I recently watched (yet again!) this wonderful and touching movie with Bruce Willis and Michelle Pfeiffer – “The Story of Us.” It depicts very realistically fights that couples often have:
She: “You are not really hearing me!”
He: “You are so goddamn critical!”
She: “It’s hard enough with two children, I don’t need a third one!”
He: “That’s right, you are perfect and I’ve done nothing right in 15 years!”
They keep repeating the same things over and over again, simultaneously hurting each other and being hurt.
It seems that they fight because she feels that he is not responsible enough and he feels that she is just too rigid, critical or too organized. But the truth is, we almost never fight for the reasons that we think we fight for. Usually, the real reasons are hidden much deeper in our unconscious world. The majority of them come from our past.
My observations and study suggest that all fights can be broken down to three broad categories.
1. Fights for Love and Attention
This can be expressed as “I am lonely, I miss you,” or “I don’t feel loved, show me that you сare.” Love, attention and being accepted are among the most powerful of our psychological needs. However, what we know about the expression of love comes from our family of origin. If our parents were dysfunctional, then the ways they were conveying their love and attention were also dysfunctional.
And this is what we NOW know about love and attention. For example, if nobody paid attention to us as children when we were “good,” we would sometimes misbehave to get noticed. It may be hard to believe, but we continue to do the same thing even after we’ve grown up. We throw “tantrums.” In women it often presents itself as “nagging” or complaining. In men, it might be ignoring their spouses, misbehaving in some other ways, or withdrawing.
Essentially, what we are saying is: “Prove to me that you will love me even when I am bad and unlovable.” If our partner doesn’t hear our plea, we start escalating our grown-up “misbehavior” and soon enough a fight will follow.
2. Fights of Expectations and Assumptions
Our past shapes the way we are now and the way we interact with other people and the world. We expect things to be a certain way. We “know” (or so we think) what our partners think, what they feel, how they must behave, how they should treat us, what family is all about, what roles each person should play and so forth. We have opinions about everything! “Opinions are like noses, everyone has one,” right?
If we are mature and experienced enough and we’ve already learned that there is not necessarily just one way to be in the world or one way of doing things, then we can be more accepting and open about the behavior of our partners. Understanding this can make the transition to life together much easier and smoother.
If, however, we never examined our assumptions about everything, never analyzed and became aware of our expectations, then we might be up for a big surprise and might find ourselves in a boat with a person who views things in a completely different light.
In this case, partners can start fighting over the most mundane things. Who does the dishes, who does the cooking, who stays home with kids, what is expected from a wife, what is expected from a husband, how to celebrate holidays, when to visit parents, whether to go to the church on Sundays and so on. This list goes on and on. Each partner thinks that his or her point-of-view is right and others’ is wrong. In fact, neither is right or wrong, but simply views things in a certain way.
3. Fights of Pain and Fear
These fights are probably the most difficult to handle. They happen when one or both people have wounds of abandonment, rejection or previous trauma. Any behavior that even remotely reminds us of the possibility of being hurt can trigger strong and intense reactions. For example, a husband is running late from work and doesn’t call his wife who has a history of abandonment. After a while she becomes restless and anxious. If it lasts for a while and she can’t reach him, he might get a full-blown fight when he gets home. But the real reason for her anger is her deep-seated fear of losing him.
For a lot of men, such a trigger can be lack of sexual desire from their wives. They might feel unloved, unattractive, unwanted and rejected. For a lot of men, the fear of rejection turns into an anger.
For a lot of women, the trigger is a lack of attention, or the lack of a meaningful connection with her partner. She might start feeling lonely and unwanted and pick a fight just to make sure that she matters, that she remains important to him.
What to do with all this?
Okay, all this is cool and interesting, but you are probably wondering – what am I supposed to do with this information?
Okay, here comes the practical part.
Step One – Disengage when emotions get intense
The most important step in decreasing the amount and intensity of fights is to learn how to STOP fighting when emotions run wild. You see, when we are angry, hurting or upset, we tend to hurt right back. Our partner gets defensive and returns the fire. What started as a short flare-up of emotions quickly progressed into a full-blown, often ugly, fight. Sometimes people say very nasty and hurtful things when they are angry and hurting. These hurtful things linger in our souls for a long time after the fight is over. And every time it happens, the wounds get deeper, the chasm between the partners gets wider and resentment grows.
That’s why it’s so important to learn how to disengage the moment we feel a spike in emotions. It’s important to find ways that work just for you. Talk to each other, experiment with different options, (when NOT IN A FIGHT!!!). With practice, partners can find ways to let each other know they need an important “time-out.” Then, after you take a break from each other (even if it’s in different rooms) – take care of your emotions and feelings and calm yourself down. Some methods of self-regulation (like deep and slow breathing, for example) can be very helpful here.
Step Two – Clearing the air
The second step is to “clear the air.” After the emotions subside and both partners calm down, it’s very important to sit down and figure out what this fight was really about. If both partners have an attitude of openness, exploration and good will, they can really, really try to listen and understand each other (and not just the words, but also feelings underneath words). In such case, instead of this fight driving them apart, it can become a uniting event and the partners can become even closer. Ultimately, intimacy means being vulnerable and open with each other. Learn to talk and to listen to each other.
It’s very important in this step to get to the point where both partners feel they were heard, understood and that no bad feelings remain.
For the majority of people, learning and practicing these two steps can be sufficient to eventually stop most of the fights. However, for those of us who came from very dysfunctional and/or abusive families, these steps can be hard to implement. In these cases, the help of an experienced couple or marriage therapist might be beneficial.
Have some other ideas that worked for you and which are not listed here? Share them in comments!