Jamaica Gleaner
Published: Sunday | October 25, 2009
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'Friendly fighting' among couples
Heather Little-White, Ph.D., Contributor

The recent report of a triple murder-suicide in The Star brings into sharp focus the need for couples to amicably solve issues over which they might have a verbal fight. Solving conflicts peacefully releases anger which if left pent up causes anti-social behaviour as happened in St Mary recently when it is alleged that a man in an argument with his girlfriend killed her, and her mother and stepfather, and then committed suicide.

The lyrics of the song Let's Make Love, Not War by Skeeter Davis and Bobby Bare are instructive:

[Both] Come on baby let's make love not war

come on baby what're we fighting for

Don't let a silly fight keep us

apart tonight come on baby let's

make love not war

[Skeeter] Now every time we fight you know it makes me so sad

[Bobby] But don't say things you know gonna make me mad

[Both] Let's hold each other tight and

everything will be all right

Come on baby let's make love not war,


Radical idea

The idea of a verbal fight with a partner is a radical one for some partners who believe that despite the accusations, character assassination, threats, name-calling and cursing, whether shouted at full volume or with a quiet sarcastic sneer, there is no need ever to fight with your partner. Anger leads to verbal battles which damage a relationship in some way and very often the damage is hard to repair. According to Dr Marie Hartwell-Walker, nobody needs to be a monster or to be treated monstrously.

Human feeling

What is anger? Anger is a human feeling and in itself is not damaging. It is what you do with anger, how you communicate it and what it does to your partner that makes it destructive to relationships. Anger is a safety factor to allow protest without violence or destruction of the relationship. Some people camouflage anger by self-silencing, hidden resentments and compliance to keep the peace, but they may be damaging themselves in the process. Research has shown that these factors can create serious heart attacks in men who engage in battles of control and in women who resort to silence when they should display angry emotion.

Disagreements are inevitable because no two people, regardless of how each other might feel about the other, will ever agree on everything at all times. As a matter of fact, life would be boring without disagreement on issues. When disagreements arise, couples should be able to negotiate differences, accepting constructive criticism and asserting opinions. Couples need to find ways to express intense feelings in a manner that is non-threatening.

Clear the air

Heartwell-Walker posits that a healthy relationship requires knowing the skills necessary for 'friendly fighting' - dealing with conflict respectfully and working together to find workable solutions. Friendly fighting means working out differences in an amicable way. It means discussing the things you feel passionate about, without resorting to hurting one another. Friendly fighting helps 'let off steam' without getting burned. Friendly fighting lets you 'fight' to clear the air, yet still stay friends.

Couples in mature, healthy relationships should understand should understand the notion of friendly fighting. Where partners were fortunate enough to grow up with parents who engaged in friendly fighting, they are now able to model parents and disagree without being disagreeable. In families where fighting among parents was raucous and even violent, some partners refuse to repeat that kind of behaviour in their own relationships. However, others end up emulating the contentious behaviour of their parents.

Interfering in-laws

What can couples do to squelch disagreements when they arise? They must learn the art of friendly fighting by working it out together without interfering in-laws and friends who may give advice which may not be best for the couple. Couples must support each other and stay close even when differences mystify, frustrate, and upset them. This is when the friendship in an intimate relationship should keep things at an even level.


Couples should take time to examine how they react to situations that cause anger and how to avoid those behaviours that fuel fights and choose alternate responses that lead to destructive anger.

1. Observe yourself: Are you overacting or provoking your partner?

2. Consider the broader context: Put issues in perspective as blaming and shaming do very little to improve functioning or feelings

3. Protect each other from verbal assaults: Insults, taunts, accusations and threats may cause retaliation and limits prospects for communication around the issues.

4. Give your partner time and space: This allows you to calm down, rethink your behaviour moving from a me-versus-you battle to rational thinking, problem-solving and empathy. Use 'we' as a point of reference as the challenge both of you have to solve.

5. Account for the circumstances: Avoid bring up an argument in front of family, friends or children. This adds shame and guilt which escalate tension and fighting.

6. Avoid the silent treatment: This is provocative and adds little understanding to the situation, limiting attempts for apology and invites despair and often rage.


Couples should ensure that conflicts will strengthen their relationship instead of harming it. One strategy is to share positive events with a partner who receives it in a positive way. This practice is termed by capitalisation (Christopher Langston, 1994). Langston suggests that sharing actually capitalises on the event and results in a positive experience independent of the actual event. For example, when she tells him that she has been selected to run the netball league at work, his excitement for her becomes another positive event that they share. Research has shown that when romantic partners regularly respond to news of positive events in a supportive manner, both partners experience positive emotions and enhanced levels of commitment, intimacy and love. (Gable, Gonzaga and Strachman, 2006)

Practise the positives

Practising the positive approach is beneficial to couples because it is easier to learn a strategy or skill with neutral or positive feelings. When positive patterns become an ongoing part of a couple's relationship, it is natural to reach for them in times of crisis.

Just being there. The next time your partner has to engage in an activity such as picking up something from the store, polishing a car or chopping up vegetables - just be there even for a while.

Active listening. Pick a certain day and time in the week (at dinner, before bed, etc) and plan that each will share something positive that has happened - with the idea that the other will listen, put themselves in the emotional shoes of the other and respond. Positive moments have a lasting quality.

Partner care. Take note of the things that your partner is doing that reflects self-care. For example, "You are looking so good from exercising," or "You really calm down when you garden." This is the other side of worry.

Identifying and responding to needs. Share in fulfilling some need your partner has - not because it is crucial, but because this is a person you love. Pick up his special drink or get her the movie she loves.

"The survival of romance depends not on skill in avoiding aggression, but on the capacity to contain it alongside love."

- Mitchell, Can love last?)

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