Conflicts — 04 April 2007
What couples really fight about  (Part 2) Fighting is really about acceptance and esteem

Fights, by definition, are the opposite of harmonious discussions. Fights occur between enemies, not lovers. The goal in a fight is to conquer, subjugate or even eliminate the opponent, none of which is appropriate for healthy relationships.

Most people are uncomfortable with adversity in their relationship.

It is painful to be challenged in a negative way by the person who is your most cherished friend. The emotions evoked during arguments and attacks can linger and create distance between mates. Some words used in anger may never be retrieved.

Recovery from a fight is a slow and painful process. People continue to recite to themselves the insults, accusations and discounts they first heard in their attempt to reduce the pain and reinstate their own emotional equilibrium.

Since your partner’s view of you is the most important opinion for continued self-affirmation, anything unsupportive is emotionally destabilizing. The hurt individual appraises the merit of the negative comments hurled at him/her. If those are accepted, the person’s esteem plummets, if they are rejected the individual is left with the need to defend him/herself.

Self-defense sometimes takes the form of accusing, attacking and defaming the mate. If what you said about me is incorrect, then you are at best wrong and at worst mean. Either way, defending oneself by discounting the mate may feel necessary to “right the wrong”. This repetitive cycle causes distance, alienation and loneliness for individuals.

Partners often focus on the content of the fight, such as: money, sex, or parenting. In accepting the premise that couple’s fights are not about the topic – but about maintaining one’s esteem, a different approach to any conflict can be undertaken.

Let’s take a common example of fights regarding sex. Suppose that she is interested in more frequent sexual experiences than he is. (Yes, these cases are more common than expected). She assumes that his low interest has to do with her reduced desirability. She feels hurt and may attack his masculinity. This further reduces his interest in becoming intimate with her. He withdraws and she feels more unloved and rejected.

If she were to tell her husband how much she missed being physically close to him, he may have been able to talk to her about the issues causing his loss of interest. He would have divulged that his interest increases when she is gentler and less critical of him and the children. This would have diffused her fear and hurt about not being attractive enough and could have given them an opportunity to discuss how to best increase their lovemaking.

Fights about preferences are actually fights about not accepting the partner as a unique and special person. If he loves war movies and she loves romantic comedies, it doesn’t indicate that he is too aggressive or that she is overly sentimental. What it means is that both of them identify with themes that enhance their personal image and pleasure.

Similarly, if parents disagree about setting boundaries for the children, it does not indicate that either one of them is a bad parent. Mom may find it hard to discipline the children due to her pain about her rigid upbringing. Dad may be firm because of his fear about the children’s safety or health. Both parents need to affirm that the other parent’s style comes with the best intentions and cease to see the other’s way as defective. Fights will end when positive affirmations are exchanged and then the couple can proceed towards a mutual compromise.

To prevent fights is to understand that:

• Each person’s dissatisfaction is usually about his/her unmet needs and NOT about the partner’s behavior or character.
• Assumptions are harmful and are usually inaccurate ways of understanding another person’s motivation.
• Differences need to be cherished not discounted. Two well considered options facilitate a wise compromise.
• Fights, though common, are not necessary and can be reduced or avoided.
• If the difficulty is phrased as a desire for closeness, rather than a complaint about distance, it will be better heard and can unite the couple in searching for options.
• Both mates must respect the other’s reactions as healthy ways to feel safe, secure and loved, even if they differ from their own.
• Being accepted and understood increases intimacy and extinguishes the need to fight.
• Acceptance also frees the mates to open up, divulge their deepest concerns and trust the cooperative intent of their partners.

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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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