Conflicts — 14 March 2010
Why do lovers fight?

Finding reciprocal love is a true blessing. Lovers delight in adoring each other and relish being fully accepted and cherished by their “other half”. Why then do people who truly love each other resort to having bitter arguments, exchange unkind words and have hurtful fights?

Fighting, by definition is associated with an adversary or enemy. Loving is associated with tender emotions toward a valued friend. What causes lovers to blur the distinctive boundaries between love and animosity?

Not all couples have major fights and according to John and Julie Gottman’s work with over 3000 feuding couples, fighting was not a predictive factor of divorce.

Yet, researchers Andrew Christensen and Pamela Walczynski found that “ Conflict is the most important proximal factor affecting satisfaction in the relationship and ultimately its course.” Therefore, many studies have been done to explore the causes of relationship acrimony in order to devise ways to increase happiness for committed pairs.

Traditional Behavioral Couple Therapy (TBCT) helps couples reduce conflicts by improving communication skills, learning accommodating and compromising strategies, and by refining problem solving skills.

Andrew Christensen and Neil Jacobson accepted that personal differences are inevitable and thus need to be accepted and dealt with gracefully. They created Integrative Behavioral Couple Therapy (ICBT) in which “emotional acceptance through empathic joining” teaches people how to develop empathy as means of accepting each other and their differences.

Research by Andrew Christensen and Pamela Walczynski compared these two treatment forms and found that “the Integrative approach may be more powerful than the traditional approach in helping couples cope with conflict and thus improve relationship satisfaction.”

In my view fights stem not primarily from personal differences, poor communication skills or weak problem solving techniques, but mainly from a perception of loss of esteem.

Each mate must feel valued and honored by the other to feel safe and secure. Any behavior that threatens one’s worthiness evokes hurt and anger leading to self- justification, defensiveness, and sometimes attacks for self-redemption. The threat of being unfavorably viewed by one’s lover is so profound that it must be instantly rectified. Not mattering is an instinctual crisis of survival.

The methods one uses to urgently restore his/her esteem in the eyes of the beloved arise from a primitive reactivity that bypasses the logical mind. At that instant the individual is devoid of the capacity of seeing the other as a separate, precious beloved being. The partner is perceived as an enemy who seeks to destroy the hurt one. The speed of this response is so great that people often say, ”I got so mad I could not see straight”. Indeed! This is how pairs, who truly love each other sometimes blur the boundaries between love and hate.

• Realize that your mate’s perception of you is the most important opinion of all.
• Appreciate that losing your mate’s esteem feels annihilating, thus must be immediately restored.
• Understand that when your partner reacts in a harsh or extreme way to something you said or did, he/she may perceive being devalued by you.
• Abstain from attempting to explain, justify or reason with your mate at the moment of his/her fighting gesture. Instead, realize that your beloved feels profoundly hurt by a perceived discount of his/her value and feel empathy for his/her pain.
• Do not attempt to placate, withdraw your comment, apologize or attack back. Your spouse is in an acute crisis of lost esteem and is not open to an interactive exchange.
• Respond with an affirming, positive and empathic (not patronizing) statement that can help your partner feel valued anew.
• When you are the one experiencing the temporary panic of worthlessness restrain your reaction until your cognitive functions resume.
• Make it a habit to have an ongoing culture of mutual appreciation, admiration and empathy to maintain the emotional security derived from knowing that you are both cherished and loved.

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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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