The #1 Reason Why Couples Fight (& How To Do It Correctly)

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tense couple

If love is such a necessity in relationships, why do couples end up fighting anyway?

In therapy, couples often ask me why they fight, considering the process is so stressful and can be painful. 

Of course, they also want to learn how to stop fighting in a relationship, but the answer remains elusive and complicated.

RELATED: Why Having The 'Same Old Fight' Is A Sign You May Be Soulmates

Fighting can be healthy (if it's done right). 

Even healthy relationships can go through various relationship problems.

At a basic neuroscientific level, we must understand how we tick. Our brains are wired for survival. Whenever the limbic — or reactive brain — senses danger to that survival, it kicks in to protect us.

Why couples fight — even though it feels terrible

In that part of the brain, we are mammals. As such, we only have a few reactive patterns available to us. 

Animals in nature will either fight, flee, freeze or submit. Think of the tiger, the deer, the opossum, or the wolf.

Each has a distinct way of reacting when threatened. And so do we.

Some of us expand our energy when our relational space feels unsafe. We get louder, have more words, and pursue the argument or fight.

Maybe we’ll follow you out of the room, keep calling you back, or refuse to sleep until our issue is resolved.

Others constrict energy when upset. We shut down, get quiet, and walk away. We’ll do anything to avoid conflict. Perhaps we’ll even fall asleep to get away from our partners who are usually exhibiting expanded energy.

RELATED: How To Deal With People Who Think You're Arguing Every Time You Try To Express Yourself

Opposites attract — and tend to fight

Here’s the rub: Typically, we are attracted to and fall in love with a partner who exhibits the opposite energy of ours. We practice these reactive patterns in childhood by learning to survive the dynamics in our families of origin.

For example, some of us learn to demand that our needs get met by protesting loudly. We may yell, scream and tantrum to get the love and attention we’re seeking.

Have you ever had the adult version of a child’s protest? Perhaps you or your partner have occasionally, or frequently, engaged in yelling, name-calling, slamming doors, pursuing, or even hitting.

Harville Hendrix, Ph.D., labels this energy pattern as the "Hailstorm." On the other end of the spectrum, we have what Hendrix calls "Turtle energy."

Perhaps you or your partner are familiar with shutting down, refusing to talk, walking away, hiding, or distancing.

This is similar to a child who hid in the closet or under the bed to avoid conflict and intense emotion when young.

RELATED: Why Men Pull Away (And How To Make It Stop)

Some people's patterns of survival collide

When these two patterns of survival begin to interact with one another, the result is a fight. Each party has pulled on their "survival suit" and the clanging in the middle can be deafening!

So, when we fight with someone we love, it has nothing to do with the degree of care or commitment we have to our partners. Rather, it has everything to do with the degree of skill we have in containing our limbic reactivity.

In couples therapy, we teach containment. To be "relationally mature," a couple must have the proper skills to communicate in a way that does not trigger their Hailstorm or Turtle energy.

Neuroscience has also taught us the power of eye gaze, touch, and breath in keeping any two people connected and calm.

When used consciously, these tools can help couples to discuss the most difficult topics without turning it into a fight.

RELATED: Why We Need Love To Resolve Conflicts

How to resist reactivity:

I witness couples resolving their differences while maintaining full presence and commitment to understanding, validating and empathizing with each other. In other words, we can learn to stay in the cortex.

The cortex is part of our brains that is not reactive but is mature, smart, and thoughtful. In full connection with our partners, we can resist the pull into our reactive natures and stay there. This allows us to be thoughtful, analytical, and mature and to resolve our problems and issues … something that never happens while fighting.

If you find yourself fighting with someone you love, blame it on your brain! Also, know that good therapy can help you to find a way out of that pattern of relating so you can actually have a healthy relationship.

Good communication can be learned with the help of an experienced guide.

RELATED: 8 Ways To Resolve Conflict In Your Relationship When You're Sick And Tired Of Fighting

Mary Kay Cocharo is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in private practice in West Los Angeles, California. 

This article was originally published at Mary Kay Cocharo's website. Reprinted with permission from the author.