A relationship therapist explains the difference between bickering and fighting


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My boyfriend and I invented a mocking noise we invoke when one of us realizes our bickering has gotten out of control. It sounds like if a cat mated with a saw, and the cat-saw spawn made weird, grumbly meow noises as it cut through wood. Before a petty argument gets legitimately cruel, one of us defuses tension with the “MEH MEH MEH MEH MEH” noise, and we generally end up laughing hysterically. So once the honeymoon phase was over and the cat-sawing became increasingly more common, I asked him if he thought that we were fighting too much.

His response eased my worries that our partnership was beelining toward Toxic City, population: 2. “Well, we bicker a lot, but we don’t really fight,” he said. And that is very comforting to hear, except, um, what’s the difference between bickering and fighting? I mean, I know there is a difference, but… Bueller?

According to sex and relationship therapist Tammy Nelson, PhD, the clear line between bickering and fighting when it comes to style of arguing in a relationship is about whether you play dirty. “Fighting means you intentionally try to hurt your partner,” she says. “You call them names, you pull out the big criticisms, you don’t fight fair. Keeping the struggles in a relationship clean means you understand that conflict happens, and you own your part. Say you’re sorry when you need to, and be patient with each other’s bickering. ”

“Fighting means you intentionally try to hurt your partner: You call them names, you pull out the big criticisms, you don’t fight fair.” —Tammy Nelson, PhD, sex and relationship therapist

So, it’s one thing to not agree over what to order for dinner or to play backseat driver during a six-hour ride to the Catskills (IT WOULD’VE BEEN TWO IF WE JUST LEFT EARLIER TO BEAT TRAFFIC, MEH MEH MEH MEH MEH). It’s another thing to, well, essentially be really effing mean.

“The problem is not that you argue; the problem is whether or not you resolve your arguments,” she says. “Conflict is inevitable. Power struggles, bickering, driving each other crazy with the way we do things differently, these are all meant to create growth in ourselves and in each other.” So, in essence, a little bickering can even be a good thing—or at least something that’s well-intentioned. Look to how you’re communicating, and whether your verbal conflicts are barbed with insults and left perpetually unresolved. If that’s the case, it might be time to raise the red flag, but it doesn’t mean your relationship is necessarily dead in the water.

“If you find you escalate to more damaging arguments, get to therapy now,” Dr. Nelson advises. “Don’t let things go too far, and try to remember what you liked about each other in the first place.” Otherwise, you’re good to keep cat-sawing here and there. It just means you love each other.

Helpful hint: This is a good, nontoxic way to end an argument. And if your fights are snowballing out of control, you may want to evaluate whether you’re in a karmic relationship.

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