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The Complicated Psychology of How Fights Help People Bond

The best fighters are never looking for them, experts say.

Let’s not sugarcoat it—fights suck, and they do not inherently help people bond. But couples can become closer after a fight if they dedicate time to finding their way out of an argument productively. “Fighting does not help people bond. Solving problems with mutually satisfactory solutions helps people bond,” marriage and family therapist Tina Tessina told Fatherly. Psychologist Linda Papadopoulos elaborates on the theme of productive fighting: “For more dominant couples, conflict is often an immediate release of tension, which enables both parties to get their feelings off their chests and feel like they are being heard,” she says.

“Often once the heat of the moment has passed, they feel closer to one another as a result.”

Studies have shown that fights can make friendships stronger by helping both parties understand one another’s triggers, and that arguments among colleagues can actually facilitate bonds in the workplace. But the bulk of the research focuses conflict in romantic relationships. One survey of 1,000 adults found that couples who argue effectively were 10 times more likely to report being happy in their relationships than those who avoided arguing altogether. Another study of 92 women found that those who reported the highest levels of relationship stress still experienced strong feelings of intimacy, as long as they spent time with their significant others. Taken together, the literature suggests that fights do not make or break a relationship—but that how a fight is handled, both during and after the spat—makes all the difference.

Fights are healthy when they address issues as soon they happen, or shortly thereafter, and involve parties ultimately taking responsibility for the problem and resolving to change their behaviors in the future. There are curveballs, of course. Arguments about money and sex are generally the hardest on marriages, and personality differences can make fighting effectively more of a dance, than anything else. “Arguments between confrontational and passive people will tend to make the aggressor angrier and the more passive person anxious and upset,” Papadopoulos warns. “To combat this, both need to remain aware of how their actions appear to their other half and watch their body language and tone.”

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It’s important to note that relationship fights fall on a spectrum, and a heated yet productive conversation about shared finances is far different than a knock down, drag out scene from The Godfather. In extreme cases fights can constitute abuse, which is never a healthy part of a relationship. And even shy of abuse, studies suggest that vigorously arguing in front of your children can hinder their ability to bond with others.

Tessina recommends couples be especially careful about recurring arguments, which are less likely to be opportunities to learn and grow as a couple, and more likely a sign that healthy communication has broken down. “When this happens, problems are recurrent, endless, and they can be exaggerated into relationship disasters,” Tessina warns. Ultimately, everyone involved suffers. “If you have to fight before you get to solving the problem, you’re wasting time and damaging the good will between you.”