The reason couples fight – understanding emotions
Some couples fight more, others less, but most of us do have arguments once in a while. There is nothing wrong with that as long as we can resolve the matter that caused the fight and put it behind us. However, some couples find themselves in escalating conflicts, which seem to reoccur with increased frequency. So, what is the reason couples fight? How can seemingly mundane and small things cause so much upset and have you end up in a vicious circle? There can of course be a number of explanations, but let’s look at this from the perspective of emotions and attachment.
What are emotions?
Emotions are sometimes seen as irrational but they are anything but that. The word “emotion” comes from the Latin emovere meaning “to move”. It makes sense because emotions motivate us and move us towards action. In another sense of this word we also talk about being “moved” by emotions, our own and others. When couples fight, emotions are usually running high, so let’s understand a bit more about them.
One way of looking at emotions is as a sequence of events which culminates in an “action tendency”. This is an urge to carry out a behaviour which is linked to an emotion, like an urge to attack if you’re angry, to flee if you are scared, or to look away if you feel ashamed. This action tendency is a response to a need such as that of survival, closeness, safety, or preserving our dignity.
So what does this sequence look like?
- A trigger kicks off the sequence.
- The trigger causes a rapid assessment of the situation in the limbic area of the brain. Is it a threat? Is it danger? This assessment happens very fast and isn’t necessarily accurate.
- The assessment leads to a response in the body, such as increased heart rate, flushing, getting warm etc.
- Following the initial response we make an interpretation of the situation. This so called re-appraisal involves our own experiences and memories and assigns meaning to the event.
- The action tendency then kicks in as a result of the meaning we assigned.
A practical example
Let’s use a fictive example with Peter to illustrate the sequence above.
When Peter was little he was once bitten by a dog. This was a terrifying experience for him. Peter’s mum, who was afraid of dogs, made sure to always protect him from any dogs, and reinforced to Peter that dogs are dangerous.
One day Peter goes out for a run. He turns around a corner and suddenly finds himself only a few metres from an oncoming pedestrian with her dog.
- Seeing the dog is the trigger for Peter.
- His limbic brain makes a rapid assessment that the situation is dangerous.
- Peter’s heart rate immediately increases, he can feel his heart pounding in his chest and a knot in his stomach. He starts sweating and breathes rapidly.
- Peter remembers the episode when he was bitten, and applies his general frame of reference which is that dogs are dangerous.
- Peter turns around and runs back the way he came to escape the dog.
In Peter’s case, meeting the dog caused Peter to feel fear. A common response to fear is to flee which is what Peter did. In doing so he responded to his need for safety which arose from this situation.
For someone who has had a different experience of dogs, the situation wouldn’t have triggered fear. Quite the contrary, it could have triggered joy and an urge to interact with the dog.
Sometimes we cover up our real emotions
It is also the case, that sometimes the initial emotional response is a feeling we don’t want to show or experience. We may not even have awareness of this. In that case we display another emotion instead. For example you might go numb instead of expressing anger, or you might express anger when in fact you are afraid. So why is this? Let’s look at attachment theory.
Attachment – how we naturally want to create safe bonds with others
In a similar fashion to the above example with Peter, different people can react differently to the actions, reactions and emotions of our partner when we are in a relationship. This is because we all have a history with learnt behaviours. Particularly, early in life we seek safety in our primary caregivers, usually our parents. How they respond to our needs to connect with them will shape the behaviours that we take with us to love relationships when we seek to connect with a partner. To briefly explain this, let’s look at the very basics of attachment theory.
Attachment in childhood
There are inborn, instinctive responses to threat and insecurity. An infant needs its mother (or other primary caretaker) and will seek and attempt to maintain closeness to this person. Their survival, as well as physical and emotional development is dependent on having a bond, an attachment, to this caretaker. They will then use this protective figure as a secure base from which they can safely explore unfamiliar situations and settings. If they feel they are in a situation of danger they will flee back for safety and comfort. Any behaviour that threatens this attachment is something that the child will learn to exclude in order to maintain the bond.
Sounds confusing? Consider these scenarios:
- A mother is emotionally available, sensitive and responsive to her baby’s signals and communications. If the baby cries, the mother picks it up and holds it, for as long as necessary. The essence of the communication is that the mother can sense what the baby is feeling and responding to its needs. The infant therefore feels secure communicating their feelings and needs to their mother and develops a secure attachment style.
- A mother is emotionally unavailable and uncomfortable with physical contact. When the baby is seeking contact she rejects it (verbally and physically) instead of comforting it. This makes the baby angry which threatens to further push the mum away. The baby therefore adapts its behaviour and in order to avoid the rejection and the anger, it doesn’t show its feelings nor seek closeness. It appears indifferent but in reality is stressed inside. This attachment style is called avoidant.
- The mother is sporadic in her emotional availability. Whether she responds to her child’s needs is unpredictable so the child gets sent mixed signals. The child then becomes very preoccupied with their mother’s whereabouts and doesn’t feel safe to wonder off to explore new situations. It becomes “needy’ and persistent in seeking contact, and develops an anxious attachment style.
- Finally a child which has been subjected to a lot of turbulence can develop a pattern which doesn’t fit into any of the above. It is characterised by irregularity and sudden shifts in behaviour. This disorganised attachment style develops in response to a caregiver who was frightening too much of the time.
John Bowlby was a pioneer of attachment theory. He suggested that we are biologically preprogrammed to create and maintain secure attachment to others.
Attachment in adulthood
The attachment style we learn early in life carry through to adult life and to adult attachment types or styles. Our attachment type indicate how we respond emotionally to a partner in a romantic relationship. This where we begin to touch on the reason couples fight.
Of course it is not realistic to think that people can just be put neatly into these different boxes, rather it is a continuum. We have elements of different attachment styles, and the more dominant style can change throughout life. A securely attached partner is more likely to bring out secure behaviour in someone with a predominantly insecure attachment for example. In that way, it is important to realise that you can change your attachment style.
Below is a brief overview of adult attachment types. Perhaps you recognise yourself?
- People with a secure attachment style feel comfortable with intimacy. They can communicate their needs and feelings to their partner and are able to be there for them. Naturally warm and loving they tend to invoke a sense of trust, support, reliability, connection, understanding, and presence in others. They can seek support if they need it and offer it to others.
- The avoidant attachment style can find close relationships difficult and sees intimacy as a loss of independence. Too much closeness can feel overwhelming to them. They don’t open up easily about their feelings. In addition they might be perceived as distant, dismissive, or workaholic. Rather than asking for help, they prefer to do things for themselves. Being approached by people can be stressful for them.
- A craving for intimacy characterises the person who has anxious attachment style. They can be perceived as needy, clingy, or controlling. Being very sensitive to their partner’s actions and mood, they easily get emotional and worry about the relationship. They can be anxious when their partner leaves them, even if just for routine events like going to work. Being alone can upset them.
- Finally there is a less common disorganised attachment style. It can be seen as a combination of the avoidant and anxious types, but the people who have this attachment style have survival defences on high alert to deal with a threat. They can come across as shut down, disconnected, panicky, rageful, overly anxious, depressed, self-absorbed, or controlling. They can also lack impulse control and feeling of self-worth.
The reason couples fight
Let’s now look at a fictive scenario between Sarah and John, and let’s see if we can understand the reason couples fight, when we look at this problem through the lens of emotion and attachment.
Sarah & John
Sarah is due home from work but is 30 minutes late. Whilst waiting for her, John is feeling anxious and is wondering why she isn’t home yet. He has called her a couple of times but got no response. His anxiety is increasing.
Sarah steps through the door and John bursts out in an attack “Where have you been? You are always late!” Sarah shrugs her shoulders, mumbles something and proceeds to avoid the attack by shutting down in silence. She occupies herself with taking her coat off, checking something on her phone, and proceeds with walking into another room. John follows and continues to express his anger. Eventually Sarah turns and lashes out back at him “Stop shouting at me! You always make such a big thing out of nothing. I had a meeting that overrun that’s all. Just calm down!”
What lies beneath?
In this scenario it’s easy to see two angry people, but what lies beneath the anger? What if what John really feels is not anger, but an underlying fear of separation or abandonment? This could stem from early childhood and also previous relationship experiences. Instead of expressing this vulnerability to Sarah, he reacts with anger. He protests because he cannot connect with her, and the anger becomes an attempt to reach her. Sarah on the other hand, who is afraid of escalating conflict, withdraws to protect herself from his attack. This is her way of coping which is an adaptation she learnt early in life. In the face of this unavailability of Sarah, John keeps trying to reach her. Sarah eventually feels overwhelmed and attacks back.
The argument is the enemy
So, you might think they argue about one person being late, but the reason this couple fights really is about other underlying unmet needs. They enter a vicious circle in which one person pursues and the other withdraws. The more Sarah withdraws the more John keeps clinging on to her. They see the other person as the enemy, but the enemy is in fact the behavioural pattern played out in the argument. For this couple, the pattern could look the same regardless of the actual content of the argument.
Stop the fighting by accessing needs and emotions
As you hopefully see by now, patterns like these, and similar ones, can develop in relationships because we are unable to access and communicate the needs we really have and the emotions that could help us get those needs met. For another couple, one person arriving home 30 minutes late might have been a non-issue and caused no conflict at all.
In situations like these, couples therapy can be of help to facilitate a process of change. In this process, the couple can find new ways of responding to each other and move into new patterns of interaction. Like Diane Poole Heller says in her book The Power of Attachment:
“secure attachment is always there, just waiting to be uncovered, recalled, practiced, and expressed. We might lose access to it from time to time, but we never lose our inherent capacity for secure attachment. Over time, we can also learn to embody secure attachment more naturally so that when we get stressed or triggered by something in our lives, we don’t automatically follow the insecurely attached thoughts, feelings, and actions that don’t serve us well.”
The reason couples fight can be different, but if you have attachment related problematic patterns in your relationship, addressing them could be of great help.
Contact & further reading
If this article resonated with you and you would like to speak with me about your relationship, or try couples therapy, you can read more here. The first three titles on the source list below also makes for good and easily accessible reading on this topic.
Levine, Amir; Heller, Rachel (2010), Attached: Are you Anxious, Avoidant or Secure? How the science of adult attachment can help you find – and keep – love, Pan Macmillan
Poole Heller, Diane (2019), The Power of Attachment, Sounds True
Johnson, Sue (2011), Hold Me Tight: Your Guide to the Most Successful Approach to Building Loving Relationships, Little, Brown Book Group
Wallin, David J. (2007), Attachment in Psychotherapy, Guilford Publications
Steigler, Jan Reidar (2020), Emosjonsfokusert Terapi (2. utgave), Gyldendal
Johnson, Susan M. (2020), The Practice of Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy (3rd ed), Taylor and Francis