The Difference Between Healthy and Unhealthy Fighting in a Relationship

Man & Woman in Bed
Photo: STYLECASTER/Getty Images

Do you know a couple who never fights or has a disagreement? Probably not. The truth is, fighting with your partner is definitely not a sign that your relationship is doomed. In fact, the happiest couples fight—and there are real benefits to fighting. Think we’re crazy?

Some fights may genuinely help to stave off bigger conflicts, and fights that result in a positive resolution can lead to greater relationship satisfaction. But this is only if the fighting is healthy. Unhealthy fighting happens over something that can’t be changed or something petty just to cause tension or make negative power plays.

Take stock of your own relationship with these major differences between healthy and unhealthy fighting, below.

Unhealthy: Fight for the Sake of Fighting

No good can come of this kind of fight because no change can come, either. “Picking a fight over something that happened before you were in a relationship, for example, can’t be changed now and had nothing to do with you in the first place,” says relationship expert Margaux Cassuto. Let’s say you pick a fight because your S.O. spent their early 20s blowing money on trips to Miami rather than saving for the future. If you weren’t together at the time, it really had nothing to do with you and you definitely can’t change it—so why bother wasting energy fighting over it?

Healthy: Fight with Mutual Active Listening

Dr. Jess O’Reilly, resident sexologist for Astroglide, says it’s less about the subjects of your fights and more about how you fight. “A healthy fight involves active listening and an attempt to understand your partner’s perspective and having positive interactions even when you disagree,” she says. “For instance, you can let your partner know that you love them and want to resolve the issue.” Acts of physical affection, pauses or contemplation before responding, and an attempt to make up after can all go a long way toward making a fight a more positive, productive experience for both of you.

Unhealthy: Immature Fight

This kind of fight usually involves conversation-killing statements like, “I guess I should just leave,” “You’d clearly be happier without me,” or, “Well at least I don’t do X.” Says O’Reilly: “These types of statements not only sound childish, but they don’t move the conversation along and are certainly not underpinned by love. Healthy fights allow you to relieve tension with the goal of improving your relationship and deepening the loving connection.”

MORE: How to Talk to Your S.O. About Trying Therapy

Healthy: Fight Over Hurt Feelings

It’s a good idea to have tough conversations about trigger issues for you and your partner—because otherwise, there’s no way for either of you to know what each other’s triggers are. “Let’s say you found out that your partner was in touch with their ex in a way that made you uncomfortable, but once you told them you weren’t okay with it, he/she promises never to do it again after extending a sincere apology,” says Cassuto. This is healthy because each partner understands what was hurtful about what happened, thereby helping to prevent it from occurring again.

Unhealthy: Fight That’s a Blame Game

When disagreements turn into a hunt for who’s at fault, it becomes impossible to reach a positive resolution, says relationship therapist Alice Roberts. Pointing fingers and focusing on each other’s faults instead of listening to how your partner is feeling and making them feel heard before voicing your own grievances only leads to more disagreements that end up turning into a vicious spiral.

Healthy: Fight to Hash Out a Plan

Here, the goal is to find common ground or to create a new solution. Healthy fighting focuses on the situation at hand and pits the couple against the problem, as a team. This typically results in a resolution or at least a better understanding of each other’s feelings. The end of a healthy fight should be with a solution or a decision about how to move forward in a better, more positive, and loving way.

MORE: 10 Compromises You Should Never Make in a Relationship

Unhealthy: Fight That Turns Personal

If your partner uses disagreements to attack you personally, belittle you, or shame you, that’s a big problem, says Roberts.  “These kinds of attacks are a sign that your partner doesn’t know how to feel secure in a relationship where their partner has different opinions or likes than they do.” In other words, they resort to calling you names or attacking you out of insecurity because you’re not exactly the same, or as a way to vent their anger or frustration about other issues in the relationship—but regardless, this kind of fight is always about something deeper than what they’re complaining about.

Healthy: Fight Over Finances

Money is a huge cause for disagreement in many relationships (in fact, research shows that it’s the leading cause of relationship stress and often leads to divorce) and almost every couple fights about it at some point. Since this fight is essentially inevitable, it’s key to learn how to dispute about it productively. The best way to do this is by approaching the subject as a problem you two are solving together and not a contest to see who can get more or is doing more.

Unhealthy: Abusive Fight

Whether the abuse is physical, verbal, mental, or emotional, experts agree that unhealthy fights are those in which one or both partners are not fighting “fair” and are hitting below the belt, either on purpose and unintentionally. This type of abusive fighting should never be allowed and if this is something you experience often, it’s time to get out of the relationship.