The Good Fight

How Conflict Can Bring You Closer


By Dr. Leslie Parrott

By Dr. Les Parrott

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NYT best-selling authors Drs. Les & Leslie Parrott reveal new techniques based on extensive research that help couples manage conflict constructively – that’s the “good fight.”



Worthy publishing lives up to its name. Byron Williamson, president and publisher, caught the vision for this book from the moment we first mentioned it. So did Jeana Ledbetter, our editorial expert. Jennifer Day and Tom Williams polished every sentence. And the sales, marketing, and publicity team are some of the best in the business: Dennis Disney, Morgan Canclini, Alyson White, Betty Woodmancy, and Sherrie Slopianka. We could not be more grateful to the entire Worthy family for allowing us to publish with them.

We owe a special debt to a handful of couples who literally read aloud an early draft of this book in a single sitting together. They traveled from around the country to do this for us, and each of them added immeasurable value to the project. Ranjy and Shine Thomas are two of the most creative, talented, and giving people we know (and we have the late night phone records to prove it). Brandon and Kristin Hill have endured Sunday brunches after church to help us unpack our thinking on this book. And it’s also Brandon who talked us into an arm-wrestling match—which he photographed for the book’s cover. Rich and Linda Simmons offered sage advice and wisdom at multiple turns. And Tim and Beth Popadic, flying to Seattle from Palm Beach, Florida, have gone way beyond the extra mile to invest in the message of this book with us. In fact, it was Tim, with his trademark mojo, who fanned a flame for live Fight Night events with us in cities across the country.

A band of people in Boulder, Colorado, have also invested themselves in this project. We’re deeply grateful to our Rocky Mountain friends: Ryan Holdeman, Sara Meyer, Jeff Fray, Bob Brown, Brian McKinney, Caleb Hanson, Leora Weiner, Tory Leggat, Mark Ferguson, Brian Ledbetter, Ryan DeCook, Justin VanEaton, Liz Swanson, and Eric Swanson.

Dr. John Gottman has done more yeoman’s work on the empirical side of understanding couples conflicts than anyone we know. And in a sense, the seeds of this book were first planted many years ago over a delightful lunch we had with John overlooking Lake Washington. Throughout the writing of this book we’ve stood on his shoulders.

Finally, we want to thank five very important people in our lives. Sealy Yates is not only a great comrade in publishing but a great friend. Mandi Moragne, our director of Amazing Customer Experiences, cares about the people we serve every bit as much as we do. Janice Lundquist has managed our life on the road (and more) in a way that two travelers have no right to expect or ask. Kevin Small, the chair of our nonprofit, is incredibly helpful at every turn. And Ryan Farmer, along with his wife, Kendra, are unimaginable gifts to our efforts. Ryan adds value to everything he touches, and we could not be more grateful to him and our entire team who have worked so hard on our behalf. We can’t say thanks enough.



Get the good fight for iPhone or Android for free (valued at $12). In it you’ll find videos, assessments, games, and more that will help you personalize the content of this book.

It contains more than two dozen applets that relate specifically to what you will read in this book, and it will help you to put it into practice.

As you’re reading along, you will occasionally encounter a box that looks like this:


This app is like nothing you’ve seen before. It’s designed exclusively with the two of you in mind. And it’s chock-full of helpful tools geared to bring the two of you closer. It contains several short videos from us as well as self-tests, exercises, games, and more.

This app creates the world’s smallest social network—the two of you. And it’s private. And if you purchased this book, it’s free.

As far as we know, this is the first book to provide such a powerful and useful tool. We think you’re going to love it. As you’ll soon see, you can communicate with us along the way, if you choose, right from the app. We’ll reply promptly. We hope to hear from you soon!

To get The Good Fight on your smartphone, visit and use the code below:




Marriage is one long conversation,
checkered with disputes.


“How many of you have ever struggled with conflict in your relationship?” It’s a question Leslie and I often ask couples during our marriage seminars.

The majority of hands shoot up without hesitation.

“Keep your hands up,” I tell them. “Look around. Do you see the people who aren’t holding up their hands? What do we call them?”

The audience replies in unison: “Liars!”

It’s true. No couple, no matter how loving, is immune to conflict. It’s inevitable. Recent research reveals that the average married couple argues about small, nagging things as much as 312 times per year.1 That means most couples experience a tug-of-war of some kind on a near-daily basis. It doesn’t mean they don proverbial boxing gloves and step into the ring for a major bout. It just means that conflicts in marriage—the little scrapes, spats, and squabbles—are endemic.

Even as married professionals—a psychologist (Les) and a marriage and family therapist (Leslie)—we have our fair share of tussles. We’re the first to admit it. In fact, we had one of our worst fights just before we were about to speak on the art of love to an auditorium of eager couples (more on that later). The point is, if you’re in a relationship, you’ve got to learn to fight it out fairly.


A few years ago, while traveling in China, we were invited into the humble home of an elderly couple outside of Beijing. Through an interpreter, Les commented on the bright red paper decorations around the small doorframe of the otherwise drab two-room home. This delighted the eighty-something husband and wife who lived there.

As they invited us in, our hosts bowed repeatedly and directed us to a wooden table that looked about as old as they were. The home was dimly lit by a single exposed lightbulb. It was hot and humid. The air was stagnant and stale. They offered us handheld fans, which we gladly accepted. Speaking only a few words of English, they demonstrated the ancient art of jianzhi, Chinese paper cutting. Soon they gave each of us a pair of surprisingly modern scissors and a sheet of bright red paper, asking us to follow their directions. We carefully folded and cut the red paper as our hosts directed us. After dozens and dozens of intricate, precise cuts, we unfolded our work.

Conflict is inevitable, but combat is optional.


“What is it?” Les asked.

“It is a special symbol,” our hosts replied through the interpreter. “It is used only at weddings. It symbolizes ‘double happiness.’”

As we examined our work, we engaged in some lighthearted teasing between us about which of us had done a better job of creasing and cutting the paper. Our hosts, knowing little English, thought we were having a tiff until our interpreter explained our playful banter, letting them know we were just having fun.

“Your hosts want you to know,” said the interpreter, “that we have a saying in China: ‘Even the teeth sometimes bite the tongue.’”

Before we could ask for an explanation, the couple giggled in delight. This wise husband then said, “Even loving couple have war.”

We all laughed. The spirit of his message was clear. He was stating a marriage truth that transcends oceans and national boundaries: even in the closest and most loving of relationships, we sometimes have painful moments when “the teeth bite the tongue.”

Conflict. It’s pervasive, recurring, and universal.


Just because two people argue doesn’t mean they don’t love each other. Just because they don’t argue doesn’t mean they do. In fact, generally speaking, couples who supposedly never fight are either redefining fighting to make them immune or are walking on eggshells to avoid telling each other the truth. We’ll say it again: all couples fight. Fighting is as intrinsic to marriage as sex. And the goal for both activities is to do them well.

As you are about to see in this first chapter, what matters is how we fight, not whether we fight. It’s how we fight—the quality of our quarreling—that determines the closeness of our relationship. Multiple studies have identified what separates happy from not-so-happy couples. One answer surfaces every time. Happy couples have a lock on healthy conflict resolution. They know how to fight well. Couples who stay happily married disagree just as much as couples who get divorced, but they have learned how to use those disagreements to deepen their connection. They’ve built a bridge over issues that would otherwise divide them. Above all, happily married couples see each other as allies, not adversaries.


We hope you’ve downloaded the app. If not, you’ll want to do so now by going to The Ready to Rumble applet will give you a fun overview of The Good Fight and show you how to take full advantage of what you are about to experience in this book.


In a New York Times interview focusing on her thirty-plus-year marriage, Anne Meara of the comedy team Stiller and Meara was asked, “Was it love at first sight?” “It wasn’t then,” she replied, “but it sure is now.”2

That sentiment gets at our intentions for writing this book. We’re a living example of how learning to fight a good fight can bring a husband and wife closer together. Over the years, we’ve written books for couples about communication, sex, empathy, parenting, spirituality, time management, and personality, but never a book about conflict. We wanted to get it right first. So with over twenty-five years to practice what we preach in this book, we’re ready and eager to show you what we’ve learned.

Everything in this book—every tip and tool—has been time-tested in our own relationship and with countless couples just like you. You won’t find flippant platitudes, silly strategies, and hackneyed advice here. We’re giving you innovative and sometimes counterintuitive approaches that work.

If you are feeling especially entrenched in conflict that seems almost impossible to change or overcome, we want you to know there is reason for optimism. You might be thinking you are doomed to a relationship of strife. Maybe you’ve swallowed as truth the old proverb that “As you have made your bed, so you must lie in it.” Don’t buy that lie. That’s ridiculous. You don’t have to put up with a belligerent bed. As G. K. Chesterton said, “If I have made my bed uncomfortable, please God, I will make it again.” You can remake your marriage by learning to fight a good fight.

Whether you fight a little or a lot, this book is for you. Whether you are dating, engaged, newly married, or married for decades, this book is for you. If you’re tired of squabbles, quarrels, tiffs, and conflicts that assault your love life—or if with strangers. you just want to ensure that they don’t—this book is for you. In these pages you will find practical help for turning those tiresome moments into milestones that mark deeper intimacy and greater passion for each other. This book is for every couple who wants their relationship to be “love at first sight” now.

—Drs. Les and Leslie Parrott

Seattle, Washington


Before you begin the next chapter you may want to take just five minutes or so to complete a little self-test. The Good Fight Inventory will help you capture your personal perspective on conflict. It will give you the “big picture” when it comes to conflict in your relationship. But don’t worry. It won’t diagnose you. It’s primary purpose is to get your wheels spinning.



No pressure, no diamonds.


We had just completed two days of speaking to an exuberant group of couples in the southeast end of London. The venue was only two blocks from the famed Abbey Road Studios where tourists take countless photos of themselves walking over the zebra crossing to replicate the cover of the Beatles’ 1969 Abbey Road album.

Following our seminar, we ambled over to the crossing and did our own imitations of Paul and Ringo. We had the time because we were staying over a couple of days to celebrate our wedding anniversary. Our boys were safe at home in Seattle with their grandmother, so we were footloose and carefree—just the two of us.

Wedding anniversaries are big occasions with us, so we splurged shamelessly. A nice hotel, a leisurely brunch after waking without an alarm clock, window-shopping on Oxford Street, high tea at Fortnum & Mason in the afternoon, a dinner of prime rib and Yorkshire pudding and cherries jubilee that night at the Savoy Grill. Then, under a clear night sky, we strolled hand-in-hand along Westminster Bridge while taking in the majesty of Big Ben, London’s iconic landmark. Extravagant? Luxurious? Delicious? Romantic? Yes, all of the above. The entire experience was idyllic—one for the memory books.

And then, suddenly, without warning, it happened.

“I want to buy a couple of sweatshirts for the boys,” Leslie said.

“Um, hmm,” I replied, watching people hop onto the back of a bus. “Why don’t we have double-decker buses in Seattle?”

“Did you hear me?” Leslie said a bit sternly.

“Sure. You want to buy something for the boys.”

“Do you remember where we saw those red ones near the hotel?”

“They’re all over the place,” I said, pointing to a line of red buses.

“I’m talking about sweatshirts,” said Leslie. “Do you think they’d still be open this late?”

“I’m pretty sure we can’t fit two big sweatshirts into our suitcase. Besides, do you think they really need more sweatshirts?”

Sensing she was going to have to argue a strong case for buying the sweatshirts, Leslie replied with an edge in her voice, “I’m not going home without something for the boys.”

Empathy is the great unsung human gift.


“Fine,” I replied, thinking we could still steer this conversation away from the brink. “How about something easier to pack?”

“They love those hooded sweatshirts. Are you going to help me find them or not?” Leslie abruptly unfolded a map of the city.

“I’m just saying—”

“I know what you’re saying!”

“Oh, really?” I said with a caustic tone. “What am I saying?”

Leslie, having found something on the map—or just pretending she had—started to walk quickly, a couple of paces in front of me, without saying anything.

“Why are you walking so fast?” I asked as if I didn’t know.

“Angry energy,” she snapped without skipping a beat.

“Angry energy?” I asked with genuine intrigue and a little grin in my voice. It was a pretty astute comment for someone so perturbed.

She didn’t answer. We walked in silence for a few paces, Leslie marching two steps ahead of me.

At the end of the block, waiting for a traffic signal to change, she said, “Maybe we should stop in there for a while.” She pointed to a sign on an historic building: Cabinet War Rooms.

I smiled.

She smiled back.

That was it.

We found a turning point. The icy tension of our brief spat was about to thaw. Without saying another word, we held hands again and kept walking the better part of the block. The pressure was off, but we needed a moment to let our hearts recalibrate.

After a few more strides, Leslie squeezed my hand to say she was with me. I got the message and squeezed back.

We came to Downing Street. “Shall we see if the prime minister is in?” I asked.

“He’s probably managing an international conflict somewhere,” she said, knowing she was lobbing me an easy one.

“Or maybe one with his wife,” I quipped.

We walked a few more steps and turned the corner, literally and metaphorically.

“We did a nice job there,” Leslie said, still holding my hand.

I knew exactly what she meant.

We were quietly congratulating ourselves on putting the kibosh on what could have become a full-fledged fight. In spite of the flare-up, we were still an “us.” We’d staved off a quarrel that was looking to come between us. We’d turned around our tiny tiff in just a few moments, and we knew we were stronger because of it. Early in our marriage, the same kind of quarrel could have snowballed into a brawl that would have spoiled the whole trip. One of us would have resorted to fighting dirty, sabotaging the solution with sanctimonious blame or upping the ante by sniping at the other’s character.

Not now. We’ve gotten wise to the ways of the marital street fight. We’ve learned to cut it down before it cuts us up. No blood. No scars. Not even a scratch. We’ve learned a better way that actually draws us closer. In short, we’ve learned the difference between fighting with honor and fighting without it. The former is always better.


We all know that conflict has the potential to inflict hurt, resentment, and stress. It can escalate hostility and rob couples of valuable time and energy. It depletes intimacy and pulls otherwise loving couples apart.

Our little spat in London was primed to do exactly that. We were doing fine one moment, but in a flash we were at odds with each other. How could that happen? We were enjoying what was surely one of the best days we could ever dream of, and suddenly, out of nowhere, we were sideswiped by a silly squabble neither of us saw coming.

Over the years we’ve done enough postmortems on our potential fights that we’ve come to call the practice a “conversational autopsy.” Here’s how each of us sized up this one:

Leslie: From my perspective, Les didn’t know that, as the evening grew later, a problem was dawning on me: I was about to run out of time to get something nice for our boys. Not only that, they both needed a sweatshirt for the start of school, and I knew they’d love the ones I’d seen in a shop window earlier. I hadn’t mentioned this to Les, so it wasn’t on his radar. It wasn’t fair for me to expect him to know of my concern. But that’s not all. Les didn’t know I was about five days premenstrual. At the time, that fact didn’t register with me either.

Les: From my perspective, I was surprised that Leslie had abruptly become task-oriented when we were just enjoying the relaxing evening. When she said she wasn’t going home without getting something for our boys, I felt that she was saying I didn’t care about bringing our boys a present they would enjoy. I felt judged. But what she really meant was that she’d already determined what would be best for them and assumed I’d go along with it. Of course, it never dawned on me that her hormones might be contributing to the mix.

All those factors from our perspectives added to the mysterious amalgamation of motives, perceptions, and inferences that created unexpected tension between us. At least, that’s the best we can make of it in retrospect. Maybe that’s why it happened or maybe not. The bottom line is that these little land mines erupt without notice on a regular basis for every couple. It’s a given. What matters is how we deal with them.

We haven’t always known how to deal with our conflicts, and we’ve had some real humdingers along the way. Like the fight that ensued in our car on a Saturday morning while we were running errands. That one didn’t end until the next day. The conflict? It was a circular conversation over who was pulling more weight on the home front. In short, it was a chore war, and each of us had drawn a battle line. We both dug in our heels and were dead set on proving the other person wrong.

“It would be nice if you could actually lend a hand on occasion,” Leslie said sardonically.

“Seriously?!” Les retorted. “You’re actually going to say I don’t help out?”

“Do I need to?”


“Okay, then, you don’t help out.”

“What do you want me to do that I’m not doing?” Les asked the question as if Leslie would have to think long and hard to answer it. She didn’t.

“How many do you want?


“Let’s start with taking out the trash.”

“I do take it out!”

“Then why did we have a heaping pile of rubbish in our garage for the past two weeks?”

“Oh, that’s rich! You know I was traveling and—”

“And you didn’t take it out before you left.”

We jabbered on like this throughout the day, with accusations hopscotching around to various chores: cleaning bathrooms, yard work, and so on. When we weren’t talking about it, we were each building up our case and reloading our ammunition for the moment the battle engaged once more. Each of us was far more concerned with winning the fight than resolving it. We were in a serious power struggle, a world-class game of blame, and we were dangerously close to belittling each other with true contempt. In short, we were having an honest-to-goodness bad fight. Except there wasn’t anything honest or good about it.

At the time, we didn’t really know it was a bad fight, because early in our marriage we didn’t know there was a distinction between a good fight and a bad one. We just thought a fight was a fight. But that’s far from the truth.

To deal effectively with any conflict, we’ve got to know the difference between a good fight and a bad fight.


Professionals formerly believed that couples who were more prone to arguments were the least satisfied with their marriage. The studies that led to those findings, however, failed to distinguish among the kinds of fights the couples were having.1 Truth be told, the difference between a marriage that grows happier and one that grows more miserable is not whether they fight but how they fight.

All fights are not created equal. A good fight, in contrast to a bad fight, is helpful, not hurtful. It is positive, not negative. A good fight stays clean, but a bad fight gets dirty. According to researchers at the University of Utah, 93 percent of couples who fight dirty will be divorced within ten years.2 A study at Ohio State University showed that unhealthy marital arguments contribute significantly to a higher risk of heart attacks, headaches, back pain, and a whole slew of other health problems, not to mention unhappiness.3 In the end, bad fights lead to marriages that are barely breathing and will eventually die. In fact, researchers can now predict with 94 percent accuracy whether or not a couple will stay together based solely on how they fight.4 Not whether they fight, but how they fight.

The line separating good fights from bad is not fuzzy. Research makes the difference clear, and the following chart lays it out plainly.






Winning the fight

Resolving the fight


Surface issues

Underlying issues


On Sale
Apr 1, 2013
Page Count
288 pages
Worthy Books

Dr. Leslie Parrott

About the Author

New York Times bestselling authors Drs. Les and Leslie Parrott are founders of and the Center for Relationship Development at Seattle Pacific University. Their bestselling books include Love Talk, Crazy Good Sex, and the award-winning Saving Your Marriage Before It Starts. Their work has been featured in the New York Times and USA Today and on CNN, Good Morning America, and Oprah.

Learn more about this author