When you hear “we had a fight,” what comes to mind? How about an image of two red-faced people with fists clenched and angry expressions? Does “fighting” bring to mind the image of physical violence? What about an image of two toddlers trying to play with the same toy and then crying over it? Yes, these are examples of fighting…Would you ever think an image of people in disagreement over a decision and trying to prove their own points, or two people getting angry over how the dishwasher is loaded or the toothpaste tube is squeezed? Are the former examples fighting or arguments?
Many times I have had clients report their “worst fight ever,” and then proceed to describe an example of an argument. I sit there listening trying to notice unhealthy behaviors or interactions (i.e. hitting, name calling, manipulation, etc) that warrant on going for therapy to improve communication and managing feelings. When the story is over and these red flags are never mentioned, I ask the client, “How is this the worst fight ever?” More times than not, the response is along the lines of “because we had a fight!” with a look of “how is this person a therapist?” I then congratulate them on having a healthy argument and discuss the difference between an argument and a fight. Next, we discuss about the experience of learning that not everyone agrees with our viewpoints.
Argument vs. fighting
This is pretty simple. An argument is a disagreement with another person. Arguments can also be heated debates with voices raised and lots of emotions expressed. There is no verbal or physical violence involved in an argument. When violence enters the equation, this becomes a fight. Therefore, an argument could escalate into a fight.
There are also different extremes to fighting. Some fights may include verbal yelling (only to defend oneself) but this never helps in resolving any conflict. Fighting can also include verbally abusive language such as name-calling, degradation, manipulation or physically abusive behaviors such as hitting, biting, or pushing. The other difference between an argument and a fight is productivity. Arguments can be productive whereas fighting is not and typically more emotionally and physically exhausting.
Learning to “fight nice”
A “nice fight” is actually an argument. A healthy argument is when both individuals can disagree while respecting the other person’s opinion (even if they never end up agreeing). Each person listens to the other’s thoughts and gives them time to talk without interruption. You also aren’t trying to defend your point or pushing to change the other person’s opinion. Having different opinions is also healthy as you can learn from the other person. Again, you may never agree with his/her point of view though you may gain more knowledge about a topic and “broaden your horizons” as they say.
Conflict is also healthy as long as we resolve it and don’t bring it up in future arguments or disagreements. Resolving conflict includes thinking about:
- What led to the conflict
- How they both contributed to the conflict, and
- Finding a solution even if the solution is “agreeing to disagree.”
Once you both agree to let this conflict rest, don’t bring it up in future arguments, as this is actually a way to avoid the current one. It is only acceptable to bring up again if you want to revisit your opinion after much reflection.
Also respect a person’s need for space if an argument escalates into a fight. Space allows us to slow down and think about what led to the escalation. It also allows us to think about our own viewpoint and feelings that triggered during the argument. Finally, it also lets us soothe our feelings or, in other words, take care of our own needs to be more productive when we return to the conversation. If a person states they need time to go think or “cool down,” allow them this time and respect the space. Don’t pursue them to continue talking or track them down and ask when they are ready. This may lead to defensive behavior, which is never productive in resolving conflicts.