Kim was confused—stunned really—that Mark was ready to end their relationship. She thought they were madly in love, but their fights had become more frequent, more intense, and often ended without any resolution. Mark had had enough, and was ready to pull the plug unless she stopped what he called dirty fighting.
Sometimes she would lie silently in bed next to him after an argument over the laundry, refusing to discuss the matter unless he gave in. Or she’d blow up over how he “wasted” a hundred bucks on his hobby, slamming doors and squealing tires as she left the house. When Mark said he wanted more time together, she told him he was acting like a baby.
She really didn’t understand what was wrong with her fighting. Every couple fights, and fighting by definition is messy or it wouldn’t be called a fight, she reasoned. Kim didn’t realize how toxic her actions were for their relationship until she learned about dirty fighting.
Understanding what dirty fighting is, recognizing when we do it, and learning to stop it is critical.
Kim was right about one thing: all intimate partners have conflict from time to time. Depending on how we treat each other during those conflicts, however, we will either grow closer or drive an emotional wedge between us. That’s why understanding what dirty fighting is, recognizing when we do it, and learning to stop it is critical.
Healthy conflict vs. dirty fighting
Strange as it sounds, conflict can be good. Partners who argue productively and maintain respect for each other during their arguments can create a formidable bond. Healthy ways of handling disputes can turn you and your partner into a powerful, supportive, and innovative problem solving team.
In contrast, many romantic partners fight in ways that consistently hurt their relationship. One or both use a must-win-at-all-costs strategy at the expense of their partner, which takes a terrible toll on the relationship. These no-win battlescreate a deepening resentment that becomes harder to overcome with time.
Dirty fighting is often unconscious behavior that is learned in childhood and continues into adult relationships. Many people are not even aware they are doing anything wrong or hurtful when they fight this way. They may see that they are having difficulty resolving relationship disputes, but they don’t connect it to how they engage in conflicts.
In general, dirty fighting techniques cause our partners to feel too guilty, confused, overwhelmed, or worn out to continue to advocate for what they want. This fits the definition of emotional abuse.
Shutting them down may feel like a win. However, what we’ve really done is send the message that they are not valued and loved enough to have a voice in our relationship. That’s deadly for an intimate partnership, and therefore it hurts us when we do it.
Forms of dirty fighting
Here are ten common forms of dirty fighting and the reasons why they hurt your partner and your relationship. As you look at the list, see if you see yourself in any of these behaviors:
- The silent treatment. Those of us who use the silent treatment sometimes justify it as our way of avoiding conflict. There is still conflict, however, because the issue remains unresolved and the connection between our partner and us stays broken. The silent treatment often elevates our partner’s distress, loudly conveying the message that they need to give in to restore that connection.
- Chasing. Chasing is the opposite of the silent treatment. It is getting in our partner’s space and forcing the discussion (argument) even if they are not ready to talk. If your partner is withdrawing, it is possible that he or she feels attacked or just needs time to collect his or her thoughts. Pressuring our lovers into a conversation has no hope of ending well.
- Invalidation. When feeling attacked, we’ll sometimes dismiss our partner’s feelings or say there is no reason for them to feel that way. Since we can never know another person’s internal experiences, it’s a ridiculous claim. Invalidating our partner’s emotions says we don’t value them or care about their world, and we seriously damage the relationship in the process.
- Escalation. Most people don’t like conflict, and especially don’t like to be yelled at, intimidated, or scared. If we use these techniques, our quieter, more reflective partner will disengage to avoid our tirade. We might think we’ve won, but the long-term effect of not being heard in a relationship kills our partner’s love.
- Piling on. Piling on happens when we rehash the past or drag other problems into the argument. By bringing all of these additional issues into the conflict, we just confuse the one at hand. When we use this fighting strategy, it’s easy for our mates to feel overloaded and hopeless in resolving the initial issue.
- Generalization. Avoid absolute words like “you always” or “you never.” Nobody is always or never anything, and using these words will just inflame the argument. Instead, use specific examples if you are trying to make a point.
- Character assassination. One terrible dirty fighting technique is go after our partner’s flaws. Instead focusing on the issue, we attack their character, personality, or remind them of their past mistakes. How can we expect our partners to love, care for, and respect us when we demoralize them?
- Hitting below the belt. As we get to know another person, we often discover areas where they are particularly sensitive. Like a character assassination, using another’s deepest vulnerabilities to win an argument wounds our partners. None of us will feel affection for a person whose words hurts us, which is why this form of dirty fighting is so counter-productive.
- Martyrdom. One strategy to win a fight is to beat ourselves up for what we did wrong, then blame our partner for how badly we feel. We act as if our partner’s accusations were much worse than they were so they feel guilty and back down. Frequently using this technique discourages our partners from voicing legitimate complaints, leaves them feeling powerless, and encourages them to leave.
- Threats of abandonment. Threats of abandonment make our partner feel insecure and fearful of loss. We can create this doubt by our words or simply by leaving with no commitment to return. Similar to the silent treatment, the message our partners receive is they must give in or suffer the loss of the relationship.
Stopping dirty fighting
How would you respond to something that was going to make your partner feel disconnected, devalued, overwhelmed, hopeless, demoralized, wounded, powerless, and threatened? If this force caused your mate to stop being kind, loving, and affectionate toward you, would you want to protect them from it? Of course you would, which is why eliminating dirty fighting styles from how you engage in conflict becomes so important.
If you’ve seen yourself in some of the behaviors described above, join the club.
If you’ve seen yourself in some of the behaviors described above, join the club. Of course, that doesn’t make them good for your significant other, your relationship, or you. As you work to get better, here are ten ways to engage in healthy fighting instead:
- Get some perspective. It’s easy to lose sight of the big picture during a conflict. Reframe your perspective that your relationship is more than the issue at hand. When emotions flare, remind yourself of what you love about your partner and remember the good moments in your relationship. Taking a time-out can help you see the situation in a more balanced way.
- Apologize quickly, even if you’re right. The simplest and most effective thing we can do when fighting with our partner is to apologize. Apologizing is often difficult because our pride says we are right—which may or may not be true. At the very least, we can simply apologize for arguing, assuring our partner that we value them and our relationship. This builds trust and reframes the conflict into just an issue that two people who love each other are seeing differently right now.
- Drop your defenses. Not defending ourselves feels very vulnerable, but being defensive usually triggers defensiveness in our partner. If your partner is upset with you or offers criticism, try seeing it as an opportunity to learn about yourself and just listen. You still get to decide if their words are true, but you don’t need to correct them or convince them that they are wrong. On the other hand, you might learn something valuable about yourself from their feedback.
- Don’t take it personally. Related to not being defensive is realizing a lot of issues are not about you. Even when someone is upset and attacking you, their emotion is often really about their own fears, insecurities, or distorted thinking. Not taking their words personally makes listening easier. In doing so, we’ll often discover ways to show compassion for our partner, which really defuses an argument.
- Avoid the need for mind-reading. Expecting our partner to understand our desires without saying them out loud is unrealistic. If we’re upset about something, we need to say so. Similarly, we can’t know what our mate thinks or feels, so ask and listen. We’ll usually assume the worst, so direct communication is the best way to clear the issue without reacting to an imagined catastrophe.
- Look for the real emotion. Facing someone’s anger is hard, but try to look for the real emotion beneath it. Anger is a secondary emotion: sadness, hurt, insecurity, jealousy or frustration are usually beneath it.If you can identify the real emotion, you’ll have a better chance of responding to the real issue.
- Give grace. Accept that no one, including you, engages in conflict perfectly. Look for the meaning behind your mate’s words. Take in what is fair, and let their unfair and inaccurate words fall to the ground without a response.
- If you’re going around in circles, stop. If you or your partner are repeating the same things, you’re stuck in a loop.People repeat things because they don’t feel heard. Slow down and try active listening to check your understanding of their side of things. Aim to hear before you need to be heard.
- Find common ground. There’s usually something you can agree on, even if it’s that you don’t wantto fight. Anything that will help to get you both back on the same team is a good thing and builds positive momentum. It’s also a way to validate your partner and let them know you see them.
- Touch affectionately. The next time you and your partner are angry with each other, try a hug, a soft pat on the back, or a kiss. This fun technique can go a long way towards restoring relationship safety and connection. For those of us who struggle to find the right words, a physical act of affection might be a great substitute.
What keeps us stuck in the muck
Realistically, we are not going to be able to use any of these strategies if we are triggered by something and get flooded by emotions. When the current situation reminds us of past traumas, our brains can hijack our reactions. We’ll feel compelled to try to stop the storm, perhaps at any cost, including using dirty fighting.
We are not going to be able to use any of these strategies if we get flooded by our emotions.
In the short-term, take a time-out and go for a walk. Remind yourself that you are okay—that this is not the same situation that hurt in the past. In the long-term, discover those buttons, core hurts, and distorted thoughts that make you particularly sensitive to certain topics, then heal them.
Another barrier is when our partner is the one doing the dirty fighting. Their bad behavior might be hard to take, but responding in kind is only going to make things worse. Disengage from the conflict and firmly but calmly state that you are not going to communicate with them while they are using that behavior. Setting a boundary like this will either help your partner realize their mistake, or you’ll soon realize you need to stop subjecting yourself to them.
When the dirt is cleaned
Once we are more calm and rational, we are far less likely to use dirty fighting techniques. Plus, we are more likely to recognize when we’ve slipped out of bounds. Once we’ve identified and stopped our dirty fighting styles, we can begin to deal with conflict in more productive ways.
Following these guidelines may seem hard at first, but they get easier with practice. We’ll have fewer conflicts, get better results, and strengthen the intimate connection between our partner and us. This creates a self-perpetuating cycle, where we feel rewarded for our success, which then encourages us to continue improving.