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What Are We Looking for When We Fight with Others?


Many of my clients seem to argue alot.  A husband and wife bicker about almost everything, a divorced client and his former wife go at it over raising their daughters, and a mother and daughter are constantly at each others’ throats even as they swear they want to get along better. I’d attribute their behaviors to the COVID pandemic, but their battles started long before then and are still going strong. 

At any rate, this got me thinking about why we argue (and that “we” includes me). It takes so much energy and effort, causes such grief, and often doesn’t get us anywhere. Why do we do it and what do we hope to accomplish when we get into verbal fisticuffs?

  • We want what we want or for things to be a certain way: the toilet seat up or down, a vacation always by the shore and never in the mountains, to watch the playoffs rather than go food shopping or vice versa.
  • We’re in a grumpy mood and just about anything could set us off: the water in the sink coming out brownish, our partner bringing home the wrong kind of pears, Mom calling to say hello for the third time today. 
  • We’re upset at something else that maybe we recognize or maybe we don’t and its hard to sit with it: we’re really worried that our son hangs out with a rough crowd, but pick on him for leaving his wet towel in the bathroom; we haven’t had sex with our wife for two years and it’s too painful to keep trying to get her to talk about why, so we jump on her for burning the toast.
  • We feel powerless in a relationship and arguing makes us feel powerful: our husband insists on making all the decisions, so we pick fights on minor things as power grabs, or our boss won’t give us a raise or promotion, so we make life difficult for her by challenging nearly every word she says.
  • We’re feeling sad, hurt, helpless or grief-stricken and anger makes us feel mighty and strong: Dad is in the hospital and we’re a bundle or nerves so we lash out at the nurse for not answering immediately when he rings his call button, or we’re sad being single while attending a close friend’s wedding, so we start a fight with her to feel justified in not going.

Anything here sound familiar? My point is to help you understand what you’re feeling, especially if it’s angry more often than you’d like. Try asking yourself what you’re really feeling and digging beneath your anger to identify what’s actually causing it. Assess your relationships and see if you can improve them without fighting but simply by talking about things that are upsetting you.