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Honey, we're due for an argument: The sweet spot of squabbling

Russell Brand and Katy Perry at the 2010 EMI Grammy party.

Michael Buckner/Getty Images

Just call them the Bickersons: Singer Katy Perry and tousle-haired fiancé Russell Brand are becoming notorious for fighting and making up "constantly."

"It's a cycle," a friend has said of the young duo's Liz Taylor/Richard Burton-esque relationship. Ms. Perry reportedly resents Mr. Brand - a former sex addict - for flirting. Mr. Brand, meanwhile, is apparently sick of Ms. Perry's partying, especially as he's been sober for seven years.

Like Ms. Perry's hit Hot N Cold, some couples break up and make up with a flurry that confounds and annoys family and friends. Hollywood provides the more extreme examples: think Jude Law and Sienna Miller, Melanie Griffith and Don Johnson, and Robin Wright and Sean Penn.

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Six tips for a healthy fight

It was Mr. Penn who once said of his doomed marriage, "Love's a mess and I enjoy that mess."

On the other end of the spectrum are couples who never fight and are actually worried about it, wondering when the bomb will hit.

Experts say there is such a thing as healthy fighting, a sweet spot of squabbling.

While she would never bait her clients to fight, Arlene Stiles does encourage arguments that start like this: "This is really hard for me to say and I don't know that I'm going to do it well. Can you try and listen to me?"

Ms. Stiles, a registered marriage and family therapist with the Ontario Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, says fighting is instinctive, but that our approach doesn't have to be barbaric.

"What makes the fight so [heated]is our own internal fear of being alone. When the temperature rises so quickly and intensely in a relationship, it's because the other person really matters to us. Our sense of self and safety is being threatened."

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Getting down to that vulnerability during fights is at the core of Susan Johnson's philosophy.

"People get stuck in content issues. They think they're fighting about sex or money or the kids," says Dr. Johnson, a professor of clinical psychology at the University of Ottawa who also wrote Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love.

"If you really listen, they're stuck in this dreadful dance because underneath the fight are huge attachment and bonding issues which are all about, 'Do I matter to you? Are you there for me?'"

In extreme cases, one person's desperation for the other's attention can manifest itself as verbal and physical abuse. The first conversation in Dr. Johnson's seven is "recognizing demon dialogue," which is identifying destructive remarks to find out what partners are really trying to tell each other.

Couples who don't spar at all aren't necessarily any better off, Dr. Johnson says: "What you see is they've got the Grand Canyon between the two of them. They're basically living completely separate lives."

People who stifle their feelings aren't doing themselves any health favours, either: A 2008 University of Michigan study revealed that partners who suppressed their anger when unfairly attacked were twice as likely to face early death than those who expressed it and resolved the conflict.

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Author Cristina Nehring was all for passionate sparring in her divisive 2009 book, A Vindication of Love: "There are few things as cloying as the dialogue of two lovers who are forever of one mind," she wrote.

The lovers she admires - Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera among them - "seem elected to fight each other."

Indeed, for some couples, arguing every day can provide excitement and, oddly enough, engagement with the prospect of a dramatic makeup. But Ms. Stiles sees that as a juvenile arrangement: "I think of young adolescents or even young adults who are so over the top about everything. I would wonder about the depths of their relationship. Is the making up the only thing that holds them together? That won't last long."

What about the hot make-up sex?

"Make-up sex is great," Ms. Stiles allows. "You've got all those chemicals surging through your body. It's really quite wonderful. However, it's not long lasting and it's not something you build a relationship on."

Dr. Johnson is equally cautious about make-up sex: "Once people begin to feel unsafe emotionally and like they don't know who their partner is, sex becomes mechanical and empty."

That said, Dr. Johnson thinks it can work when people already have a secure bond: "The physical reaching can result in an emotional reaching."

And what about couples who are genuinely surprised that they haven't had a major dustup?

"With securely bonded people," says Dr. Johnson, "you can have all kinds of differences and the differences don't threaten the other person, and don't lead to arguments."

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