How to fight right – in a pandemic or after
Dori Brail says she can tell when a fight is brewing with her wife of three years, Angie Peng. “I can feel it bubbling up,” said Brail, 41, a social work supervisor at a public defender’s office in New York. “The tone in our voices is different and our body language is stiffer and more defensive. Both of us need space when we’re upset, but at different times.”
The pandemic made fighting harder for the couple, compounded by a new baby, which added another layer of intensity to the heightened stress many are experiencing of late. “Being together all the time, isolated from other people, relying on each other for things we’d normally look to friends for made small things that we would normally ignore feel bigger and more important,” Brail said.
“There has been so much unpredictability the past year and a half and couples have been navigating new conflicts that they weren’t prepared to encounter,” said Lauren Cook, a Los Angeles-based therapist, speaker and author who holds a doctorate in clinical psychology. “Partners have shorter fuses with one another and it may be harder to repair than before the pandemic.”
Brail tries to create space when she feels annoyed in efforts to circumvent a full-on fight. Peng, also 41, and a project manager for a research firm in New York, actually prefers the confrontation, needing, she said, the “energy of the fight to blow off steam.”
“Once we start fighting, it happens quickly where nobody is listening and everyone is just trying to prove their point or let the other person know they are hurt,” Brail said.
Engaging in honest disagreements – or fighting “right,” as some might say – is actually a positive sign that a relationship has a pulse.
Even before the pandemic, couples argued a lot. According to a widely cited 2011 survey of more than 3,000 couples conducted by the British insurance company Esure, couples argue, on average, 2,455 times a year, or roughly seven times a day.
The majority of the fights are about money, housework, free time, physical intimacy and extended family, according to a 2020 study led by scholars at the department of psychology at Oakland University in Missouri. Many are more frustrated with their partners since the pandemic hit, particularly moms, according to another recent study out of Indiana University.
Arguing is not necessarily a bad thing. “When we fight in healthy ways, it’s actually an indication that each partner is invested in getting clarity and ultimately, closeness,” Cook said. Increased tension is also expected in this extended crisis environment where “many couples are spending more time together than ever before and it can change the dynamic in key ways,” Cook said. “Partners have shorter fuses with one another and it may be harder to repair than before the pandemic.”
While their reactions to arguments differ, Brail and Peng “fight with love,” Peng said – that is, to choose words carefully so that “we don’t hurt each other purposely.”
Another approach to healthy conflict is the so-called Gottman Method, which is recommended by Nidhi Tewari, a clinical social worker in Richmond, Virginia. Based on scientific research and coined in the 1980s by the husband-wife team John and Julie Gottman, Seattle-based psychologists, this method is meant to help couples identify whether they are fighting fairly.
In essence, if you catch a whiff of “criticism, defensiveness, contempt or stonewalling” in your conflict repertoire, according to Tewari, then your fighting has gone afoul. The idea is to manage the conflict rather than resolve it – to pay attention to your specific words and general posture in the moment so that you can air your issues in a way that still feels accepting of your partner and can actually deepen your emotional connection.
“Healthy relationships require a balance of quality time together and individual time apart, and the pandemic limited couples’ abilities to create this harmony,” Tewari said.
Still, Tewari says, you can take some simple steps despite the added constraints of the pandemic to fight fairer. First, press the “metaphorical pause button” by setting a time limit on your argument and revisit later when both parties are less “emotionally aroused.”
Take time to breathe, meditate or practice grounding exercises, even if for a few minutes, to reset. Write down your thoughts so you can capture what is upsetting you and then resume the conversation.
Another important tip for fighting well, according to Tewari, is to choose your words carefully, avoiding contemptuous language and practice using “I statements,” to avoid insulting the other person. For example, you can say “I feel frustrated when you leave dishes in the sink after I am working all day and would appreciate if you could wash them after you use them,” rather than, “You never wash the dishes!”
Regardless how long a couple has been together, the pandemic has added strains to even the most airtight unions. Cristy Clavijo-Kish, 49, who works in talent and sponsorship management and publishing in Miami Shores, Florida, has been married for 26 years to her husband, Chris Kish, 51, an environmental and wastewater engineer in Miami. With the additional strain of the pandemic, she said, “there’s a long tolerance and then stress kicks in causing a blow up.”
Clavijo-Kish is navigating pandemic home life with two teenagers and a husband, and everyone’s respective school and work. “With the pandemic, suddenly I had a full house working with me with no opportunity to leave for coffee and in-person meetings, happy hours or events! It was stressful,” Clavijo-Kish.
For the Kishes, the pandemic actually helped them manage flare-ups better and more consistently, but they also had to learn new ways to connect more deeply, as being around each other constantly extinguished that spark. “Such a weird marital phase, in all honesty,” Clavijo-Kish said.
Areefa Mohamed, 35, a massage therapist based in the New York City borough of Queens, who found herself underemployed during the pandemic, says Covid laid bare just how different she and her boyfriend of 6 1/2 years are, which led to many disagreements. “His normal is far from my normal,” Mohamed said. The pandemic enabled Mohamed to spend a lot more time with her boyfriend, who lives in Clifton, New Jersey, and works in finance in New York, but it wasn’t all blissful. They found themselves for the first time fighting about everything from dinner and bedtime routines to TV habits.
“It has been a learning experience,” Mohamed said.
For these sorts of blowups, the key, once again, is to “respond rather than react,” Cook said. “When we get activated, the limbic system, or emotional center, of our brain can take over and our logical reasoning can get lost in the mix,” she said. “That’s why it’s so helpful to slow yourself down, listen to your partner, and say to yourself how you want to respond before you speak it out loud.”
Cook also recommends analogizing your fight to a “fur ball,” or the thing that keeps coming back up once in a while, rather than something that will break you. “As aggravating as this can be,” she said, “see it as something that requires some maintenance. It doesn’t mean it won’t get better.”
Fair fighting is an ongoing effort, even when a pandemic is fanning the flames.
“Even the healthiest of couples encounter challenges and stumbling blocks, and tweaks to communication should be made along the way,” Tewari said.
Kathy DiPaolo, 78, and her husband, Joe DiPaolo, 82, have been together 42 years and married for 25. The couple, who live in Colonie, New York, were retired for 24 years when the pandemic hit last year, so they were already well-versed in how to manage tension while spending the majority of their time in one another’s company, though they admitted they had to learn how to better “retreat to their corners of the house” when their outside activities and social dates dried up because of Covid.
Their secret? “We give in to each other,” Kathy DiPaolo said.
“One word,” Joe DiPaolo added. “Consideration.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.