Why Do Couples Fight?

“Out beyond rightness or wrongness, there is a field. I will meet you there.”

–   Rumi, 13th century Persian poet

  While the title of this post makes a nice, short headline, the question could be better stated,

“Why do couples’ fights become so heated and painful?”


“Is there a way to fight better, without hurting each other?”

  After all, there’s fighting and then there’s FIGHTING.

A popular YouTube video[1] records couples around the world fighting about which slippers should be worn in which room or whether week-old food is rotten or deliciously cured. These are not the serious fights that drive partners to withhold affection, love and trust. Minor disagreements can even be flirtatious. It’s the serious fights characterized by screaming, name-calling and threats to abandon the relationship that do long-term damage to your bond. While some say, “all couples fight,” research has shown that every knock-down-drag-out degrades the relationship a bit. Avoiding this level of conflict as much as possible protects your relationship long-term. First and foremost, reducing the instances and severity of these fights depends on understanding the pain and fear driving your partner to dig in his heels or over-react to something you consider minor.

Frustration and The Win/Lose Mentality

Emotions begin to spiral out of control when frustration overwhelms us. You’ll recognize the standard frustration cycle.

The same comment or behavior comes up AGAIN

You get frustrated

you criticize or blame your partner

your partner becomes defensive

conflict escalates

your partner becomes more defensive

you’re both alienated from each other

Couples CAN prevent and break these cycles. Basically, when frustrated and angry, you feel the only way to ease your emotions is to WIN the argument. But your partner feels attacked the minute you begin criticizing him or her. The criticism sparks anger and now another’s roiling emotions come into play. Your partner now feels he or she must WIN to feel better. Both partners go into fight or flight mode. Be certain: in relationships, if you are arguing and trying to WIN, even if you win, you lose.

Frustrations Arise from Differences

To tackle the issue at the heart of tough fights, let’s step back for a moment. A frustration arises from a difference between what is true and what you wish were true. It’s a mismatch between:

What you want and what you’re getting

Who your partner is and who you wish they were

What is your belief about how it should be

But what is really true? Plato, in his Allegory of the Cave, explains that no one of us ever sees true reality. The philosopher asks us to envision observers in a cave staring at the cave wall. Behind the observers are several objects and behind the objects is a fire. The observers can see only the shadows on the wall, never full reality.[2] We are always limited to the shadows of reality that we see from our unique position in the cave. Similarly, one of my mentors, Terry Real, says “objective reality has no place in personal relationships.” An answer as to who is right and who is wrong will never get you to the truth.

Handling Two Views in One Relationship

With significant, inescapable differences, how are couples to manage? What we eventually come to understand is that our partner’s differences are just one half of the conflict. Our objection to these differences supplies the other half. When we criticize a difference, we say to our partner, “it’s not okay for you to be you.” This message hurts because it attacks identity. Further, it can rile old pain first felt in childhood. Our inability to tolerate and accept our partner’s differences frustrates us and creates an argument. The hard news: when you reject the difference, you reject “what is.” Exploring Your Rejection of Your Partner’s Difference Now we step back again . . . We can work on our rejection of differences when we recognize forces underlying our rejection. One reason we may strenuously object to our partner’s differences is ego or identity. Differences threaten a possibly decades-old world view about ourselves and overall right and wrong we’ve created to stay safe. When our partner presents his or her difference as acceptable and even normal, feelings of distrust, fear, disrespect, rejection, betrayal or even abandonment may arise in us.We then begin to tell ourselves a story regarding what’s going on with our partner. We may see him or her as crazy or basically mean or unethical. These conclusions are often inaccurate and based on opinions and judgments created in our pasts, sometimes even from pain. These old messages have nothing to do with pure knowing and being present. When we feel threatened and unsafe, potentially damaging conflicts spiral out of control.

The Conflict Itself Provides the Solution

One of my favorite phrases I picked up early in my career as a couples therapist is, “Conflict is growth trying to happen.” Conflict in itself is not terrible, IF couples can navigate it safely. I’ll repeat what I said above, “We like to think ‘you and I are one, and I am the one.’” Written out, everyone can see how selfish and misguided that attitude is. Differences don’t have to be threatening. They’re just different. When approached with wonder and curiosity, they help each partner grow and acquire new perspectives. Even two people who are very different can build a nurturing, strong bond that softens life’s blows and enriches each, UNIQUE partner. Partners do not have to be identical to exist in a relationship.

Reject Winning for Loving

Believe it or not, working to clarify our differences allows us to grow closer to each other. A laser focus on winning the fight ignores the real, helpful and nurturing work that the conflict supplies. What’s fascinating is that the intensity to which you object to your partners differences is directly correlated with your childhood wounds or needs are not met in childhood. In fact, what we fight about often has little or nothing to do with our partner and more to do with the difficulty you had historically in your life specifically with your parents. If the frustration is repetitive and emotionally charged, its roots are most likely a “need” that was not met in childhood which must be met in the relationship. Because the partnership unearths these old wounds, it’s ONLY in partnership that we have the greatest opportunity to understand and ease our pain. I also believe that the partnership is the closest we can get to a relationship to God. 

How do we Fight Better? Shift the fight’s ultimate goal

First of all, instead of pushing your point to WIN the argument, try approaching your partner’s differences with wonder, respect and curiosity. While it was easy to write that sentence, making that shift in behavior takes conscious effort and PRACTICE. (If you browse this website, you’ll see that I say repeatedly that relationship skills take practice. Given our imperfect upbringings, they rarely come naturally.) To make the fight most useful, helpful and eventually nurturing, take it out of the win/lose split. Instead, keep your eyes on what you can learn about your partner and about yourself. View your disagreement with curiosity and wonder about the assumptions you both are making, your unique upbringings and values. When you work to understand the world as your partner sees it, rather than to WIN, you choose to work with your partner rather than against him or her. You choose to strengthen your relationship, rather than your power or status in the relationship. Your partner most likely will be your closest team member while enduring this distance race of life. Don’t you want it to be strong? Therapists and researchers have found that when people can shift their view of the conflict from a win/lose situation to “growth trying to happen,” intensity and anger recedes. Curiosity and wonder takes its place. Which emotions would you rather experience? However, we cannot just stuff our frustration. It’s imperative for successful relationship that we each feel safe to share our frustrations about each other. I will write a blog post soon on how important it is to set up a safe way to express frustrations with partners.

Craig Lambert Couples Therapy Helps You Turn Conflict into Mutual Growth

If you like this post, please sign up for our email newsletter here. You can also browse the website for the issues you may be experiencing. Keep in mind that, unlike individual therapy, couples’ therapy addresses the relationship and how it can work with more love and connection, rather than any one partner. The healthy, happy relationship is an ever evolving journey not a destination.