Fighting Dirty: A Bad Idea for a Good Marriage

Fighting with your spouse can be harmful to your marriage. Especially if you fight dirty. A friend’s fiancé told her that he didn’t think they should ever fight. Ever. That they could spend their whole life together without fighting. At first she thought this was ridiculous until he explained that he fully expected they would disagree, but they didn’t have to do it by fighting. And dirty fighting is especially toxic.

What is dirty fighting? It’s a need to win at all costs. To establish your position over your partner at your partner’s expense. It’s high combat using every weapon in the book, no matter how it hurts your partner. Here are some examples:

Fighting Dirty: A Bad Idea For A Good Marriage Nancy'S Counseling Corner

Betraying Trust. You and your partner know things about each other that you’ve confessed in moments of intimacy. This knowledge is off limits. It’s sacred information that you cannot use under any circumstances. You have trusted each other with special insight and to exploit that deep vulnerability is a betrayal of the worst kind. When you use it against your partner to win an argument it can seem unforgiveable.

Exploiting Flaws. You feel backed in a corner and you search your brain for any ammunition that will help you win. You know how your partner feels insecure intellectually because she suffers from dyslexia. And even though it has nothing to do with the issue at hand, you choose this time to accuse her of not being very bright. If she were smarter, she’d see your point of view. You exploit defects that make her impotent to argue her side. And you’ve won, but at a terrible cost.

Picking Old Scabs. You’re mad, and it makes you feel like you did that time when he didn’t support you in front of friends. Or that time when he worried you sick by staying out all hours without calling. Or so many times in the past. You bring these up again as if they were fresh hurts, piling them on top of the current problem. By rehashing the past you can confuse the issue, overload the situation and totally get off the subject. But by harping on past conflicts you make your point—no matter what the issue is, your partner’s to blame.

Using Threats. Things have escalated and you are on the wrong end of this fight. You don’t know where your next argument is coming from but you do know you can’t stand to have him steam roll you. Backed into a corner, you need to make him feel a little insecure to weaken his position. You resort to threats. You’ll leave him if he keeps this up. You may even suggest a divorce. And once you use that word, the genie is out of the bottle. Unless you really are prepared to divorce, don’t threaten it.

Giving the Silent Treatment. The silent treatment is another way to fight unfairly. If you’re losing an argument you can just refuse to speak. This disconnects your partner in the most frustrating way, to the point where she may even beg you to talk. She’ll plead her case to you. The more thoughts she exposes, the stronger you become. As her distress builds you get more and more of the upper hand. You may win, but it’s damaging to your relationship.

Playing the Martyr. You are feeling put upon. Your partner makes a complaint and you blame him for always finding fault. You put up with so much! It’s a crime how much you have to take. You keep up this “poor me” act so much that you succeed in making your partner feel guilty. He then has to back down and you win the argument handily. The only trouble is the problem hasn’t been addressed and your partner can’t have his say in the toxic atmosphere you create through martyrdom.


Nancy Travers is an Orange County Counseling professional. If you need safe, effective counseling services, please get in touch. You can reach her here: