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7 Signs of Unfriendly Fighting

Roger and Robin have been married and fighting for 8 years. They both say they don’t like it. They both claim it’s the other’s fault. They both say they love each other but they can’t stand the fighting. On the brink of divorce, they’ve made the first agreement that either can remember, to come to therapy.

During the first session, they do me the favor of having a fight. It really is helpful. I get to see up close what it is that they do to make sure that a fight goes nowhere. Not surprisingly, there’s a pattern to it. Roger and Robin have become experts in the tactics of unfriendly fighting. Any conflict quickly spreads in all directions except the original one. Perhaps you recognize the signs.

1. Unfriendly fighting is full of comments that make global judgements about the other’s character.

He: “What’s with the credit card bill being so high?”
She: “You never lay off, do you? You’re such a nag. You’re as hung up on money as your mother.”

She never answers his question. Instead, she confuses the issue with statements that are sure to make him defensive, hurt, and angry. From his point of view, all he wanted was to figure out what was bottoming their budget. She successfully avoids a difficult issue but at the expense of their relationship.

2. Unfriendly fighting is full of “you should” statements.

She: “What’s with the credit card bill being so high?”
He: “You should have told me that you had a limit in mind. You should have reminded me not to use that card. You should have taken care of that bill long ago.”

“You shoulds” tend to put the other person on the defensive. Now instead of talking about the bill, they’re arguing about what she should have done and whether she should have done it.

3. Unfriendly fighting answers questions with defensive questions.

He: “What’s with the credit card bill being so high?”
She: “Don’t you think I can see that it’s high?” “Why should I be the one keeping track of the total?”

Her questions camouflage the real issue. He now has to sort through her indignation and justify even asking for information about the bill. She has managed to change the subject entirely and once again they’re not talking about their money.

4. Unfriendly fighting buries at least one of the combatants with an avalanche of words.

She: “What’s with the credit card bill being so high?”
He: “High? You think that’s high? That doesn’t even begin to touch the bill we had a few years ago. Remember that? We had this bill that was at the max and I had to get a second job to cover it. And you promised. . . Remember you promised . . . that it would never get that high again. Now here we are again with a high bill and neither one of us even remembers what we charged and tomorrow I’m going to have to go back down to the bank . . .”

You get the idea. He’s trying to snow her with so many words that she’ll have to fight her way out of it. If he can keep the storm going long enough, she’ll be so exasperated and confused that she might even forget her original question.

5. Unfriendly fighting over-generalizes.

He: “What’s with the credit card bill being so high?”
She: “You’re always fussing about the credit card. You never just trust me to deal with it. Why is it that you never give me a chance to just manage it?”

Words like “always” and “never” lead to irrelevant arguments. If he answers with “I do not” or “I do too” he is bound to be wrong. Nothing is ever always or never.

6. Unfriendly fighting brings up past events to justify the current problem.

She: “What’s with the credit card bill being so high?”
He: “You told me last month that it was okay for me to run that one up to the max since you were the one who ran up the other one.”

Now they are arguing about what she might or might not have said, or meant, during a conversation that she doesn’t even remember. They can spend hours on whether the alleged conversation even took place, perhaps adding in some “you shoulds” and overgeneralizations while they’re at it.

7. Unfriendly fighting throws in another issue for good measure.

He: “What’s with the credit card bill being so high?”
She: “Well, you’re the one who bought that ridiculous lawn ornament last week. What were you thinking?”

She took the issue off-topic and threw a new one back at him. Now he has to deal with her characterization of his purchase as ridiculous instead of solving the problem of the credit card bill.

What’s It All About?

What’s unfriendly fighting really about? Often enough, people resort to these tactics because they can’t tolerate disagreement about things that matter. Unconvinced that they can solve a real problem together, these couples create one distraction after another. Eventually, they both get worn down or worn out and give up. They’ve had their fight. But they haven’t come to any kind of resolution about the original issue. They then muddle along with one or the other of them dealing with the original problem as best he or she can. In their heated disagreements, they demonstrate over and over again that they agree on only one thing: That they can’t possibly come to a resolution that will satisfy them both. Better not to even make the effort.

Roger and Robin are deeply discouraged. They’d like to be able to count on each other. They both know other couples who don’t fight the way they do. They even know people who seem to be able to cooperate and solve their problems. They rightfully wonder, if only briefly, what’s wrong with them that they can’t get through a day without another go-around.

Counseling will focus on their mutual fear of problem-solving and compromise. We’ll then work on the skills of Friendly Fighting (see Ten Rules for Friendly Fighting for Couples) so that they can listen respectfully to each other and substitute cooperation for all this conflict. Believe it or not, I’m highly optimistic. They’re exhausted by the fighting but they still want to be with each other. They agreed to come to therapy. They’re willing to try.

7 Signs of Unfriendly Fighting

Marie Hartwell-Walker, Ed.D.

Marie Hartwell-WalkerDr. Marie Hartwell-Walker is licensed as both a psychologist and marriage and family counselor. She specializes in couples and family therapy and parent education. She writes regularly for Psych Central as well as Psych Central's Ask the Therapist feature. She is author of the insightful parenting e-book, Tending the Family Heart.

Check out her book, Unlocking the Secrets of Self-Esteem.

APA Reference
Hartwell-Walker, M. (2018). 7 Signs of Unfriendly Fighting. Psych Central. Retrieved on February 29, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Oct 2018 (Originally: 17 May 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Oct 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.