• Hidden gifts. There are some people who use a fight as a way to let the other person have a victory so they can win a more hidden goal. She wants out of the marriage but doesn’t want to hurt him. She lets him find fault with her. She lets him see all her less than wonderful qualities. She’s willing to appear inadequate or to be the bad guy so that he can leave feeling justified rather than wounded. She’s given him a final gift while at the same time getting out of a marriage she didn’t want.
  • Business as usual. Sadly, some people just don’t know any better. Having grown up in households where parents bickered, quarreled, put each other down, or had out-and-out battles, they think that fighting is just what people do. As much as they hated it as kids, they repeat what they watched their mom or dad do. The result? Another generation growing up in an unhappy, embattled family.

Sometimes ending fights in a marriage merely is about teaching the couple new ways to be assertive, to negotiate, or to let disagreements be. When that’s the case, a few coaching sessions are all it takes. The couple learns new skills, practices them, and is greatly relieved that they now can get along better. Thank you, doctor.

But most couples who fight know full well how to solve problems reasonably and even do it successfully in other areas of their lives. It’s where it counts the most, in their most intimate relationship, that they mysteriously lose their ability to disagree civilly and solve problems fairly and with a minimum of drama.

To be in a loving and intimate relationship is to be at our most vulnerable. When couples can’t seem to learn to get along, it’s often because the fighting is an unconscious way that one or the other (or both) avoids personal exposure and quiets fears of closeness. Being right, superior, or in control are important ways that these people have learned to protect themselves. In that case, ending the fights requires more than simple coaching or skill building. It requires helping the individuals become conscious of what is really behind the fights and supporting them in learning ways to be close without being afraid. If the couple is committed to the marriage, a skilled therapist often can make a place that is safe enough to deal with old hurts and open new possibilities for intimacy.

It takes awhile for people to feel strong in themselves. It takes practice to learn ways to help each other feel safe. It takes cautious trials for people to feel secure in showing their true selves. With time to develop reciprocal support and understanding, fighting can be replaced with self- respect and mutual understanding.