Conflicts — 04 April 2007
What do couples really fight about?  (Part 1)

Fights between partners are the unsuccessful outcome of verbal exchanges designed to create understanding and compromise. Despite the mutual positive intent, the discourse derails and turns the loving mates into adversaries. Greater understanding of the causes for the fights may help reduce their occurrence.

Couples fight about a variety of topics and themes. A few common issues are: money, sex, parenting, lifestyle choices, family relationships, opinions and preferences. Many pairs know what topics will predictably cause a fight as they are aware that it will end up with both of them feeling misunderstood, hurt and frustrated.

For many couples certain subjects are conversational taboos. They avoid discussing them to preserve their emotional comfort. This avoidance often creates additional sources of misunderstanding, anger and fights.

Themes are held beliefs about the intention or feelings of the mate. For example, if a husband believes, despite his wife’s repeated denials, that she does not like his parents, any of her less than enthusiastic attitude toward them would be taken as evidence of her dislike for them. This can become a chronic painful fight that may leave both mates helpless at resolving it. The mere thought of a family encounter may create distance between them.

Since couple fights are common and research documents that it is not, by itself, a predictor of divorce, many treating professionals attempt to help couples fight more fairly. They teach better communication skills and recommend certain conversational rules that must be adhered to for effective conflict resolution. Though these techniques are effective and helpful for couples who can abide by them, they are very difficult to adhere to in the heat of emotion.

Dr. Daniel Wile, a respected couple psychologist and author, states in his book ‘After the Fight’: “The rules of communication are utopian rules; no matter what we are told, when the crunch comes we are going to do what these rules tell us we shouldn’t do.” He uses the broken rules as a source of information and understanding of what they reveal.

Fights occur not when two people disagree, but when they feel attacked. Their ideas may be rejected, their behavior disapproved of, their feelings discounted or their character defamed. Any perceived criticism of one’s thoughts, feelings, actions, intentions or essence is responded to with defensiveness, withdrawal or attack.

I maintain that fights occur for only one reason, which has nothing to do with the issue discussed. Fights are caused by the need to preserve one’s self worth in the eyes of the partner. A critical, defensive or retaliatory discount is an individual’s attempt to recover from a perceived loss of the partner’s positive regard.

Let’s take an example of a fight regarding money. He feels that he works very hard and she spends too much money. Is this really about money? I suggest that this ongoing fight is about his feeling unappreciated and her powerlessness in the relationship. This man would be much more understanding about his wife’s spending if he were valued for his efforts as a provider. She would be a more careful spender if she were treated more like a partner and less like a minor. This couple has to develop a partnership of mutual appreciation and decision-making. Miraculously, the fights about spending would subside.

Couples can reduce or even eliminate some fights if they deal with the conflict in a new way -not by dissecting its content but by acknowledging the hurt they feel about a specific loss of their personal significance.

• Identify for yourself your partner’s language or behavior about the topic that affects your feeling of being loved and esteemed in your relationship.
• Tell your mate how dealing with this issue differently can help you feel more respected and valued by him/her.
• Listen attentively to your partner’s needs for affirmation and positive regard.
• Do not argue, disagree or make judgments about how your partner needs to matter. Honor it and determine to accommodate it as best you can.
• Identify the issue as a mutual problem to be solved by two cooperative people who love each other and are a good team. For example: “ Let’s talk about the amount of money we agree to spend on personal purchases that feels safe and acceptable to both of us. This language is non-accusatory and cooperative.
• There are very few issues that cannot be resolved amicably when two people respect each other’s needs, thoughts, feelings and actions and treat each other with reverence.

Related Articles

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.

(0) Readers Comments

Comments are closed.