Conflicts — 17 October 2004
Causes and reduction of fighting in relationships

Most couples fight with each other at times, and most couples state that they hate doing it. So why do we repeatedly do that which we detest? What can we do to decrease the frequency of these struggles and how do we recover from the fights once they occur?

First let us explore some of the reasons couples engage in verbal combat. For some it is a way to communicate with intensity, for others fighting is a method of getting negative attention, for yet others arguing and bantering with each other is a prelude to passionate lovemaking. Most commonly, fighting between mates is the struggle for self-protection in face of a perceived attack. The nature of the fighting also varies based on the underlying origin of the antagonistic exchange.

You may have encountered couples, whose style of interacting is argumentative, consistently discounting and belittling of each other. They do not appear to become angry or enraged by the negative exchanges. In fact, their style is their only means of connecting with each other. These couples are often unaware that there is anything amiss about their manner of conversation, and are surprised when told that family members feel uncomfortable with their habitual style of competitive shaming. The sad part is that affectionate, loving and supportive exchanges, verbal or physical, are practically absent for them.

You may also know couples who fight intermittently and say that that is the only way one of them can get a charge from the other. One mate feels abandoned, ignored, or un-attended to, and may start a fight to arouse the other mate into an exhibition of some emotion that is seen as a sign of caring. The provoked partner finds these arguments to be “irrational and senseless”, since he or she does not comprehend their origin. These periodic fights are uncomfortable for both partners, but are also rewarding to the mate who feels otherwise invisible.

The most common form of fighting originates from neither of the above sources. Most couples fight when they are in a battle for self -worth and preserved esteem. When one mate perceives an attack by the other partner, he or she may react in one of the following ways:

For example: Jim says to Mary: ” Why can’t you ever be ready on time?”
Mary feels accused and discounted. She may:

1. Become defensive and justifies her intentions or rationale for action. “Because I had to take care of the kids before I could get ready to go, I never have enough time for myself.”
2. Respond with an attack about this subject or another unrelated one. “Because I am the only one who takes care of the kids, you never help with anything, everything is on my shoulders”.
3. Become silent and withdraws emotionally or physically. (Often harboring resentments). “I am not going with you anywhere”. Mary may continue to recite to herself how much she does and how little help with the children she gets from Jim, thus restoring her self-worth in view of his accusation.
4. Attack the essence of the partner. “I am the only parent here. You are a terrible Dad.”
5. Voice pain with words and tears about being unfairly wronged and victimized. “Why do I always get attacked and criticized when I am trying to do whatever has to be done? That’s not fair.”

Jim will most likely respond to any of these options with one of his own, which will further escalate the fight.

The only predictable outcome of a fight is loss of connection and disruption of intimacy for both partners. Each mate then needs time to recover from the emotional wounds suffered, to restore his or her own sense of well being and be safe enough to resume normal interactions. The recovery takes time from hours to days to even years, if the accusations and hurts hit deeply enough. Some words said in anger may never be forgotten or repaired to the severe detriment to the relationship.

Couples need to understand that fights never solve problems, They are at best painful and at worst destructive to each of them and their union.

Fights are our immature expressions of frustration and insecurity.

As adults, we are equipped with language, patience, caring and sensitivity, as well as love for our mates, to refrain from our preverbal, childlike reactions to frustrations. Young children who are not able to express themselves well enough, may resort to temper tantrums, hitting, screaming kicking and flailing, to get their needs met. As adults we must utilize our verbal skills, motivated by love of our partners, to get our needs met kindly and respectfully.

If you are in the habit of starting or participating in fights with your partner, please consider the following:

  • Ask yourself: “What is the underlying cause for my participation in fights with my mate?”
  •  If you answered that you are provoked into a fight and need to defend yourself, be aware that you will be unlikely to redeem yourself by further sparring.
  •  It takes two people to fight. You may end it by stating so, or initiating loving language.
  •  If your mate begins a conversation in an accusatory manner, politely ask him or her to rephrase it so you can hear it better.
  •  If you are in a fight, you may always end it by gently saying, “I love you and I don’t want to hurt you, so let’s stop and we will talk about it later”. Resume talking when both of you are calm.
  •  Remember that fights do not solve problems or enhance either of you or your relationship.
  •  Fights may lead to the utterance of regrettable and sometimes unforgivable words.
  • Remember to tell your mate often that you love him or her. Be kind, attentive, and considerate. This will likely diminish the occurrence of fights and increase intimacy for both of you.

October 17, 2004

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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