The Purpose-Driven Fight
Updated: Feb 13
•Q: My boyfriend and I are writing you together. We get in fight after fight. Is fighting like cats and dogs a sign of incompatibility? Should we just stop—the relationship? Signed, J&W
• Hi: J&W: Fighting is one way of handling conflict when other means–discussion, dialogue, bargaining, or others– have either failed or not been tried. Fighting a lot is at best only an indirect sign of incompatibility; it is more likely though a direct sign of a lack of skillfulness at handling and using conflict.
• Think of conflict management as having beginnings, a middles, and ends, each with their own demands. Unskillfulness at the beginning can include falling into fighting too easily over too many things. Or, alternatively, that you simply avoid getting into it even when you should. Unskillfulness at managing conflict already underway includes use of any tactic that does not help you resolve your differences. Many of these are what turns conflict resolution into a full-blown fight. Treating each other poorly can take many forms: scaring each other with words, volume, tone, or movements; muddying the waters with irrelevant issues; assigning blame. Thus despite the energy you put in you two don’t actually manage to move the ball forward. Trouble at the end of the conflict can include not tying it off after a reasonable amount of time, and/or not reassuring each other that you are good with each other, including acknowledging anything you should not have done or said.
• We know that conflict has shifted to fighting when primitive, fear-driven responses accelerate and threaten to hijack us, or do hijack us. At these times our higher cortical error correction capacities begin to be compromised and we can wind up feeling as if we are fighting for our lives. Fighting becomes destructive when partners are not able to bring their primitive arousal down enough to think and feel at the same time, and wind up staying in those states for too long. Our childhoods could have provided us with tools to handle conflict by other, less primitive means well as to handle the fights that ensue when the other means fail, and to recover from them. Many of us though have arrived at adulthood without enough of these tools. And even so, some fighting is inevitable for most couples.
• But whether or not destructive fighting is not only a sign of lack of skill but is also an indirect sign of incompatibility depends on whether you two have fundamentally different purposes and values around what conflict in your relationship should be for (your purpose) and what it should look and sound like (your values). Incompatibility around your purposes and values for conflict is much more serious than lack of skill in moving through the three phases of conflict described above. Without compatibility of purpose and value you will not be able to identify and develop the skills you need to put into practice so as to reduce the negative consequences of destructive fighting and increase the benefits of conflict–including fighting–done well.
• Here’s what incompatibility of purposes and values looks like: One of you believes–or acts as if you believe–that conflict should bring you together through clarification of an issue, while the other believes that it’s an opportunity to vent your anger or to put pressure on your partner. Or one of you believes that conflict is how you can get your partner to change, while the other believes conflict is best used to preserve the current status quo, to prevent change. Notice that these are incompatibilities of purpose, and they are sometimes not fully thought out, rather inherited from our families of origin. Values in turn relate to the process of conflict. Some value the expression of face-to-face intensity of feeling, which could be incompatible with a partner’s value for reassuringly lower face-to-face intensity. Some value complete agreement while others are satisfied with a moving towards each other's position, enough to act together on. Though these may lurk just beneath the surface of actions and behaviors, they must still be compatible–ie, strongly overlap–for you two to make progress in handling conflict, including fighting, when it arises.
• An implication of agreeing on purpose and value is that even if you are incompatible right now around the purpose of conflict (or sex, any other activity you sometimes just fall into) it’s not the end of the road because incompatibility refers to what can be changed because it resides at the level of agreement. Agreeing on purpose and values sets you up with a good problem: how to make sure you do conflict, and even fight, in ways that align with what you have agreed our conflict and fighting should be for, and according to what you value in terms of parameters like intensity, volume, & degree of sharednes of perspective? You will thus have to develop capacity in the skills that are needed to carry out what you agree to, including the capacity of noticing when your actions don’t reflect those agreements.
• A good purpose for conflict might be to resolve differences that interfere with your happiness. Fighting may not be your first choice for how to do this, but it is likely and even important when other forms useful for conflict–discussion, dialogue, bargaining–fail. Perhaps just reading this will help you shift to a mutually beneficial purpose you can agree on, and values that take both of you into account, yielding bargains around how loud, or how long, etc. to go before tying it off. Then, virtually any expert source on conflict and fighting can help you with the relevant skills. For instance, if you have decided that conflict should resolve differences that interfere with your happiness (and I hope you have decided on this or something very similar), and you tend towards black and white thinking in ways that make those differences between you two appear insurmountable, then you need help with shifting to more complex thinking. You can get help with black and white thinking through books, videos, or finding a good couples therapist. If the latter, it should not take long to identify how you shoot yourselves in the foot when it comes time to make progress on a difficult topic.
• Fighting seems to just happen sometimes, but good couples seize hold of anything that recurrently suddenly just seems to happen and harness it for the good of them, shaping it to align with their purposes and values. A clear purpose for any joint activity, especially those that can go awry– is in the best interests of of the couple. Knowing what conflict is for and finding compatibility there will allow you to begin to develop the right skills, reducing your distress and your fears of incompatibility. If you can’t create compatibility at this level of purposes and values, and subsequently align actions and practices with them during conflict most of the time, you may find yourself suffering in ways that compromise your health and longevity. It would then be time to rethink the viability of the relationship.