Another embattled couple has just left my office. They say they don’t like the fighting. They realize that the constant arguing is now affecting their kids. They tell me they like and love each other and really do want to stay together. They just can’t stand the daily harsh exchanges that get them nowhere.

Each also is convinced that if the other would only shape up, they could get along. Coming to therapy is the first thing they’ve agreed on in a long time. It’s a last-ditch effort to save the marriage. At least it’s a place to start. I know they’re desperate. I know they are looking to me to be the referee. Hopefully I’ll be able to move to coaching them to be on the same team.

Many hidden reasons can fuel bitter fights. If we are to stop the fighting, we need to understand what each side is protecting or getting out of the fights. Maybe then we can help each of them feel better and then find happier ways to manage their differences. Since people are more alike than different, there are at least some common motivators for quarrels, arguments, and all-out war. Either gender can fall into any one of them. It’s only for the sake of simplicity that I use one or the other pronoun here.

  • Need to be “right.” Some people have their self-esteem tied up in being “right.” They have to be right even if they’re wrong. Even if they realize mid-bicker that they’re wrong, it is more important at that point to get the other person to concede that they’re “right” than to admit a mistake. To get out of the tangle, their partner may do just that.

    It isn’t worth it to try to reason with someone who isn’t reasonable. Yes, the person has preserved his mistaken sense of dignity by being once again “right” but it’s at the expense of the respect of those around him.

  • Power. Some people use fighting as a way of gaining power. By getting her partner to back down, give in, or at least to pay attention to her when he doesn’t want to, she has proven to herself, and him, that she has the upper hand. What she doesn’t seem to understand is that to have the upper hand is to lose the mutuality that intimacy requires.
  • Control. Some people have been so hurt in life or are so sure they will be that the only way they can quiet their fear is to be in control. By dominating his family and arguing his partner down, he feels safe. He doesn’t understand that this kind of safety often erodes love and respect. He may succeed in making himself so “safe” that other people have to leave to feel safe from him.
  • Hiding. Some people use fighting as a way to hide. When his partner begins to question where he is spending his time or his money, he’ll start in about almost anything else. He gets his partner so busy defending herself from his complaints that she loses track of her original concern.

    He may have something to hide. Or he may just hate that she is always checking up on him and hides to preserve his sense of independence. He scores in this skirmish but the trust has suffered yet another blow.

  • Superiority. Some people need to feel superior in order to feel good enough. They therefore need to find ways to prove their superiority to themselves and others on a regular basis. She may be more facile with words. She may be able to think circles around him and meet point with reasoned counterpoint. She serves up her complex arguments with sarcasm and a sneer. Ultimately, he either becomes convinced that she really is superior and wonders why she tolerates his insignificant self or he gives up just to get away from the put-downs. An oppressed partner isn’t a happy one. Eventually, he’ll rebel and it won’t be pretty.
  • Fear of being a loser. Some people have the mistaken idea that if you’re not winning, you’re losing. Not wanting to be the loser, they strive to be the winner in every conflict. Not wanting to appear “weak,” they constantly come on strong. Certain that there is a battle coming at any moment, they work from the position that a good offense is the best defense. They don’t realize that their constant effort to win most certainly will make them lose a marriage.
  • Energy. Some people use a fight to get their juices running. Perhaps he’s low-grade depressed. Perhaps life just doesn’t have much excitement any more. Picking a fight with his partner is far easier than scraping up the motivation to change his life — he can do it from the couch. He gets momentary stimulation but his life is still stuck in the muck.
  • 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.