Surviving Your First Big Fight

Had a big blowout? Here are 7 tips you need to know before your budding relationship bites the dust.

By Kimberly Dawn Neumann

ho doesn’t love those first idyllic months of a new relationship? You’re enamored, giddy and can do no wrong in one another’s eyes. But then whammo! One not-so-fine day the bubble bursts. He forgets a major commitment or she shows up an hour late for the third time and suddenly, instead of kissing, you’re sparring. Hello, reality.

“I tell couples that their first big fight is actually the real beginning of an intimate love affair,” says Dan
Recognize that this is a learning opportunity.
Neuharth, Ph.D., a licensed marriage and family therapist and author of Secrets You Keep From Yourself: How to Stop Sabotaging Your Happiness. “Until you face — and resolve — your first major feelings of disappointment, you have an untested relationship that hasn’t yet had to develop real depth.” In other words, a little disagreeing might actually bring you closer. But that’s predicated on handling it like two mature adults.

“Given enough time, every partner will do things to disappoint or hurt you… none of us is perfect,” says Dr. Neuharth. “What matters is not that fights happen… it’s how you negotiate and repair them that’s the secret to a long, healthy, passionate relationship.”

With that in mind, check out these hints for surmounting your first squabble (so you can get to your first make-up session faster).

1. Don’t name-call or finger-point
Think twice before blurting out “You’re being a complete idiot” or “This is all your fault” the minute things get heated. Why? Because even if it’s true, placing the blame squarely on your partner’s shoulders won’t resolve the fight. Instead, your sweetie’s defenses will be triggered and communication will likely be cut off. “Nothing escalates a fight faster than responding at a purely emotional level. It leads to a test of wills and boils down to who’s right, not what’s really wrong,” says Jennifer Komitee, 34, New York, NY.

And if this is how you two start your fighting dynamic, it doesn’t bode well for arguments down the road. “The more your fight contains things like name-calling, getting personal and blaming — instead of listening — the more challenges you will have facing the inevitable disagreements that arise naturally when you’re part of a couple,” says Dr. Neuharth.

2. Keep absolutes out of the conversation
Words like “always” and “never” don’t belong in a first fight, and the minute you introduce them into the conversation you risk polarizing yourselves. “You never listen to me” or “You always put me last” may be what you’re thinking, but chances are, it’s not “always” the case. In fact, there were likely more than a few times in those first glorious months when your honey was hanging on your every word and skipping important work or family events to be with you. So give the absolutes a rest. You haven’t been together long enough to pass universal judgments.

3. Use “I” messages
“If you find yourself starting many of your sentences with ‘you,’ your partner will probably get defensive or attack back,” says Dr. Neuharth. “Instead focus on your own feelings, needs and desires.” Try saying, “It would really
Try taking a brief time-out—just a few minutes will do.
mean a lot to me if you got to know my friends,” or “I feel hurt when you cancelled our plans at the last minute.” This kind of phrasing is especially important in a first fight because you’re still learning about each other and you need to let your partner know what you hope to get from the relationship.

4. Take a brief time-out
Sometimes the best thing you can do in a first fight is to take a moment (or longer) to cool off and collect your thoughts. “I know I have the tendency to get a little out of control when pushed too far, so in my first fight with my now-fiancé, I removed myself from the situation by taking a 45-minute shower,” says Diane Cornell, 27, New York, NY. “I not only came out really clean, but also in a much better place to discuss the issue like a mature, aware woman rather than an emotionally reactive girl.”

A good separation tactic, advises Dr. Neuharth, is to say, “I see we both feel strongly about this and I value your opinion, but I think I need a little break. How about we stop talking for 10 minutes (or 30 minutes, an hour) and then reconvene?” One caveat: If you agree to a fight hiatus, you must come back and talk about it again after the time-out is up! “Don’t just sweep it under the rug,” warns Dr. Neuharth or the issue will be 10 times worse when it resurfaces… and it will resurface.

5. Fight together, not against each other
Arguments are adversarial by nature, but the more you can work towards a solution together, the better the survival chances of your budding relationship. One helpful technique in a first fight can be to actually call out what’s happening. “As soon as one of you realizes you’re in a fight, say something like ‘Hey, I think we’re having our first fight,’” says Sam Hamburg, Ph.D., author of Will Our Love Last? “Then go somewhere, sit down across from one another and take turns talking… you can even time it so you alternate back and forth, each getting one uninterrupted minute at a time.”

Dr. Neuharth also suggests offering comments like, “What are your thoughts about this problem?” or “How do you think we can work together to fix this?” Inviting discussion and joint problem-solving can help you stop fighting and start solving.

6. Focus specifically on the issue at hand
When you’re first learning how to fight as a couple, it’s important to try and resolve one issue at a time, not turn this single incident into a what’s-wrong-with-our-relationship free-for-all. “Describe what your partner did as specifically as possible rather than painting it as a character issue,” says Dr. Neuharth. In other words, “You took away the remote without asking me and changed the channel” is much different than “You are so self-centered and selfish.” And don’t drag in other grievances that have nothing to do with this fight (i.e., shifting from the remote control to how your honey is almost always a little late for dates). You don’t want this one issue escalating into an all-out war.

7. Don’t take this as a sign to end the relationship
You may suddenly find yourself thinking mid-fight, This isn’t worth it… it’s over, but making a decision about your budding relationship at this volatile moment is a bad idea. “When a couple has its first fight, partners may feel dismayed, shocked, betrayed, afraid, sad, angry—or even that all bets are off in the relationship,” says Dr. Neuharth. Why such a strong reaction? Because the fight has shattered the illusion of perfect harmony you had up until now. Rather than throw in the towel, recognize that this is a learning opportunity, not a matter of win-lose survival, says Dr. Neuharth. Chances are you’ll get through this… and many more fights down the road.

So follow these tips, and move onto the making-up process.

Kimberly Dawn Neumann is a New York City-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in Cosmopolitan, Maxim, Marie Claire and frequently for
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