What do good relationships look like when they're bad?
January 22, 2013 1:38 PM   Subscribe

I am in a really amazing relationship after a long, bad one. It is mutually supportive, caring, engaging, and honest—loving, in the best, most positive way. We never fight. This confuses me, and I need some reality-checking and standards for how normal good relationships are supposed to work.

I was with a partner who belittled, controlled, and raged at me for several years. It ended very badly. I've spent the year since we effectively split up taking good care of myself and doing some serious thinking—I'm still working on getting out of the serious mindfuck it gave me, i.e., what a terrible waste of air and resources my ex had me convinced I was. In the end, it taught me a lot about what I can and can't deal with, and also got me to examine my own behaviors and to try to live honestly and openly all the time.

In the meantime, a new relationship bloomed with a friend, and we've been dating for about six months now, casually at first, seriously the last couple of months. He knows the whole story, was there for the whole thing (thought neither of us had thought of dating each other until well after it was over). It is the best relationship I've ever been in, and not just by contrast to the last, terrible one—the way we interact and live our lives approaches near the perfect relationship we've all been told doesn't really exist. My new fellow is a genuinely kind person (and this is apparent to everyone who knows him), he's amazingly creative and intelligent, I'm crazily attracted to him, I respect him and really just believe in him and will always be on his side. He feels the same way about me. I trust him implicitly, and our day to day life is funny, sweet, comfortable and stimulating at the same time. I feel very lucky.

The thing that throws me is that we still haven't had a real fight. We have had small disagreements about little things that don't really matter, but they've been easily and pragmatically solved. We agree on Big Values, and nothing else has ever come up that seems worth fighting about. We are both pretty easy-going people, too, and don't hold resentment over small compromises or get worked up over little inconveniences. I could see a future with this man—we both feel like this is it—but it bothers me that I have no idea how we would conflict if something really big went down, or if life got tough. But that seems ridiculous, to want to fight just to see...how we would fight.

I honestly don't know what a good, mature adult relationship looks like in conflict. It's really deeply ingrained in me that a non-tumultuous relationship is somehow shallow. Do you have resources for me, anecdotes or book ideas or the like, to help me get over this? And the same for what healthy, communicative disagreement looks like?
posted by sockpuppet yo to Human Relations (23 answers total) 34 users marked this as a favorite
John Gottman developed a method by which he can predict with startling accuracy whether a couple will divorce, after watching them converse for only a few minutes. His books and research can show you a lot about how happier couples handle conflict.
posted by jon1270 at 1:46 PM on January 22, 2013 [3 favorites]

A good, mature disagreement is one where you can talk it over and come to a pragmatic solution -- exactly like with you small disagreements about little things that don't really matter.

For me, the difference comes with how you solve things -- and it seems that you solve things through trust and communication. That is the biggest difference.

With the relationships I've seen fail, it was either lack of trust or lack of ability to communicate that made them fail.
posted by DoubleLune at 1:53 PM on January 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

I wonder if things that would have become a "fight" in your old relationship will just... not become that, and instead will stay minor disagreements, because you are able to communicate well and you have a partner who is kind and respectful of you.

I read your question and have been sitting here trying to think about what a big conflict in my own (18 year old and very happy) relationship looks like, and have realized that we don't really have them either. We used to, when we were younger and our lives were more volatile for a variety of reasons, but we have learned how to talk to each other and also learned to pick our battles. Most of the stuff that I see couples around me fighting about really is not very important, and is based more upon long-standing resentment or annoyance than the actual thing(s) being fought over. And if you share the Big Values that eliminates a lot of the more serious issues that can become an actual problem, like money or how to spend your leisure time.

In short: Maybe you won't be fighters. And that's good. If your partner is as great as you describe, this isn't something I would worry about. He sounds like a nice and reasonable person, and you should have confidence that he will maintain that behavior even if he doesn't agree with you.
posted by something something at 1:54 PM on January 22, 2013 [7 favorites]

FWIW, I'm in the middle of a wonderful relationship of about 2 years with an amazing man. We are still very much in love and got engaged at the end of last year. I don't remember us ever having any serious fights about anything. Both of us respects the other and can see the other person's point of view. And both of us are willing to back down and say sorry, so it would take a lot to get to the actual fighting stage. In previous relationships, I was the one who tended to pick fights and create drama, I think because I had a sense that I wasn't quite happy in the relationship but couldn't quite articulate it. Now I don't have that impulse at all -- I feel very content and secure in this relationship.

I asked my mom, who's been happily married to my dad for > 30 years whether this was normal and whether it was weird that we didn't fight at all. She basically told me not to go looking for trouble and asked whether I could remember my dad and her fighting at all. I did recall one time, when I was 7, when they did get into a bit of an argument and I asked in all seriousness whether they were planning on getting divorced. This got them laughing so the argument was forgotten. But honestly, a healthy relationship doesn't require fighting, as long as you're both communicating and not bottling up your emotions.
posted by peacheater at 1:54 PM on January 22, 2013 [7 favorites]

As somehow who grew up in a fighting household and who has been in fighting relationships (i.e., where screaming was the only way to resolve anything)—and absolutely could not take either one—let me tell you now that you don't have to fight in the sense that you may be used to at all. Some people just don't communicate that way, and that's fine. (I'd venture to say that it's better, but maybe that's just because it's better for me.) In our entire relationship, my now-husband and I have never once yelled at each other. That doesn't mean we never will, I guess, but I do believe that how we handle the smaller conflicts now speaks to how we'll handle the larger issues that will inevitably crop up years down the line.

A typical argument for us involves tension, and often misunderstanding, but there's always mutual respect involved, and we talk it out until we get to the bottom of what's going on. Once we each fully understand each other, the worst is over, and either that itself is the resolution of the argument or else we're in a much better place to seek a resolution together. It's the "together" that's key; we're partners, working toward the common goal of a wonderful life together—not adversaries.

In short, if you two are able to handle the little conflicts in a way that's respectful and healthy for (both of) you, then relax and enjoy the ride.

I'm sure others will have book ideas for you, but I'm hoping that some anecdata will also help you out.
posted by cellar door at 1:55 PM on January 22, 2013 [3 favorites]

We have had small disagreements about little things that don't really matter, but they've been easily and pragmatically solved. We agree on Big Values, and nothing else has ever come up that seems worth fighting about. We are both pretty easy-going people, too, and don't hold resentment over small compromises or get worked up over little inconveniences. I could see a future with this man—we both feel like this is it—but it bothers me that I have no idea how we would conflict if something really big went down, or if life got tough. But that seems ridiculous, to want to fight just to see...how we would fight.

In my experience, the habits you set up for the small disagreements carry through to the big ones. Like for instance, you used "solved" to describe how you view the resolution of disagreements. You don't solve fights, you solve problems. So, if you like how you handle small agreements, you just transfer that to bigger problems. You don't have big fight over an important disagreement you have a big problem. Which isn't to say that things won't get emotional, when you do have problems, but when my good relationship is in a bad way we use the tools that made it good in the first place.
posted by Gygesringtone at 2:00 PM on January 22, 2013 [4 favorites]

I've been with my partner for 6+ years and we still have yet to have a 'fight'. We disagree on many things but it never blows out of control or to the point where we are yelling - we just shrug it off and move on. There is a fundamental understanding between us that the other is going to have their own opinions and a rejection of the others' ideas is not a rejection of the other. We break up most disputes with humor, and I'm pretty sure that the first time either of us did something aggressive like throw something or yell or get actually intentionally mean it would be grounds for 'divorce' (we're not married but may as well be).

This was shocking to me for the first few years because, like you, I'd previously been in some extremely emotionally contentious relationships prior to the current, and I assumed that 'fighting' was just part of it. Everybody and all relationships are different; don't use the previous metric to judge your current. If it works and you're both happy, then don't borrow trouble or try to make an issue where there is none.
posted by par court at 2:04 PM on January 22, 2013 [2 favorites]

Husbunny and I have been married for 10.5 years and dating for a year before that. We don't argue at all. No sharp words. My mom was a yeller and I told him early on that I don't like it, but he's not a yeller so that's that.

His ex used to keep it all in, dumping it out in random rages when he couldn't do anything about whatever it was that pissed her off. So if I'm annoyed, I just say so.

Here's a typical interaction at our house:

Me: So I've cleaned the bathroom, made the beds and cooked dinner.
Him: Oh, awesome, thanks.
Me: What's the status of the cat box?
Him: (guilty whistle)
Me: Yeah, get on that would you, the cats don't like to tip toe around turds.
Him: I'm on it!

We're grown people, not children. We can work out anything we need to.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 2:08 PM on January 22, 2013 [14 favorites]

If you've got the Big Values covered and are communicating well, you likely won't have very many true fights. Based on my own relationship history, there will always be minor disagreements, but really big fights seem to generally stem from a lack of shared values or poor communication. I have been in past relationships that involved some pretty big fights. Those relationships ultimately ended because our values were just too different for us to make it long term: hence the fighting.

My wife and I rarely right. When we do, it's usually because we've had a breakdown in communication. When we stop and actually listen to one another, the fight generally ends. We may still disagree about whatever the topic of discussion is, but the key is that we're actually discussing it instead of fighting about it.
posted by asnider at 2:08 PM on January 22, 2013 [2 favorites]

My experience has been exactly like par court's. I've been with my husband for seven years, and we don't always agree. We've had significant conflicts on life-changing issues. But we've never had a fight, much less what I imagine you describe as a "real fight". I'm pretty sure that neither he nor I have ever witnessed a fight between our respective parents, either, so this is what normal is to both of us.

As an added bonus, and something I've only recently realized: instead of becoming more set in my ways as I age, I'm more willing to accommodate him as I really just want to do things to make his life better and keep him happy (even if that means getting gas before the "empty" light on the car tank indicator comes on, argh). Disagreements don't mean much these days.
posted by halogen at 2:16 PM on January 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

The thing that throws me is that we still haven't had a real fight.

My story is very similar. As you said I was with a partner who belittled, controlled, and raged at me for several years.

I finally divorced, and after several years met someone and we instantly clicked. We have been together over 2 years, and are coming up on our 2nd wedding anniversary in 2 months. We have never had a fight. Even our small disagreements have been SO small as to be unmemorable. If we have a difference in preference of schedule, timing, or whatever, it's usually resolved with a sentence or two. And neither one of us feels like we are just "giving in." It's fantastic.

For the first year or so, I kept wondering when we were going to finally get into a big fight. But then, I stopped worrying. It just may never happen. As someone said upthread, it's probably because we don't let things escalate. Another reason is probably that we both came from such drama-filled marriages that we instinctively know how to avoid it. We don't let small irritations turn into big deals.

So, no, I don't believe every relationship has to have fights, nor do I believe that "something is wrong" if you don't fight once in a while.

As one more data point: My mom married my step-dad 15 years ago. They have not had a cross word between them in all that time.

Enjoy it! I've lived both ways, and this way is SO MUCH BETTER!
posted by The Deej at 2:30 PM on January 22, 2013 [5 favorites]

When it comes to relationships, some people just aren't fighters. In college, I had the same roommate for four years and I don't know if we ever had a fight. Granted, that wasn't a romantic relationship, but come on... two people sharing a 12 x 16 room for two years and then sharing a 1 bedroom apartment with bunk beds for 2 years, and never a fight?

I've also had relationships (in the romantic sense) that lasted for years without fights.

I've also had relationships that involved fighting and they never lasted longer than a period of weeks, except for one case where I was stupid and stayed in the relationship for two years.

Enjoy the relationship you've found. Fighting need not be a part of it.
posted by 2oh1 at 2:48 PM on January 22, 2013

Husband and I almost never "fight". I yelled at him last week, instantly apologized and restated my concern in a civilized manner, he agreed that he had been out of line, he apologized, I apologized again for yelling, we hugged. We then tried to remember the last time one of us had raised our voice at the other and figured it had been at least eight years ago.

And we have dealt with some big stresses, including my chronic illness, the long illnesses and deaths of his mum and my dad, my frustrations about work stuff (as in not being able to), his frustrations about work stuff (as in, having to work more hours than he would prefer because I'm not bringing in much money these days), and the thousand weaknesses the flesh is heir to in the late 40s and early 50s.

I've also been more engaged in my religious and spiritual practice, and he is a very committed atheist who sincerely believes religion is an inherently destructive thing.

So there's a lot we could be fighting about, but we don't fight. We discuss, we raise concerns, we say things like "That was mean and you hurt my feelings" or "I feel like you're not listening to me" and we work stuff out.

His parents were bellowers; my parents were more icy passive aggressive. We both really wanted something different, and so far so good.

Seconding the recommendation of John Gottman's research on this topic. It is enlightening.
posted by Sidhedevil at 2:53 PM on January 22, 2013 [4 favorites]

Agreed that your small disagreements tend to scale up accurately.

You feel like you're not arguing because most smallish matters, between two well intentioned people, can be cleared up in an instant. Not what you're used to, but there it is.

Doesn't it feel like putting your foot on the lowest stair and actually, there was no stair there? It's disorienting. And here is where popular culture will tell you you "liked" or "sought out the comfort of the familiar" in conflict. Isn't that annoying? Makes you afraid that you're doomed to "self-sabotage" because of your "fear of success", doesn't it? Well, don't worry about that. Popular culture talks out of its ass fairly often.
posted by tel3path at 3:41 PM on January 22, 2013 [7 favorites]

not fighting is so great.

I'm in almost the same situation, I had a boyfriend for 5 years in which we had HUGE fights. but the dumbest things would start them, my favourite example:

one time he said that me using a reusable grocery bag was stupid since grocery bags are such a negligible amount of garbage in the long run. I disagreed, that every little bit helps, or something. but exboyfriend had a way of talking down to me that made me feel belittled, and I'd insist my thoughts were valid, and he'd get stubborn and I'd get stubborn back and we'd end up in a gigantic, yelling screeching horrible fight that lasted hours, complete with insults and waterworks and storm outs.

if new boyfriend said that and I responded that way he would probably say something like "I guess that's true too." or we'd debate for awhile, with no one calling each other names or raising their voices for being stubborn just for the sake of being stubborn, because that's how we connect with each other.

and we'd have no fight. thus: no fights. the things boyfriend refers to as "fights" or "disagreements" are so hilariously mild it just erases any upset feeling I might have. after experiencing a relationship where every difference of opinion blossomed into a full scale fight, it's so amazing to fall on the other side of that that it almost seems like something must be wrong, that this must be shallow or pretend or a ticking time bomb.

you're (we're) actually just so lucky.

I think healthy, communicative disagreement is when you have an issue that you don't agree on, and even after trying to convince each other, no one agrees, so instead of freaking out and bashing each other into submission, you find a compromise. sometimes this happens so naturally you may not even notice you've had a disagreement, which is what I think might be happening to you. you're having normal disagreements you'd have in any relationship, but they're just being resolved so easily you're not counting them as such.
posted by euphoria066 at 4:27 PM on January 22, 2013 [3 favorites]

Well, I hate to say this, but my husband and I have been together for ten years. We fight anything from once a week to once a month. And we didn't fight AT ALL until 8 months into our relationship.

Your relationship is really, really young. It might be a relationship where fights never happen, or they might happen infrequently, or with regularity but it might be super healthy, productive fighting! There's really no way to tell. Sorry!

Seconding the Gottman book, though. That's made our fights way better.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 7:22 PM on January 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

I honestly don't know what a good, mature adult relationship looks like in conflict.

Good, mature adult relationships are what you get when good, mature adults fall in love.

Good, mature, adults do their best to argue in good faith, and extend to each other the courtesy of believing that their partners are doing likewise. Good, mature adults do not get into unproductive screaming matches.

A good, mature adult, having become too angry to discuss a contentious issue with courtesy and respect, will say so and then put the discussion on hold until both parties have calmed down sufficiently to continue it. A good, mature adult will recognize and acknowledge that such contentious issues need to be talked out and worked through and resolved, not avoided or sidelined or drowned in personal abuse.

It's really deeply ingrained in me that a non-tumultuous relationship is somehow shallow.

I recommend discarding that belief, on the grounds that it's a cheap line of drama-loving bullshit put about by people who can't be bothered doing the work required to become a good, mature adult.

Still waters run deep.
posted by flabdablet at 8:21 PM on January 22, 2013 [4 favorites]

There have been disagreements over 14 years but few real fights; usually if a misunderstanding or disagreement blossoms into someone getting hurt, we catch it at the signs of discomfort (raising voice or stressed feelings) and apologize, try to de-escalate to avoid hurt. Neither of us likes yelling to make a point. The occasional times things get tense enough that we need to step away from each other, we do so. Hopefully before saying something we regret.

Not sure what to call it or attribute it to, but when I hear about couples fighting or remember the way my parents got on, I shudder and thank my stars. I got married young, so this is the only long-term relationship I've known. Wouldn't settle for any less.
posted by ead at 9:30 PM on January 22, 2013

Every example I had of adult relationships when I was growing up made me want to not ever have a relationship. I thought I wouldn't know how to have one without it being a mess.

The mister and I have been married for 12 years and we dated for a year before that. Our relationship sounds a lot like yours. We don't fight. Any disagreement is discussed by talking - no yelling or harsh words or calling names or slamming doors. We've been through some pretty tough times and it continues to amaze me that I'm in a healthy, happy, stable relationship.

It seems to me that you and your boyfriend are doing pretty good. Keep it up!
posted by deborah at 9:42 PM on January 22, 2013

I think fighting can work well as a part of some relationships---one of Gottman's studies talks about how the important thing isn't how angry comments between couples can get, but rather the ratio of angry comments to supportive comments, and iirc his bright line was either 5:1 supportive to angry, or maybe 8:1.

So I wouldn't want to suggest that relationships with fighting in are necessarily bad. For some people, that can be a very direct way of getting their emotions out.

But I also don't think fighting is necessary to a good relationship.
posted by Sidhedevil at 11:25 PM on January 22, 2013 [2 favorites]

We've been together 6 years, married 5, and no real fights. Pretty much no fights by any definition of the word, really. There's bad moods, debates, hard times we face together... but yeah, no fights. This is great!!!

You're getting lots of good answers.

A good example? I looooove the relationship between Julia Child and her husband Paul in Julie & Julia. And that's based on a real relationship!

(Ironically, you can easily contrast this between the other character's relationship - she - Julia - is annoying and the relationship doesn't seem nearly as much fun. I think in real life she had an affair with her butcher during the project and they ended up separated/divorced.)
posted by jrobin276 at 11:30 PM on January 22, 2013 [2 favorites]

Been together 6 years, married a year and a half, and no real fights. In a past relationship, SO and I fought every week about something -- it didn't necessarily involve yelling, but it generally involved hurt feelings by someone and strained conversations at the very least, so "fights" to me (incidentally, one big one involved grocery bags, euphoria066). Against that background, I started to feel a little...odd...when I realized a few months into this relationship that we didn't really ever fight. At first I thought it may have been a symptom of a lack of passion, but now I'm convinced that isn't the case.

After reflecting on it for some time, I realized that it is probably just a product of the fact that we are adults who care about each other very much and who lack a flair for the dramatic. The last point is the easiest to expand on -- neither of us will make a scene for the purposes of making a scene. We don't fight for our egos.

I think we're also pretty mature in how we communicate with each other -- this goes hand in hand with the caring about each other. The few times when one of us has done something that hurts the others' feelings, the conversation has gone something like this:

1: Are you okay?
2: Not really. You did X, and I don't really like it when you do X, because it makes me feel like Y.
1: [Not wanting (2) to feel like (Y)] Oh, I didn't know that. Now that I do, I'm going to try and stop doing X. Because I don't want you to feel like Y.

Other times the grumpykins conversation has gone like this:

1: Are you okay?
2: Not really. I'm just tired / angry at my boss / feeling like a jerk today.
1: Okay. Let me know if there is anything I can do.

We have never had a conversation go like this:

1: Are you okay?
1: Because it seems like you might be mad at me....
1: [tries to guess at what is making 1 mad]

The last example isn't fair to 1, and it doesn't help 2 any. None of this magic-intuition, you-don't-love-me-unless-you-can-intuit-how-I-feel-and-why bullshit. A lack of that, in my experience, has lead to a lack of fighting. I'm partial to it, even though I can be argumentative by nature. I've started engaging in political debates with friends of ours, which has completely satisfied that desire. So, adding my voice to the chorus of "no, you're not a freak if you don't fight with your partner."
posted by craven_morhead at 2:24 PM on January 23, 2013 [3 favorites]

My husband and I had both been in bad relationships prior to our getting together and the main difference between how we "fight" and how fights in the other relationships went is that I don't threaten to kill myself if I don't get my way and he doesn't make me feel inadequate for having an opinion about something.

Instead, I tell him exactly what I'm feeling in words that don't accuse him of anything and while he may not have the same feelings about a situation, he tries to understand how it affects me.

Note: Getting to this point has taken a not small amount of therapy on my part, which had been ongoing before we met.
posted by TrishaLynn at 4:59 AM on January 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

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