Conflict in any relationship isn’t fun. But long distance relationship fights can feel especially scary, isolating, and depressing. They can even be harder to resolve.
When you’re apart it’s tough to “read” the situation. Especially with limited visual cues (body language) and easy miscommunication via text!
The distance also makes it easier not to bring up hard issues, and to avoid talking about issues when they do arise.
So, it’s vital you know how to “fight right”.
Here are some of our favorite strategies that address and resolve conflict more effectively.
Are Long Distance Fights Good For You?
It can be all too easy to feel that your relationship will end in a break up after a big argument.
But, if handled constructively, they can also deepen and strengthen your relationship in these four ways:
1. Build deep knowledge and intimacy
Disagreeing will teach both of you more about you what you like (and particularly what you don’t like).
It will tell you what is important to each person, how you raise or react to problems, how you approach compromise and negotiation, and what helps you feel better.
Arguing makes you grow. It forces you to understand yourself and your partner better.
2. Bring you together as a team through problem solving
If you can “argue constructively” and “fight well”, you will dig into the concerns underneath the argument. For example, one long distance couple I know kept fighting about how much time they were spending (or not spending) on the phone. One partner often wanted to talk for a lot longer than the other.
When they were able to talk about what was fueling the fights (what they were feeling scared or defensive about), they discovered that one partner felt well-connected and secure in the relationship with quick 10-20 minute chats every day. The other partner, however, didn’t. They felt that the shorter phone calls rarely got beyond the superficial, and that they were drifting apart in important ways.
This couple was then able to brainstorm solutions and problem solve together, and ended up setting aside time once a week for a 1-2 hour unhurried phone call or Skype date.
3. It strengthens your relationship by increasing trust
Constructive fighting that allows you both to express your thoughts, preferences, and negative emotions, can strengthen a relationship.
Coming out the other side of an argument—sailing through the storm into calmer waters—can build trust in the relationship. Knowing the relationship can survive fighting makes fighting less threatening. And finding fighting less threatening means we tend to raise concerns earlier rather than allowing tension to build up.
4. Fixing “small issues” will make it easier to fix “big issues”
That advice of “don’t sweat the small stuff” doesn’t really help if it just means that all the small stuff is piling up into one, big, festering volcano primed for explosion.
Addressing small issues that rub you both the wrong way can prevent a lot of resentment and hurt feelings down the track. If you don’t address small issues when they arise, they often evolve into bigger issues that are really hard to unpack.
How to Resolve Conflict & Fights in a Long Distance Relationship
1. Sweat The Small Stuff
If something has hurt your feelings or is bothering you (especially if a similar thing has happened more than once), be direct and bring it up.
It can be tempting to bite your tongue and brush things aside, but small hurts and irritations have an annoying habit of being big hurts and irritations over time if we ignore them.
I’m not saying that you should berate them for every unanswered text or careless comment. However, choosing to stay silent too often when something has hurt or bothered you will cause the emotional distance between you to grow. And when you’re already physically distant, that’s the last thing you need.
2. If Something Feels “Off” Ask Them About It
Similarly, if your partner seems flat or distant and you don’t know why, ask them what’s going on and whether there’s something they’d like to talk about.
Especially when you’re in a long distance relationship, it’s often easier in the moment to just ignore the situation and hope things get back to normal, but reaching out and being proactive can pay off big time. If there is a problem or something your partner is upset or frustrated about, you have a better chance of catching it early and and addressing it before it becomes a major problem.
However, I do have one caveat related to both of these last two points, and it’s this…
If it’s late at night or you know you’re especially tired or stressed, don’t start conversations about very serious or complicated issues with your partner. You can always come back to it later. Sometimes the “small stuff” just seems like “stuff” (or “big stuff”) because we’re tired or stressed. So don’t buy trouble by starting conversations like these when you’re already tired.
3. Get In Front Of The Camera
Whenever you can (and especially when you want to have a serious discussion or you’re having an argument), login to Skype or FaceTime and turn on that video!
There is a strong correlation between face to face contact and trust in a relationship, and it is a lot easier to “fight right” when you can read and respond to your partner’s facial expressions. You are much more likely to have a positive and productive outcome to a hard conversation if you connect by video.
And let me say it again before we leave this point, because it bears repeating: Do not argue via text!
4. Be Direct
It can feel hard and scary, especially for us conflict avoiders, but the direct approach really is the best and most healthy way to handle an argument in a relationship.
So do everything you can to cut down the chances for misunderstandings and miscommunication. Figure out what you’re upset about, and why, then get on video or pick up the phone and do this…
- Tell them where they went wrong (“When you…”)
- Tell them how it made you feel (“I feel…”
For example: “When you don’t pick up your phone or text me back when we’d agreed to talk, I feel hurt, and I start to wonder how important this relationship is to you.”
You can take this one step further by having an idea of what you’d like (them) to do differently in the future. That way, after you’ve told them how you’re feeling and why, you can take the discussion in a productive direction. But in general, leading with a direct “when you, I feel…” statement is a great place to start.
5. Figure Out What The REAL Problem Is
Often, an argument (particularly a petty argument you’ve had before, or times when you find yourselves arguing and you’re not even sure why, or how it started) is a symptom of a deeper, underlying issue.
And you really want to work hard to figure out what that main issue or underlying cause of the fight is, because that’s the real problem. Whatever triggered the argument is just a symptom of that problem.
So when you find yourself fighting, try to pause and ask yourself (and each other): “Wait, what are we actually fighting about here?”
For example, are you really mad that he took three hours to text you back, or are you generally feeling neglected, under appreciated, and need more communication? Whatever the real problem is, name it! That way you can tackle it together and focus more on problem solving than blaming and defending.
6. Own Your Own Stuff
We talked in point six about how, if you find yourself arguing or getting annoyed about the same sort of thing over and over again (e.g., how long it takes to text you back, or how they haven’t called in two days), then there is a deeper problem driving the fight.
Once you’ve named the deeper problem, you also need to figure out what deeper need, fear, or insecurity is linked to that problem. In other words, you need to know and own your own stuff. And you need to realize that it is often these deep core issues that we are most afraid to talk to our partner about.
As a result, we mask our fears and needs and insecurities by blaming our partner and complaining about their behavior.
What does this look like in action? Well, it might look something like this: You complain that they’re not calling you enough, instead of coming right out and saying, “I would really like to talk to you at least every second day. If we don’t talk at least that much, I start to feel very disconnected from you and unsure about our relationship.”
7. Stay On Topic
This point is simple, stay on topic! Resist the temptation to drag other unresolved issues into a fight. If you stay focused on one issue, you have a much better change of resolving that issue productively.
8. Ask questions To Clarify
So many fights are started by misunderstandings. So when in doubt, ask questions!!
If you’re confused about something your partner has said or done, ask questions to clarify what they meant.
Even if you think you know exactly what someone means, it never hurts to ask questions to make sure you understand them correctly. I guarantee that if you practice asking questions you will sometimes be surprised by just how badly you have misunderstood each other.
When you ask questions, your partner will generally also feel more respected, heard, and understood. Here are some phrases that might come in handy:
- When you said _____, what did you mean by that?
- Can you tell me more about what you meant when you said ______
- So what I hear you saying is _____. Is that about right?
- If I’m understanding you correctly, you want _____. Is that right? Can you explain more about why that’s important to you?
9. Ask “Why?” “What” and “How” Questions
When you’re trying to figure out the root cause of an argument, or what the “real problem” is, it can help to ask why questions.
So, after you ask, “what are we really fighting about here?” ask “why are we fighting about this issue?”
And if you keep asking “why?” and “what” and “how” questions and dig down a couple of levels, you may be surprised at what you learn.
Here’s a look at some questions that may come in handy:
- What are we really fighting about here?
- Why are we fighting about this issue?
- Why does that feel important to you?
- Why has this come up now?
- How do you feel when…?
- What sort of things run through your head when…?
10. Listen carefully
You may have noticed that all of the phrases I suggest above require you to first listen carefully to make sure you understand what the other person is trying to say, and then ask specific questions to clarify.
If you practice listening well and paraphrasing what people are saying back to them, you’ll be surprised at how far this skill gets you (in love and in life).
11. Remember That You’re On The Same Team
It’s so easy when we’re fighting to forget that we’re supposed to be on the same team, but it can really help if you can remember that deep down you both probably want the same thing–to make each other happy.
This can really help you attack the issue, not each other.
Here are some phrases that might help:
- I know we love each other and we both want to work this out.
- I’m glad we trust each other enough to talk about this.
- I love you, I’m glad we’re together, and I want to figure this out.
12. Take A Deep Breath
The phrase “take a deep breath” is so over-used it’s almost a cliché, isn’t it? However, I couldn’t leave it out because taking a deep breath is really important.
Why does taking a deep breath help?
Did you know that during an argument (or when we’re not outwardly arguing, but we’re upset with someone) our heart rate speeds up?
And once our heart rate exceeds a certain level (about 10% above our resting rate) we get “flooded.”
When this happens, the adrenaline and other stress chemicals that pour into our system make it difficult to think calmly, focus on what our partner is saying, or appreciate their point of view.
The higher our heart rate, the more stressed, angry, defensive, and anxious we will feel.
If our heart rate exceeds 100 beats per minute, psychologist and researcher John Gottman claims:
It is virtually impossible for us to absorb what our partner is saying, and therefore to have a productive discussion.
It’s during these times that we are most likely to engage in unproductive fighting or running away from conversations we need to have.
Taking a deep breath helps counteract this stress reaction. Breathing deeply and slowly sends a “calm down” message to our bodies and helps reverse the stress response.
13. Take a break
Remember how we talked about the importance of taking a deep breath, way back in point 1? Well, sometimes taking a couple of deep breaths won’t be enough to help us stay calm. Sometimes we’ll get into a fight and realize that our heart is beating wildly and we’re feeling furious, very scared, or completely overwhelmed.
That’s when it’s wise to take a break from the conversation. When we feel really upset or “flooded”, often the best thing we can do is take a break until we feel calmer. You are most likely to say and do things you will later regret when you’re very worked up.
So, how long should you take a break for?
Most people guess that it takes them about five minutes to calm down after they get flooded during an argument. However, research suggests that once you get very worked up it will probably take closer to twenty minutes for you to really calm down.
Twenty minutes is a long time. It’s often quite some time after we think we’ve fully calmed down. In fact, most people believe that they have calmed down completely when their hearts are still beating significantly faster than normal.
14. Explain why you’re taking a break
If you need to take a break in the middle of an argument, let your partner know what’s going on for you. Don’t just walk out (or disconnect) and leave them hanging.
Try to say something like, “I want to talk about this after we’ve both calmed down,” or, “I’m really overwhelmed right now. I do want to talk about this, but I need some time to think first. Perhaps we can talk in a couple of hours?”
This will help your partner understand what’s going on for you, instead of just leaving them feeling dismissed and ignored.
Assurances along the lines of “I’ll talk to you about this later, just not right now” are especially important in long distance relationships!
Fighting (or knowing your partner is upset or frustrated) is never fun, but it can be especially taxing and unsettling when it happens on the phone. While you’re far apart, make extra efforts to communicate what you’re thinking and feeling during these times. This will help your partner feel safer and make the issue easier to return to.
15. Reconnecting after a big fight
If you take a break, come back to it! Don’t just let it slide and hope things will go back to normal. Practice good communication, keeping your word, (and generally being a “grown up”) by coming back to the topic you were fighting about.
Stick at it until you’re fairly sure you’ve identified the real problem and the needs and fears driving the fight, and then ask, “what can we do about it?”
You may not be able to answer that question easily, but if you can’t come up with a solution that feels perfect, come up with one you’re willing to try and give it a go for a while. Trying out a temporary solution isn’t failing, it’s part of problem solving.
So try out that temporary solution for a couple of weeks, knowing you can always return to this topic. (In fact, it’s almost guaranteed you will because resolving one argument well doesn’t mean you will never fight about this or a similar topic again.)
16. Learn The Lesson(s)
Once the fight is over, stop and ask yourself (and each other) what you’ve learned.
You’ve done all the hard, painful, scary work of actually fighting with someone you love. Don’t let that painful experience go to waste. Ask “what can we learn from this fight?” Then brainstorm some things you’ve learned. You may be surprised at how the two of you have learned very different things, so sharing those different perspectives can be really valuable.
Now, Long Distance Fighting Will Be a Thing of the Past!
Well… not entirely.
Every long distance couple will fight throughout their relationship. Even will after they successfully close the distance!
What’s important is that you understand what strategies there are that can help you have healthy arguments. While practicing how to resolve them quickly so you can move forward, together!
So before we go, I’ve got two questions for you to answer.
- Which of these strategies are you good at?
- Which ones need work?
This will help you understand those strategies you should turn to when you need to resolve something quickly. But also paying attention to those that you need to work on because they could have an even better result on how you both work through arguments.