Why Couples Fight: Comments on Esther Perel’s “Fight Smarter” Series.

Some of our most hurtful moments can come at the hand of someone we love. According to Esther Perel and her YouTube presentation, Fight Smarter: Put Escalating Fights on Ice, Esther claims that the reason we fight is because one of three needs.

  1. The need for closeness and care.
  2. The need for respect and recognition.
  3. The need for power and control.

I find it interesting that this list correlates to different stages of social emotional growth that occurs in our younger years (credit to Erik Erikson). Understanding that, it can be suggested that the source of our fighting is not what is happening in the moment, but a re-engagement with something that has happened in the past.

Our Hurt is Past Based

When we feel hurt by a loved one, the hurt is more than the current event. For example, you like to be punctual. Your loved one is always late. You ask your loved one to take note of your desire and adjust himself accordingly. Your loved one tries their best but ultimately fails from time to time because punctuality is not high on their priority list.

Therein lies the problem. Because punctuality is not high on their priority list, you translate that to you not being high on their priority list.

And that hurts.

However, it doesn’t simply hurt because of the actions of your loved one. It hurts because long ago you were in a situation, or multiple situations, where you felt like you were not a priority.

For example, lets rewind to when you were two-years-old. Imagine it has been a long, busy day for your parent. They put you in your crib/bed expecting that you would fall fast asleep. But you don’t. You cry and call for them. No one comes. You cry and cry some more, feeling frantic and scared and eventually, someone comes to check on you.

By that point, you will have experienced incredible anxiousness. And because of that emotional activation, your mind has stored an imprint of that experience; the experience of not being a priority. And now your mind is wanting to protect you from ever having that feeling again. So it sets an alarm to go off anytime there is a message from the outside world that you are being disregarded.

So, when you’re loved one shows up late, it triggers that old messaging. 

It feels uncomfortable. The brain does not like to feel that way. To protect you, your mind musters up the energy to launch a campaign (or attack).

All that energy you are feeling the moment your loved one is late, is your body wanting to protect you from more pain. You may think that your loved one is responsible for how you are feeling, but they are not. You are.

If you do not attend to how you are feeling, you risk putting that uncomfortable energy on your loved one. As a result, they won’t even hear your message. They will feel your message. And because the message is one of pain, your loved one will feel that. But they are not responsible for all of that pain, because most of it was inside of you before your partner ever came into the picture.

A Loved One is not Responsible For Your Pain

When your loved one shows up late, and you feel very uncomfortable inside, you need to determine one of two things. 

  1. Is your reason to get upset at your loved one because your schedule was negatively effected, or
  2. Is your reason to be upset because you need your loved one to be on time to make you feel better.

If it is the second one, that is not your loved one’s job. 

What if your loved one feels better when they are NOT punctual. What if they had a parent that was critical every time they arrived home, so they have programming that makes the feel uncomfortable when they arrive on time. Maybe they need you to late more often or to just not care so much!

What is important here is to be aware of the feeling of discomfort that is inside of you. And to know that you need to take care of this uncomfortable feeling, not your loved one. I am not suggesting that you be OK with their behaviour. What I am suggesting is that you need to check in with how you feel in response to the choices they make, and what YOU are going to do about how you feel, not your loved one.

Why We Fight

We fight because we are asking another to take our pain away. Your words can sound harsh or irrational if you are not careful with the feelings that are welling up inside of you. When your loved one makes the pain worse (engaging in the fight), you retaliate. That is how fights escalate. Each person is yelling (on the outside) about being punctual, but really what they are yelling (on the inside), is that they need you to hear them and get that awful feeling to go away. 

You keep fighting because the other person can not take the pain away. They can lessen the intensity by listening and validating, but they can not take the pain away. That is something that can only be done by you.

Once you do that, you won’t feel the need to fight anymore. Because you will understand yourself better and feel like a more contented, grounded you. And then you will be able to communicate respectfully and find a common understanding.

For some good fun, check out my YouTube video on a similar topic:

Perel, Esther. Fight smarter: Put escalating fights on ice.

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