Conflicts — 23 October 2003
How not to fight

A common complaint of couples who come to therapy is; “We fight too
much”. What they refer to is not physical abuse, but verbal exchanges
that cause emotional pain.

Some people believe that fighting is an integral and unavoidable part of
being in a relationship. Some even claim that it is unhealthy, or
abnormal not to fight in love interactions, others claim that fighting
invigorates their connection. While these statements may be true for

certain couples, I would like to maintain that fighting chisels at the
sense of safety, love and intimacy of most people. It is very hard to
stay openhearted toward a mate when you are confronted with expressions
of criticism, disapproval and even contempt. Repeated unkind exchanges
lead partners to doubt the basic tenets of their union.

Fighting by definition is “a battle, a struggle for winning, and an
aggressive act toward an enemy or a perceived attacker”. That mere
stance is incongruent with love. In war we fight to conquer, in
relationships if you conquer you lose your partnership.
A common edict tells us to fight fairly. Since fighting requires a self-
protective stance, it negates the integrity of the couple as a unit. It
pits one against the other. The nature of fighting is hostile and
hostility does not serve intimacy well.

So, why do people, who love each other, resort to using words that hurt?
one another? Fights occur when we feel emotionally threatened. When we
perceive an attack, (whether or not it was intended), we follow a rapid
four-step sequence: 1.We feel fear. 2.Then anger- the call to action- 3.
We weigh the consequences through a fight or flight decision, and then
4. We react with either withdrawal or confrontation.

In intimate relationships the perceived threat is to our sense of
lovability. If you feel, for example, ignored, discounted, not
considered, devalued or not appreciated enough by your partner’s
behavior, it may trigger the fear that you are not loved. The
consequences of this concern may be grave. Sadly, when we fear the
worst, we often respond with the least appropriate method, which is, we
verbally attack. And thus contribute to the deteriorating cycle of
mutual emotional wounding.

The process of fighting and the outcome are predictable: Partner A says
something, which differs from partner Bus perception, need, interest
etc., and feels threatening. “I’d really like to visit my parents this
week for a change.”
Partner B may feel defensive and interpret the comment to mean: (she
doesn’t like my parents). The reply may be; “what’s wrong with my
parents, they are certainly nice to you”.
Partner A may understand this to mean, (“even though you don’t deserve
it”), and may respond by saying; “but I am not nice to them?” The fight ensues and escalates. Neither partner intended to have a fight, both participated in creating
one through their interpretation of the other’s intent and both are
likely to feel hurt and misunderstood.

We can avoid this predictable verbal sequence from deteriorating into a
fight, in a few ways. The most obvious is to ask, not assume what your
partner really thinks or feels. A good tool for clean,
non-confrontational communication was provided to us by Dr. Harville
Hendrix, in his book Getting the love you want: A Guide for Couples. The
Couple’s Dialogue is a simple three-step technique. It requires talking
to each other about any issue in a logical, unemotional manner. The speaker states his views. The listener Mirrors, (“I heard you
say&”), she repeats, without editing, in her own words what was said. The listener Validates (“I understand what you said and it makes
sense.”), even if the listener’s perception varies greatly from what she
heard. The listener then Empathizes, “I can imagine that you may feel
sad, hurt, etc. and checks with the speaker to see whether these
feelings are accurate.
The listener now becomes the speaker and responds. The process repeats. Both partners had a chance to voice their thoughts and feelings, were
heard correctly and were understood. Often individuals report that just
being heard, without judgment, eased their pain and sufficiently
resolved the conflict. At other times, this freeing process facilitates
a newly negotiated satisfying compromise.

Once this technique is mastered and practiced, no fights need to occur.
In the event that either partner becomes very emotional, the dialogue is
stopped until the feelings subside and the discussion can be resumed. I
found in my work with couples that once this technique is learned and
used regularly, partners report greater understanding, respect and
compassion for each other.

Misunderstandings, opposing needs and wants are normal in all
relationships. Our culture and upbringing often neglects to prepare us
adequately for effective conflict resolution. Here are some important
concepts that may be helpful in avoiding conflicts.

  • Realize that your partner is likely to have a different view than
    yours on most matters.
  • Both views are equally valid.
  • Being right interferes with mutuality in love.
  • Whatever one says is about the speaker, not about the listener, even
    if the listener is the subject of the comment.
  • One can only be heard if the other contains his defensiveness and
    listen attentively.
  • Rarely do people act to annoy, hurt or violate others, they mostly act
    for their own self-preservation.
  • Fighting is not a given in a love relationship, listening respectfully
    needs to be.

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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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