At the end of September, Kristen Bell appeared on Harry Connick Jr.’s show Harry and told a story that rang true for many viewers. The actor spoke candidly about her marriage to Dax Shephard, revealing that she had to learn how to fight in order to make their relationship a success.
“When we first met, we fell madly in love, and I love the dramatic exit. There is nothing I crave more. The first year you are working out your kinks,” said Bell. “I loved it. We’d get in a fight, because we would fight a lot, and I’d like yell something then slam the bedroom door, then I’d slam the front door, then I’d get in my car and then I’d skid out the driveway and I would sit around the corner in my car and it felt so good and I realized how incredibly toxic it was only after he pointed it out.”
Shephard eventually told Bell that he wouldn’t stick around if she continued to leave during fights. “He said, ‘Let’s just help you. You are not a good fighter.’ And I always thought I was because I won,” said Bell. “He’s like, ‘No, people can’t do that. Our marriage won’t survive.’ And everything he was saying was making so much sense and I was like damn this guy.”
Damn. I am a terrible fighter.
For the first few years of our relationship, my husband and I were long distance. The distance made us great communicators and made us good at fighting. Disagreements and hurt feelings were rectified and apologized for quickly, with both of us promising to never get off the phone until we both felt okay. So, when the time came for us to finally live together, we assumed we had the communication part of our relationship down pat. But unfortunately, not having the distance made us, especially me, lazy when it came to arguments.
No longer did we have to find a resolution quickly. Instead, we could silently lay in bed next to one another after an argument over the laundry (didn’t it occur to him to help me when he saw I was folding his shirts?) blew up (no, it did not, why wouldn’t I just ask for help?) into an all-out battle. Living together meant we had to learn how to cohabitate, something that for most couples includes a rough patch of figuring out household chores. It was our hot button topic, and when it came to arguments, I played dirty.
A sock on the floor wasn’t my husband being forgetful, but to me it was sign that he thought I was his maid, which then grew into him taking me for granted, which grew into bigger and bigger arguments until I would end up in tears and finally wear him down until he was apologizing for everything that had ever gone wrong in my life. In addition to being a dirty fighter, I’m also moody, which means that I would start fights over insignificant moments and turn molehills into mountains until I had justified my actions. Name any small issue. Go ahead! I’ll turn it into World War III in under two minutes. It sucked. I sucked.
If we couldn’t have arguments about little things without them exploding into three days of not speaking, what was going to happen when we disagreed about important topics? How would we ever compromise if I was more fixated on ‘winning’ than finding a solution we could both live with?
One day, my husband said that if we couldn’t figure out how to share chores and not fight every time the dishwasher needed to be emptied, then we should try counselling. I called his $150 bluff and booked us an appointment.
We ended up only attending one session, but what we learned there drastically changed our marriage for the better. Specifically, it made me learn how to fight fair. After admitting to the therapist that I would often pick fights and make them bigger and bigger until I ‘won,’ she asked what would happen if I picked a fight and then apologized. I told her that my husband would be upset with me. “So, let him be upset. He has the right to be.”
Most people can count the number of lightning bolt moments in their lives and this was one for me. The consequences were simple and when I thought about it, the dirty fighting already ended in my husband being upset, but this time around I could stop the hurt before it affected our relationship. I knew what I was doing as it was happening and that meant I could stop, apologize, and give him time.
It worked. The next time I was in a bad mood and set my husband as my target, I would apologize for snapping at him and then give him time to be upset with me (rightly so), bringing the one-sided argument to a speedy end (he’s very forgiving).
I’m still not a perfect fighter and sometimes I catch myself sliding back to my tendencies to take small issues and bad moods and morph them into full on soap opera theatrics, but I’m getting better.
Knowing how to fight in a healthy way is important for romantic relationships, family relationships, and friendships, and often that means taking accountability for your own shortcomings, whether it’s the dramatic exit, the ballooning argument, or going into silent mode.
Plus, ‘winning’ is better when it’s shared.