he directly or indirectly communicates that s/he feels hurt, scared, angry, etc. by something you did or did not do, the quicker you acknowledge and repair the emotional wound the better! This is because the faster you act to neutralize your partner’s perception of you being a threat, the less damage can occur and less chance of the hurt moving into your partner’s long-term memory.

The problem with couples is not so much that one partner “missed” the other partner’s cues, bought him/her the wrong gift for Christmas, or said something with “a hurtful tone of voice”. What matters more is whether or not partners notice that their loved one is in pain and whether or not they swiftly repair the hurt in a way that feels soothing to the hurt party.

Tatkin explains that repairs or “soothing your partner can take different forms, but the two main aspects are nonverbal calming and verbal reassurance.” Nonverbal calming examples are: holding your partner’s hand or putting your hand on your partner’s arm or leg and looking directly at his/her eyes with a caring expression. Verbal reassurance is any loving words that you know your partner would like to hear.

Find out from your partner exactly what types of nonverbal calming and verbal reassurance strategies would make him/her feel the most loved, safe, and secure and learn by experimenting too.

Tip #7 Have your partner’s “owner’s manual”

By knowing what makes your partner feel the most emotionally safe, secure, and loved and conversely the most insecure and vulnerable, you can more successfully prevent unnecessary emotional wounds and arguments. For example, if you know your partner has a fear of abandonment, you will make sure to check in with him/her an agreed number of times during the days that you are apart at work.

You will also be much more skillful in “managing’ your partner when an argument does occur because you’ll be an expert on what calms, comforts, and soothes him/her. For example, if your partner has a fear of rejection and you need a break from an argument, you will say something reassuring and loving to him/her before you walk away to take a break, and you will come back in a reasonable amount of time.

To keep your partner’s “warring” brain (“primitives”) off line and engage his/her “loving” brain (the “ambassador” parts), make sure to demonstrate love toward your partner in the ways that FEEL MOST LOVING to him/her. Know your partner’s top love languages and the exact words and behaviors that make him/her feel the most loved…and literally write these in a notebook entitled, “_____’s Owner’s Manual”.

Tip #8 Solve your solvable problems and cope well with your unsolvable problems

In chapter 10 of The seven principles that make marriage work, prolific couples researcher and writer Gottman, identifies the SOLUTION to 7 of the most typical areas of marital conflict: work stress, in-laws, money, sex, housework, Internet-fueled distractions, and a new baby!!! Although my husband and I felt gridlocked over one of these issues for many years, once read the solution in this book, change happened almost overnight. Although couples may need to create a unique solution that fits them, it seems wise to first consult Gottman’s extensive couples research to avoid having to recreate the wheel.

What to do about unsolvable problems? Gottman has found that surprisingly the majority of marital conflicts cannot be solved because “Every marriage is a union of individuals who bring to it their own opinions, personality quirks, and values.” Thus, perhaps it should come as no surprise that partners may continue to hold different views on certain issues (the top 7 above)! Fortunately, he has also discovered that there are happy couples who “remain very satisfied with their marriages because they have hit upon a way to deal with their unmovable problems so that they don’t become overwhelming. They’ve learned to keep them in their place and approach them with a sense of humor.”

Tip #9 Acceptance and Appreciation is crucial

Gottman (2015) contends that “Before you ask your spouse to change the way he or she drives, eats, vacuums, or makes love, you must make sure your partner feels known and respected rather than criticized or demeaned.” Gottman (2015) explains that “It is virtually impossiblefor people to heed advice unless they believe the other person understands, respects, and accepts them for who they are.” Therefore, the basis for coping effectively with relationship issues, whether solvable or perpetual, is to communicate basic acceptance of your partner’s personality.” When people feel positive about themselves, change and growth is possible.

Similarly, expressing appreciation to your partner on a daily basis is another way to demonstrate that you know and respect your partner and this will pump more positivity into your relationship as well. Gottman (2015) has a sample list in his book, The seven principles for making marriage work on p. 74-76.

Tip #10 “Emotional responsiveness is the key to a lifetime of love.” – Sue Johnson, PhD 

Johnson, author of Hold me tight  and creator of EFT (emotionally focused therapy) explains, “When I know…

  • I can reach you
  • You will respond to me emotionally when I need you
  • You value me and will stay close
    then I will feel securely attached.”

According to a landmark study by Ted Huston of the University of Texas, “When marriages fail, it is not increasing conflict that is the cause. It is decreasing affection and emotional responsiveness.”  Johnson concursThe fighting actually happens much later after the couple has already emotionally disengaged from each other.

Through filming couples sessions and video playback, couples therapy clients are much more adept at emotionally respond to one another in ways that feel loving, safe, and secure. They have the opportunity to watch and discuss excerpts from one of their difficult sessions (possibly a heated fight) as well as heartwarming, collaborative sessions.

Other techniques (that do not involve filming) that promote “Fighting well” skills used in my couples therapy sessions, include practicing the tools in this “Top 10 Tips for Fighting Well” list ” and creative, experiential methods that solely focus on body language or visual creations, like a sandtray (because sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words).


Everyone has “attachment” fears (ex. being abandoned or emotionally deprived) that are both rooted in troubled childhoods and are universal among adults who believe they had idyllic childhoods. Learning how to fight well with your partner and build a “secure functioning” relationship (Tatkin) or “secure attachment” (Johnson) will help LESSEN these fears. These “Top 10 Tips for Fighting Well” touch on the skills that help couples create more emotionally secure, safe, and loving relationships.

By implementing one or more of these 10 tips, you will be able to more skillfully discuss ANY issue with your partner (including your attachment fears) and know that your partner will remain committed to your relationship ​even if you are not able to resolve the issue. 

No matter what your childhood looked like, your nervous system’s automatic response, and your feelings about conflict, YOU CAN FIGHT WELL with your partner! And this will help you LOVE BETTER too.

If you and your partner need help fighting well in order to love each other more, schedule your appointment today or contact Lana Isaacson, LCSW, CAC III, Certificate in Marriage and Family Therapy at 720.432.5262 or [email protected].