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The Purpose-Driven Fight

Updated: Feb 19

•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


The gist: Couples who believe that their purpose is to create a win win, and who know that a win-lose is actually a lose-lose, know that their conflict tactics must align with finding a win for both. A resolution can't work if it is at one person's expense. Conflict tactics must help regulate ours and our partner's arousal, so that we can think, feel, track our partner and adjust according to what we see.


I write these pieces for therapists starting their training in couple therapy, as they explain a conceptual point with reference to specific client concerns. Some couples will find them helpful as well.


• Hi: J&W: You want to know if fighting alot is a direct and clear sign of incompatibility. The answer is no. Fighting is one way of handling conflict when other means such as discussion, dialogue, bargaining or others have either failed or not been tried. Fighting a lot is more likely a sign of a lack of alignment between your purpose for conflict and the tactics you are using to carry them out. Here's the short version: your purpose must be to create a win-win, and you and your partner's tactics must skillfully carry out that purpose.

• Think of conflict management as having beginnings, middles and ends, each with their own tactical demands and where poor tactics will compound low-level threat and take you down. Beginnings: Poor tactics at the beginning can include using pressure to get what you want fast, as if you can just run your partner over. Or, alternatively, avoiding getting into conflict at all over what you want, even when you should, because an issue is too important to ignore, and yet you ignore it. This latter is clearly not the problem H&W are describing, but it is characteristic of some couples. Middles: Poor tactics at managing conflict already underway include use of any tactic that does not help you resolve your differences. Some of these are what turn simple disagreement into fighting. Treating each other poorly can take many forms: speaking in absolutes ("you always"), scaring each other with words, volume, tone, or movements towards or away; muddying the waters with too many or with irrelevant issues; or assigning blame, portraying your partner as a villain and yourself as a hero or a victim. These latter can be communicated in subtle ways, e.g. through word choice and tone. Not noticing that your partner has tipped over (e.g. if their nervous system is overloaded with fight, flight or freeze arousal) and thus that the conflict is no longer fair. In none of these tactics are you two going to manage to move the ball forward. Ends: Poor tactics at the end of the conflict can include not tying it off after a reasonable amount of time, not reassuring each other, not acknowledging anything you should not have done or said, and (still) not noticing that your partner has tipped over and not recovered. If too many conflicts end in fighting and too many of these indulge in too many of these poor conflict tactics, you will start to dread conflict, no issues will get resolved, and you'll wonder about your compatibility.

• At any of the phases, we know that conflict has shifted from disagreement to fighting when primitive responses accelerate threat cues and hijack us. At these times our higher cortical error correction capacities are compromised and we can wind up feeling as if we are fighting for our lives, even though it is our chosen partner in front of us. Fighting becomes destructive when partners are not able to respond to threat by bringing theirs and their partner's arousal down where they can think and not just feel strongly, and as a result, can track their partner's arousal and adjust in light of what they see. Both thinking and feeling have to be online to make progress. Many of us have arrived at adulthood without enough of the tools and tactics of regulating our own and others' arousal as needed.

• Being good at regulating arousal when conflict looms is a matter of aligning purpose and tactics. Do you understand that your purpose for conflict is always to ensure that your partner knows that you understand their needs, interests, and concerns? If so, every move you make must have one eye on whether the tactic shifts arousal more than partner can handle. Tactics that cue for threat without you noticing the impact will take you both down. Though threat cues usually raise arousal–thus to fight or flight, for some, threat cues push arousal too low, leading to a feeling and perceptible cues of defeat. Complicating the picture, for some, high arousal for too long can plunge soon afterwards to a blunted lower arousal of defeat. In any of these cases, unregulated arousal within conflict brings the couple outside of their capacity to thoughtfully provide for a win-win for both.

• What tactics are regulatory both of arousal (feeling) and thus allow good thinking at any point in the conflict? At the risk of repetition, any of the following are good bets: foregrounding your partners' needs and interests rather than your own, until it is clear you have understood them; talking slowly enough to allow for correcting any errors; making a case for why your partner will benefit from taking your point of view--ie, what's in it for them to see it your way; holding the floor only briefly--10-15 seconds is long enough (and that's pretty short until you are used to being concise); sequencing properly, e.g. never ending a turn at talk with a complaint (complaints belong first, if at all); owning when you are out of line and repairing immediately; taking breaks after 7-12 minutes at the most; showing that you are not using any of the tactics you know your partner hates and have asked you not to use. The bottom line is that any tactic will work for you as a couple only to the extent it helps your partner stay engaged and thus able to think, feel, track and adjust. You are their regulator, they are yours.

• So conflict tactics comprise all the moves you make. Some tactics are best suited for specific phases of the conflict. Beginning: A good tactic for the earliest phase of a conflict is to frame not in terms of a complaint but rather in terms of what you are looking for, e.g. "I think we need better ways of deciding what we will do for vacation, can we brainstorm some ideas." Your partner will likely know that this comes from a prior complaint of yours or unsatisfying experience, so there's no need to start with the complaint, just make the gesture that offers solving a problem. Middle: A good tactic for the middle is to summarize what each person is advocating, especially what your partner is saying, and in a way they will agree that it reflects their concerns, and is not distorted in your favor. End: A good tactic for the end is to stop at 5-7 minutes (you can set a timer as soon as you realize you are in a conflict). At the very end, try naming the progress that has been made, and finally name the next piece of progress that is needed to move things forward. But do something else together first, something different, distracting, playful if possible, or simply another non-conflictual topic. Each of the tactics mentioned here is comprised in turn of many others at a smaller scale, including word choice, order and tone.

• To reiterate, the right purpose for couple conflict is to resolve differences that interfere with your happiness. Fighting may not be your first choice for how to do this, but it is important to be good at all forms of conflict, whether discussion, dialogue, or when these fail, fighting. Alignment of tactics to win-win works for all forms of conflict but it is easiest to lose track of alignment when arousal starts to rise (or fall) too much for thinking, feeling tracking and adujsting at the same time. Expert sources on conflict and fighting can help you with additional relevant tactics to the ones cited above, once you have agreed on the win-win. For instance, if you have decided that conflict should resolve differences that interfere with your happiness and thus require win-wins, and yet you tend towards black and white thinking and tactics in ways that make those differences between you two appear insurmountable (and your partner appear to be unreasonable) then you also need help with shifting away from black and white thinking. You can get help with black and white thinking through books, videos or finding a good couples therapist. These will provide the tactics that promote more complex forms of conflict aligned with a win-win. It should not take long to identify how you shoot yourselves in the foot with self- and other-defeating tactics when it comes time to make progress through conflict.

• Knowing what conflict is for and finding agreement there will allow you to begin to develop tactics that reduce your distress and your fears of incompatibility. If you can’t create compatibility at the level of purpose and subsequently align actions and practices with that purpose during conflict most of the time, you will find yourself suffering in ways that compromise your health, longevity and happiness. It would then be time to rethink the viability of the relationship. Your next relationship may well devolve into the same kind and style of fighting, so you should first consider working with someone who can help you see how the tactics you are using do not contribute to a win-win.


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