when relationship conflict turns to fightingConflict is inevitable as soon as we expand our world from me to we. Once two people decide to commit to each other; once they start to share responsibilities and living space and dreams, there are bound to be issues that require either negotiation or accommodation. People who love each other and who are willing to work on problems together generally have the capacity to solve whatever problem comes their way. But even the most mature and most skilled problem-solvers sometimes get stuck. What started out as a difference of opinion or a problem to be solved turns into a fight that goes nowhere.

At that point, neither person understands what is happening. One or both may feel unreasonably attacked, blamed, misunderstood or abandoned. The usual responses to fear — fight, flight or freeze — kick in. The original problem has now been compounded by hurt and anger.

When that happens, one of the following underlying issues is often at fault. Unless it is addressed directly, the couple will find themselves fighting about things large and small that are really just forums for battling yet again about the more fundamental but unnamed issue.

  1. Triggers from the Past.
    Some people are so wounded from their experiences growing up that anything that looks at all like a repetition of family dynamics makes them shut down or run away. Adult children of alcoholics, for example, are understandably sensitive when their partner has a drink or two. Their partner may have a perfectly reasonable approach to alcohol. But a drink in his hand triggers old fears, old resentments and old behaviors.

    Less obviously, if someone grew up with a parent who easily lost her temper and perhaps got violent, all it takes is for the partner to raise their voice a few decibels to send the other person into a defensive mode.

  2. Unresolved Trauma for One or Both.
    People who have been traumatized by a horrific event, especially when it involved betrayal or pain by a trusted person, sometimes learn to dissociate as a method of self-protection. By emotionally separating, they did manage the unmanageable. But the very thing that kept them safe during the trauma is now in the way of being a present and involved partner when there is an important problem to be solved.
  3. Developmental Issues.
    Some couples do fine as long as their life remains stable. But life rarely remains constant. Developmental shifts like the birth of children, job changes, kids leaving home, death of a parent, etc., need to be recognized and taken into account or they can block effective decision-making. This is especially true if several life tasks pile up. If the couple finds themselves in regular fights, it may be that there is unresolved grief or anger or fear connected to the change.
  4. Lack of Role Models.
    We are living in a world where there are more and more adult children of single parents and divorce. Other young adults have grown up without a second adult in the house due to early death of a parent or chronic illness or addiction.

    Yes, as long as kids have supportive and caring adults in their lives, they can be okay regardless of circumstance. Kids’ resiliency and creativity is often amazing. But many young adults today did not have the experience of regularly watching two adults have disagreements and work through them. They have not witnessed the process of healthy negotiation and healthy decision-making.

    These young adults have to figure it out all on their own. Hopefully they will do so together. But sometimes they respond to conflict with the usual reactions to fear: Fight, Flight or Freeze. None of those are helpful in solving a problem.

  5. Generational Loyalty Conflict.
    There are families or origins that make it almost impossible for their adult children to be positive and committed adult marriage partners. In such families, the individual has been programmed to be loyal to parents first, spouse second. This can take a variety of forms: The adult child is always expected to be “on call” for his family of origin and to drop everything to respond to the parents’ needs. The parent(s) insist that the adult child always side with them if they disagree with the spouse. The older generation expects to be consulted about any major decision that the young couple makes. The older generation expects financial support regardless of whether they need it or if the younger generation has their own obligations or desires.

    When a partner has to choose between his or her parents and partner, everyone ultimately loses.

  6. Dovetailing Dysfunctional Patterns.
    The partners’ dysfunctional coping styles fit together so well, they can neither see them or break through them. A classic example is the pursuer-distancer relationship. She has learned that in order to get her needs met, she needs to pursue her partner. He has learned that in order to feel that he has some control, he needs to take some space. The more he separates, the more frightened she gets, so she pursues even more insistently. The more she pursues, the more he pulls away. And around and around it goes. Whatever problem needed to be solved is lost in the dance of closeness and distance.

Yes, people can avoid conflict if one or the other partner accommodates or gives in too much, but that usually results in resentment. People can also steer clear of conflict by avoiding talking about anything that is really important. In that case, they will drift apart. But there is another way.

When a couple regularly finds themselves in the same fight and can’t resolve it on their own, it is often helpful to get some outside help. A therapist can see the issues they are either blind to or haven’t resolved. Although it is sometimes helpful for each person to engage is individual therapy to deal with unresolved personal history, it is not only appropriate but essential for both people to be involved when they are in a committed couple. It is important for them to learn how to identify each other’s old issues and be supportive of each other in their efforts to move beyond old defenses, to trust, and to confront their problems together.

Mature couples aren’t alarmed by differences but see them as places of growth. By talking about a difference of opinion, style, or approach to a problem and by working at it, they learn more about each other and develop their mutual problem-solving skills. With each problem they resolve in a way they can both accept, they become a stronger couple.

Angry couple photo available from Shutterstock