Couple ensconced in
Illustration by Alina Bohoru
Sex

How to Tell if The Way You and Your Partner Fight Is Actually Not OK

Crying, going at it for hours and hours, calling them an asshole or a bitch... here's a guide to what's generally normal, and what's more concerning.
June 17, 2021, 2:34pm
2_27_2021_GETTING_ALONG_LOGO_CV8
Getting Along is a column about taking care of yourself, setting boundaries, and having difficult conversations, for people who struggle with all three.

“Why do you keep fucking up?” This is how Southern Charm’s Madison LeCroy opens a conversation with her then-boyfriend Austen Kroll during a Season 7 episode of the Bravo reality show. Austen tries in earnest to talk to her about the problems they are having, but she won’t let him get a word in edgewise. “I’m sorry for being mean, but you deserved it,” Madison says meanly, and then starts berating him.

Advertisement

A few episodes later, the two have been broken up for a little while, Austen is sleeping with someone else, and Madison is furious upon learning this information at a party. She stomps up to the treehouse where he’s chilling with two of his friends and begins tearing into him for having the audacity to have sex with someone who is not… Madison, his ex-girlfriend, the person who recently dumped him. “You’re a beta!” she hollers. “You’re a PUSSY! Own it!” Austen looks exhausted. 

I watched both of these scenes play out when the show aired, totally transfixed. I love getting a glimpse into how other people argue. Do they shut down when confronted? Immediately go to level 100? Cry? Flatly deny having said the thing we literally just heard them say? Use the term “beta”? Arguing is something that typically happens behind closed doors and is fairly taboo—so where else am I going to get a sense of how other people do it? 

Most of us aren’t ever really taught what a heated conversation with a partner should look like. Is swearing OK? Is crying? How bad is it if your fights last for hours, or for an entire weekend? Is it cool to scream “You’re a pussy!” in front of all of their friends? At my religious high school, I had to take a semester-long class about marriage; this would have been a great time to talk about how to disagree in a way that is ultimately loving. Instead, we were given fake babies to parent for a few days and told not to have sex. 

Advertisement

With all of this in mind, I collected some common argument scenarios from friends and colleagues and then reached out to Rosara Torrisi, a certified sex therapist in Long Island. Here’s what she had to say about the kind of argument characteristics that are generally respectful and not something to worry about, and what is really, really not OK. 

“We have an argument basically every single week.” 

First, Torrisi told VICE that there is a difference between an argument and a fight. “For me, a fight is something where somebody is purposefully mean to the other person,” she said. An argument could be a heated conversation, debate, or disagreement—it might not be pleasant, but it’s also, in general, healthy. An argument turns into a true fight when people start taking cheap shots, or getting mean, or being unfair. 

She said that frequent arguing isn’t necessarily a problem, and can, in fact, be a sign that you and your partner are comfortable expressing yourselves. “You're not dating yourself,” she said. “You're going to have different opinions and thoughts and beliefs and values. You have thoughts and feelings and you’d like them to be understood, and maybe to find compromise with your partner. That's OK.” 

If you think of conflict as inherently bad or worry that it says something terrible about your relationship, that might be because of how you were raised. “Most of us either grew up with parents who hid arguing, so we think that no one argues, or they were fighting and mean, and it was something that we were afraid of,” Torrisi said. “I think if you're not arguing, you're not real. You're not being honest, you're not being authentic.”

“We often get into arguments in front of our friends.” 

Whether or not it’s “healthy” to argue in front of other people is entirely cultural, Torrisi said, and depends in large part on other people’s comfort levels. And because arguments feel so intimate, there’s a good chance your friends won’t love bearing witness to heated conversations. 

If you do argue in front of other people though, Torrisi said, you have a responsibility to update them once there’s been some resolution. “Otherwise, they only see the arguments,” she said, adding that it’s especially important to give an update if you argued in front of kids. “It's totally fine for kids to see arguments,” she said. “It's not good for them to see fighting, because fighting shouldn't be happening anyway. But either way, if things are happening, they need to know, Yes, we argue, and then we figure it out. And we're OK.” 

“We keep having the same argument over and over again.” 

Torrisi said this is fairly common, and it happens because a lot of couples have what she called “unsolvable problems”—in fact, she said, most problems in relationships are unsolvable. Some of these are fairly minor, like disagreements about, say, when and how chores should be done. You’ll likely find yourself renegotiating these over and over again during the course of a relationship, because there will never be a permanent solve for the problem. “There's a solution that works for three months, and then it doesn't work anymore,” she said. “You have another argument, you create a new solution for the next period of time, until it doesn't work anymore.” 

But then there are unsolvable problems that get at core values and core needs—and these are the ones to pay more attention to. These will be pretty major issues or important boundaries that you won’t really be able to manage with short-term solutions. “That might be about religion, finances, sex, whether or not to have children, where to live, drug use—things like that,” Torrisi said. “It sucks. It's hard, it's painful… but it often does mean the end of a relationship.” So if that’s the kind of argument you’re having regularly, or you find that you continuously don’t see eye to eye on major life issues, it might be time to really think about whether you and your partner are compatible, and if this relationship is truly working for you. 

“Our arguments last for hours.” 

Spending an entire day arguing doesn’t mean your relationship is doomed, but it can still be incredibly tiring. If you feel like you’re losing years of your life to these looooooong conversations, Torrisi said there are a few reasons that might keep happening. 

First, one partner might be having trouble expressing themself, or feeling understood. “We sometimes have to recognize that the receiver needs to receive information in a particular way, just as much as the giver of information needs to give information in a particular way,” Torrisi said. If it often feels like you and your partner just aren’t speaking the same language, you could try writing down all your thoughts in advance, talking slower, asking questions to better understand where they are coming from, or just rephrasing what you’re trying to say if it’s clear something isn’t clicking. Also think about whether something external might be interfering with communication, and consider having serious discussions at a different time of day (e.g., when neither of you are busy, distracted, or drunk) or moving to a location that feels more neutral (like a private spot in a park versus in one person’s bedroom). 

Advertisement

Torrisi said it could also be that one or both of you are super verbose, and are fond of outlining, in meticulous detail, exactly all the reasons you’re upset. While this can be very cathartic for the speaker, long-winded monologues strain other people’s ability to pay attention, so it’s not great for actual comprehension. 

Other times, Torrisi said, arguments will drag on because you’re not talking about the deeper meaning of whatever you’re discussing. If you’re just staying at the surface level—e.g., “I’m so goddamn sick of finding your dirty socks all over the house”—you’re likely to just keep going around and around in circles. That’s because the socks aren’t the real problem—it’s just easier to talk about the socks than it is to say “I need to feel respected” or “I’m worried that you don’t take my needs seriously.” So if you’ve been at it for a while with no resolution, ask yourself if there’s something being left unsaid that might help move the conversation forward. 

It could be that you’re going in circles because you’re dealing with an unsolvable problem that’s a true dealbreaker. “Sometimes, it's about avoiding that this is actually the end,” Torrisi said. 

“Every time we have an argument, at least one of us ends up crying.” 

People cry for a number of reasons, and Torrisi said it’s actually a fairly neutral reaction. Tears can be a physiological manifestation of a big emotional release, a way your body's trying to self-soothe, or an expression of emotional pain—e.g., “I can’t believe you just said that” or “I’m scared and hurt.” So the fact that one or both of you cries during arguments doesn’t necessarily mean that something is terribly wrong with your relationship or the way you argue. 

“There's definitely some people who feel very manipulated by crying,” Torrisi said. “And I urge people to really consider that as something they have to work on.” Crying is a natural reaction that is hard to control or stop, and accusing your partner of using it to manipulate you means you’re no longer assuming they have positive intentions. “This is not necessarily a relationship that you actually trust in. If you can't assume positive intentions from your partner, then we have a bigger issue than just crying,” she said.

“Our arguments get LOUD.” 

Loudness is not necessarily something to worry about—in part because it’s so subjective. “The idea of ‘loud’ is different for everybody,” Torrisi said. “I have Sicilian family. My family talks loudly about everything.” She also said if people are hard of hearing, that can lead to arguments that are relatively loud. 

But if you’re self-conscious about the volume of your arguments, it might be because one or both of you are getting really worked up during arguments, and that’s why it’s pinging as a problem. “Really, that volume is letting us know that our arousal system is overactivated,” Torrisi said. “And if your arousal system is overactivated, you are not going to have a productive conversation—you're just not.” 

Advertisement

But loudness isn’t the only sign that someone is emotionally flooded, so even if you and your partner only ever talk in hushed tones, you should still pay attention to other physical changes when you’re arguing. That could look like turning red, getting really warm, an increased heart rate, clenching fists or hair, and other vocal clues (major pitch shifts, or suddenly talking very very quietly). Once that happens to either of you, it’s time to take an immediate break from the conversation. 

A couple of things need to happen for this kind of break to be successful. First, you both have to agree that you’ll come back to the conversation; getting too heated shouldn’t be used as an excuse to table it indefinitely. And second, both of you should make a point not to ruminate on the argument during the break, as impossible as that might feel. “You actually have to go and do things that cool you down,” Torrisi said. “Go on a walk, take a shower, take a nap, do a meditation—whatever it is for you.” (She also said it’s best to avoid using alcohol or other substances during the break.) 

If this sounds wild to you, you’re not alone. (But for the sake of your relationship, you do still have to figure out a way to do it.) “There's something called a pursuer–distancer dynamic that some people have, where one person says, ‘I need to take a break’ and the other one says, ‘You're not going anywhere until we finish this,’” Torrisi said. Part of what makes it so hard for the pursuer is that they are likely overstimulated, but can’t self-soothe, and are looking for their partner to help them calm down, which they think will happen if they just keep talking—but both people are too heated, and neither can help the other. Once things escalate to this point, there can even be flares of abusive behavior. “There's this demand on a system that actually has no room for demands at that moment,” Torrisi said. “And so people then often will do things that are very, very harmful.” 

Advertisement

To help avoid getting to a point where either of you are hyper aroused, Torrisi also suggested engaging in “repair attempts” during heated conversations, which can help build trust and connection. That might look like reaching out and taking your partner’s hand, or giving them a hug or a compliment. Small things like this can really shift the energy of the conversation, soothe everyone’s nervous system, and communicate “we’re on the same team.” 

“There’s often swearing or name-calling (‘fuck you,’ ‘you’re an asshole,’ etc).”

This is… really not great, according to Torrisi. “If you want to have a positive relationship, there's no reason to be doing that,” she said. If you and your partner curse casually/often in everyday conversation, you may assume it’s no big deal. “It might be something that was modeled for you... it might even be something that you're thinking,” she said. But calling each other names during an argument is not productive and definitely takes a healthy argument into fight territory. 

Name-calling also tends to obscure what you’re actually feeling, so if you find yourself about to snap “WHY are you always such a BITCH?” at your partner, it’s a good time to start using ye olde “I” statements: “I’m feeling really disrespected right now.” “I’m hurt.” “I’m upset.” “I’m really frustrated right now.” 

“Expanding emotional vocabulary is very important, but not something that many of us have learned,” Torrisi said. “Sometimes it's a moment to say, ‘I think we need to learn how to express what's really going on for us.’” 

“One of us often gives the other the silent treatment.” 

Torrisi said that fully ignoring someone, also known as stonewalling, is a “very problematic way of encountering your partner.” To be clear, giving someone the silent treatment is not the same as occasionally saying “this argument has me really angry and I need to take a break so I can calm down a bit before we talk about this further.” Torrisi said a lot of people conflate the two, which is often why the idea of taking a break stresses out pursuers. But there’s a big difference. “One is ‘I'm trying to be present and respectful and authentic here. I'm not doing a great job right now. I need to go help myself so that I can do that,’” Torrisi said. “One is ‘I don't give a shit. I'm done. I'm punishing you.’”

Beyond that, people often use the silent treatment to manipulate others. “It's a part of withholding emotional, intellectual, sexual connection,” she said. “It's a mean thing to do. It's retaliatory. It's like a tit for tat, eye-for-an-eye sort of thing. And it’s not a great path.”

Advertisement

“It often means that this is going to be the end of a relationship,” she continued. “Because at least one person is no longer willing to put themselves out there, assume a positive intention, and make a bid to connect or receive a bid to connect. It's usually not a good sign.”

“We often get distracted by a meta argument about how we argue, so we’re having two arguments at once.” 

We all have our bad habits when it comes to disagreements, and it can take time and effort to figure out the best ways to communicate with your partner when you’re both feeling upset. And there’s certainly nothing wrong with starting to identify unhealthy tactics (like name-calling) or unproductive ones (like monologuing). But attempting to change your partner’s argument style in the moment can mean you very quickly lose the thread because you’re now arguing about the best time/place/way to have this argument, and that can contribute to things getting really heated and lasting for hours. 

“If you're arguing about how you fight and that's happening a lot, that's a really wonderful moment to reach out to a therapist,” Torrisi said. “It’s a conversation of, ‘We don’t have the skills for this.’ It’s awesome that you recognize that… now go get help.” 

While that could look like starting couples therapy, it could also just mean reading self-help books or listening to podcasts that focus on communication in relationships. (The Gottman Institute blog is a really good place to start, and John and Julie Gottman have published several books.) Basically, Torrisi said, it’s about “becoming experts yourselves on how to help your relationship as best as you can.”

Rachel Miller is the author of The Art of Showing Up: How to Be There for Yourself and Your People. Follow her on Twitter.