There’s nothing more frustrating than constantly finding yourself in an argument with your significant other (SO). Most of us avoid conflict and would never dream of getting into big fights with friends or coworkers. But somehow we’re willing to launch an attack over dirty dishes in the sink or socks on the floor. Constantly fighting with your SO is going to leave you depleted, and the effects go far beyond emotional.
“A severe argument causes elevated blood pressure, increased heart rate, increases the risk for closed angle glaucoma in those who are at risk, worsens acne and eczema, causes diarrhea and irritable bowel syndrome, predisposes to stress ulcer, and increases risk for diabetes and stroke,” holistic physician and author of Diet Slave No More! Dr. Svetlana Kogan told me. Being mad at your SO causes stress in your body, and that stress affects just about every system.
“During an argument there are a number of physical effects that impact how well, at any given moment, a person is able to manage an argument,” licensed clinical professional counselor Julienne Derichs told me. “Your heart beats faster and blood pressure increases, breathing quickens and your chest can become tight. Stress during an argument activates the part of the brain that releases higher levels, of a hormone called cortisol which induces more stress.”
Here are just a few of the ways that fighting over holidays and family is affecting your body.
Your body goes into fight or flight
Any time you’re starting to feel defensive during an argument, your body will start to tense up. If your SO questions the amount on your credit card bill, you may start to feel as though you’re not trusted or respected as a partner. This feeling of having to protect yourself will then set off a whole cascade of emotions.
“Arguing with a significant other can cause activation of our fight or flight system,” sex and relationship therapist Jeanette Tolson, LCSW, CASAC told me. “This system gets our body prepared to react to something in our environment that we need to get away from. When this system turns on, our blood pressure, heart rate, and breathing frequency increase.”
So while your argument escalates, your body’s response also gets bigger. This is not the ideal scenario for being an empathetic partner and listener.
“When this system is active, we psychologically feel like we are under attack. We might get defensive and more argumentative,” explained Tolson. “We also have a hard time hearing what our significant other is trying to say, and it is almost impossible to problem solve in the moment.”
You won’t be able to think straight
It probably comes as no surprise to you that feeling upset and angry leaves you feeling a bit irrational. You know you’re not seeing the situation clearly, but you don’t care in the moment.
“Arguments help to engage the danger signals in your brain, which then turns off the brain’s ability to take in new information,” explained Derichs. “Your brain is only interested in whether or not you need to ‘take flight, stand and fight, or freeze’ to manage the dangerous situation.”
Because your brain is shutting down new information, you’re not hearing what your SO is trying to tell you. If you start to notice that you’re not listening during an argument, take a few deep breaths or ask for a timeout to cool down.
You may get sick
If you’re constantly finding something to argue about, that chronic stress is going to take a serious toll on your body. “Chronic stress weakens the immune system’s ability to fight off disease effectively, which impacts your body’s overall ability to be healthy,” said Derichs. And if you’re already feeling irritable from the frequent fights, imagine how you’ll feel when you add a sinus infection on top of that.
You’ll feel exhausted
Any disagreement, big or small, can start to weigh on you. We hold that stress in our bodies, so it’s no wonder arguing wears us out.
“The process of arguing is stressful. And like other stressful situations, it is very physiological,” Joshua Klapow, Ph.D., clinical psychologist, and host of The Web radio show told me. “Increases in muscle tension, the release of stress hormones, [and] increased autonomic nervous system arousal all are in play. It can make you physically tired, cause headaches, gastrointestinal problems, muscle aches, and more.”
Maybe you won’t have all of these symptoms after just one disagreement about whose turn it is to unload the dishwasher, but if you’re constantly putting your body under the stress of fighting, these effects will add up.
“This is why very often people are tired, feel ‘spent,’ and frankly don’t feel well after multiple arguments,” explained Dr. Klapow. “That being said, like any stressful situation it is important after an argument to recover emotionally and physically. Expect to feel tired, rest if needed. Don’t engage in work that is demanding of you physically or intellectually.”
You won’t feel like yourself
When you’re fighting with anyone, especially the most important person in the world to you, you are not acting like your best self. You’re not being the person you want to be, and you just plain don’t feel like yourself. Just about every body system is affected by the stress of arguing with your partner, so it’s no wonder that fighting makes you feel “off.”
“The psychological effects [of fighting] are many,” explained Dr. Kogan. “Insomnia (inability to fall asleep), anxiety, restlessness, hypervigilance, depression, worsening of tics, [and] worsening of eating disorders like bulimia or obesity due to increased cravings.”
You’ll get a rush of stress hormones
When you find yourself in the middle of an argument, you can thank your stress hormones for causing your racing heart and sweaty palms. As soon as your brain feels you are under attack, it lets out a flood of cortisol to help you protect yourself.
“The stress hormone cortisol is released from the pituitary gland (a small, pea-sized gland in the center of the brain), which flows throughout the brain and body creating lasting changes until the threat is gone,” Támara Hill, MS, NCC, LPC told me. “When cortisol is released through the body we may feel physiological changes such as tension headaches, tensed muscles, dizziness, heart palpitations, sweating, nervousness, agitation, anxiety, racing thoughts, and other physiological symptoms of stress.”
Your self-esteem could take a hit
If you and your SO are constantly fighting about your relationship, it would be natural to start doubting the relationship, or even worse, doubting yourself. Maybe it’s your fault that you’re always fighting. Maybe it’s because you’re not a good enough partner. These toxic thoughts can affect the way we feel about ourselves.
“Psychological effects may include decreased self-esteem, self-efficacy (the perception of one’s competence), feelings of loss or abandonment, grief and loss, and even suicidal thoughts,” explained Hill. “Depression and anxiety are also likely, including PTSD, if the relationship entails domestic violence or severe intimidation and threats of harm.”
You could end up feeling closer
We are all going to disagree with our significant others from time to time. However, if you come to a deeper understanding of one another from that argument, it could be helpful for the relationship and leave you feeling closer than ever.
“The psychological effects depend entirely on the outcome. Fighting can be traumatic when it creates isolation and soul murder,” psychoanalyst Dr. Claudia Luiz told me. “When it ultimately results in deeper understanding and an ability to traverse your own consciousness to greater compassion and understanding of someone else’s, it’s fantastic.”
Take a timeout
When you’re in the middle of a particularly heated fight, sometimes the best thing you can do is walk away. Don’t storm off in a tantrum, though. Instead, agree to revisit this topic once you’ve both had a chance to process it.
“Many fights would be helped by revisiting the argument when calmer heads prevail,” said Derichs. “Couples can talk about: 1. What can we do differently to prevent the argument from happening in the first place? 2. What can we do during the fight so it doesn’t get out of control (using humor, taking a time out, deep breathing)? and 3. Can we do an ‘after the fight’ autopsy to sort through what went so wrong?”
Jeanette Tolson agreed. Even just walking away for a few minutes could make a big difference. “When either partner notices their heart beating fast or the feeling of being ‘really worked up,’ they can call a timeout,” recommended Tolson. “Both partners can walk away for a brief five-minute timeout and do some self-soothing. These activities include deep breathing, relaxation, listening to calming music, etc.” Once you feel your heart rate coming down and your breathing coming back to normal, come back together to try again.
How to fight fair
Disagreeing with your SO is natural and even healthy. It’s the unhealthy ways we fight that start to affect our bodies and our health. The best way to protect yourself and your relationship is to learn how to fight the right way.
“Healthy arguing is about sticking to the facts,” creator of the From the Inside Out Project Laura MacLeod, LMSW shared with me. “Start with the specifics of what the problem is. Be sure you and your partner are on the same page.” Then start talking about your feelings, and be sure to give your partner plenty of time to speak as well.
If you’re still feeling too heated, just take a break.
“After the argument, check in to see if your partner is okay,” recommended MacLeod. “Most important, be honest throughout and trust that working through the issue will strengthen things going forward.”
Don’t hit below the belt
In any argument you have, always remember how much your SO means to you. It doesn’t make it okay or excuse the behavior, but arguing with a mutual respect will keep your relationship healthy.
“There are always areas of a relationship that will be considered, ‘red zones.’ Red zones are topics or subjects you don’t discuss or lines you do not cross for the sake of your partner’s well-being,” celebrity matchmaker and relationship expert Jasmine Diaz told me. “For example, you wouldn’t dare bring up your partner’s abandonment issues as a means for winning an argument, nor would you throw a past assault in their face to prove a point.”
You know what the low blows could be, but no matter how angry you become, treat your SO with respect. This will help you bounce back after the fight.
“Most minor arguments are repairable, but when a red zone has been breached, this can lead to loss of trust, intimacy, and an overall breakdown in communication,” said Diaz. “You are less likely to confide in your partner if history suggests that they will use your words to hurt you. For some, the only way to recover from an argument is therapy.”
Take care of yourself
After an argument, you may be feeling pretty fragile or upset. Make sure you’re taking good care of yourself. Once you’re feeling better, your relationship will feel better too.
“Exercise is a great release, or simply moving,” suggested Dr. Klapow. “Take a walk, be alone. Don’t drive as you are likely not in a great frame of mind. Be willing to have an agreement as a couple that when you argue there is a designated cooling off time at which you are alone, you regroup individually, and you come back together.” Give yourself the gift of space.
Támara Hill agreed with the need for taking time for yourself. “Recovering from an argument, especially if the argument was intense, will include engaging in self-care,” said Hill. “Self-care often includes the incorporation of coping skills such as meditation or relaxation techniques, walk away and take a time out, talk to someone or consider pursuing therapy, weigh the pros and cons of the relationship by writing them down in a journal, get some fresh air and take a walk, go to the gym, listen to music, read your bible or journal your thoughts and feelings, etc.”
You also may just need some alone time. Depending on how much you’re fighting, Hill recommended taking some time apart to determine why the fighting started and what you can do about it.
Are you having the same fights?
If you’ve been finding yourself in daily fights with your SO over chores or nitpicking, take a step back and ask yourself what this is really about. Is there a bigger issue at play here? If you’re always fighting about the same things, it’s safe to say you never manage to resolve the conflict.
“If a couple never circles back around to the issue that caused conflict to begin with, the same issue will only come up again in their next fight,” explained Derichs. “Now you are fighting about the unresolved issue and the one that’s happening right now… it goes on and on until someone gets overwhelmed and walks away.”
If you and your SO just can’t seem to get it together when it comes to common arguments, start thinking outside the box. Maybe seeing a professional could be helpful.
“The best way to recover [is] to see a specialist like myself for a hypnosis session, in which I also teach the patient coping techniques, like breathing sequences, anchoring, progressive muscle relaxation, and lifestyle modifications,” recommended Dr. Kogan. “Medical hypnosis is like a deeply meditative state in which we focus the client on the positive things in life.” Couldn’t hurt, right?
How to move forward
After a tough argument with your SO, take some time to process it on your own. Think about what you could learn about yourself and your relationship from that fight.
“You recover by making use of the information that the fight gives you,” said Dr. Luiz. “If soul murder happened, then you analyze that. If there were some thoughts that could be heard, but not others, you analyze that.”
When it’s time to seek help
If you and your SO can’t seem to get through a full day without biting each other’s heads off for something, it may be time to talk with someone. A therapist or counselor can act as an unbiased witness to help you move past the littleness you’re currently trapped in.
“You go visit a professional who can either help you decode each other’s consciousness according to what you’re fighting about, or help you use deeper understanding so you don’t have to personalize the attacks,” recommended Dr. Luiz. “Fighting is basically two people, each orbiting in their own consciousness and unable to cross the divide. Working with couples, they recover from fighting when they begin to understand the other’s consciousness without feeling blamed or unloved.”
Let it go
Arguments and disagreements are a natural part of any relationship, so it’s best to make a plan for addressing them now. “Arguing is a normal part of a relationship, but it is a stressful, physiologically arousing experience that needs to be handled properly,” advised Dr. Klapow. “If not, the physical and emotional tolls on you and your significant other will accumulate, and the relationship and your health will be damaged.”
At the end of the day, your SO is the most important person in your life, so it may be time to just let it go in order to move on and be happy.
“Choose between being right and being happy. When one or both of you are committed to being right, there’s no middle ground,” relationship expert April Masini told me. “Decide to let the other person be right for the sake of peace and happiness. ‘You’re right’ is a big relief for the other person to hear. In fact, they may start telling you that, actually, you’re right — because they’re so happy to hear you let them win.”
Take a deep breath and move on. And get back to the fun parts of being in a relationship!