What Are You Really Fighting About?

Photo composition of a man and a woman reflecting hurt and anger in their faces
Photo composition of a man and a woman reflecting hurt and anger in their faces

In June, my wife, Cathy, asked, "Do you want to go to Kyle and Lydia's wedding over Labor Day weekend? It's in Fresno."

Here's what raced through my mind: I like Kyle and Lydia. But the thought of driving 250 miles on a holiday weekend is as appealing as having my teeth pulled. I'm not sure I'd want to go to my own kids' weddings if they chose that date and location.

Wisely, I didn't reveal my thoughts and instead responded, "That's the last weekend of our summer. I'd rather be at home."

She said, "You're right. I'll RSVP a no."

Super!

Three weeks before the wedding, we were sitting in a diner, talking about our fall calendar. Cathy said, "I know you've said no to Kyle and Lydia's wedding, but I'd really like to go. [Wait for it ...] I feel like I say yes to a lot of your requests, and I wish you would say yes to more of mine."

Boom! Hello, conflict. For 30 minutes, we defended our positions while attacking and frustrating each other. We didn't yell — that's not our style — but we did hurt each other's feelings.

I'm guessing you've experienced your own share of instant arguments. Since you're human, you'll say and do things that wound, frustrate, hurt and damage your spouse. And your spouse will say and do things that hurt you. Certain words, looks and actions will provoke strong feelings, and it's fight time, again.

But many couples don't realize that hurt feelings are really fears that have been awakened. Those fears are what fuel fights and reactive behavior. Understanding the way relational fear feeds recurring conflict is the key to breaking the cycle of hurtful arguments.

The fear lurking behind conflict

Try thinking about the relationship between fear and hurt feelings this way: Normally your fear is taking a nap on the couch. When your spouse pushes your hot button — think of it as pushing a doorbell — the ringing awakens your fear, which jumps up to respond to the threat (the one that pushed your hot button). That's the origin of conflict: Fear is awakened. The kind of fear we're referring to isn't associated with being scared because you walk into a dark room or see a spider or because you encounter a creepy clown. We're talking about relational fear, such as the fear of rejection, disconnection, failure, unhappiness or loss.

Let me show you how this works by returning to the conflict Cathy and I had about the wedding in Fresno. My primary relational fear is not being good enough. That's the main hot button to awakening fear in me. Cathy's suggestion that I didn't say yes to her requests often enough pushed my button. My fear of not being a good enough husband was awakened, alerted and ready to answer the door for a fight.

Here's the short version of how I developed that fear: Even though my parents loved me, I felt as if I was never good enough. If I played in a baseball game and went three for four with two doubles, I might have heard, "Great game, Doug. Just think, if you'd been a little faster, you could have beat out that ground ball and been four for four. Wouldn't that have been amazing?"

Here's the truth: Going three for four is amazing, but it wasn't perfection.

Today the fear that I'm not good enough shows up in my marriage, my parenting, my work and my friendships.

Everyone has relational fears to some degree. Once you recognize how they operate, you can begin to avoid frustrating, hurtful arguments.

The cycle of negative responses

Relational fear wakes up ready to either fight or flee. One person's fear might explode, screaming and expressing anger. Another person's fear might open the door of conflict, then quickly shut it and stuff the anger internally. Both ways of dealing with fear lead to negative responses. And either way, your spouse feels your negative response.

Here's where awakening fear gets really messy: Your initial negative response pushes your spouse's hot button, awakening his or her fear. Once your spouse's fear is awakened, he or she will respond negatively to you. This starts a cycle: You feel hurt and respond negatively again. And round and round it goes.

What Cathy and I originally thought was the issue (the wedding) was only a front for something deeper. Most of the time, what couples describe as their issues aren't actually their real issues. They could argue about sex, money, time, in-laws; the real issue is their fear.

We didn't make it to the Fresno wedding, but then again, it was never about that.

Defusing fear in your marriage

Try this simple technique to uncover the fears that lurk behind every argument

I get fearful during scary movies and in-flight turbulence. Those fears are easily identified, but understanding relational fears is more difficult. How can you identify and defuse the fears that are driving your conflicts with your spouse?

One way is to evaluate the elements of a recent conflict or argument you had with your spouse. When you have a conflict in mind, find a piece of paper and write down the details from your perspective (not your spouse's). What was the argument about?

Next, write the answers to these two questions: What bothered you about this conflict? Why did you feel anger, hurt or frustration?

This is the most difficult and important step in stopping cyclical arguments because it requires you to think deeply about why you feel hurt during fights with your spouse. It may be emotionally painful. But don't give up and settle for a superficial answer like "It just made me mad" or "I guess I'm easily triggered." What's the real reason it made you mad? What might you have been afraid of? (If you need help, see "The Top-20 Relational Fears" below.)

Once you've pinpointed your fear, the next step is to identify your typical reaction. Do you explode or implode? Those two options describe the general way most people react.

Usually a response style can be pinned down more specifically. Do you shout? Give the cold shoulder? Pretend you're not upset? (For help choosing an accurate way to describe your fight or flight pattern, see "The Ways People Respond to Fear" below.) Write down the choices that best describe your reaction style.

Break the cycle

When you have the opportunity to talk with your spouse, ask him or her to do the same exercise just described. Then discuss your findings with each other; share the primary fears and the negative response behaviors you both uncovered.

This is not the time to rehash past fights. All you need to say is, "I think my primary fear is _____, and when my fear is triggered, my negative response is usually _____." It's important to listen carefully and respond to each other in a tender way, communicating love. Be extra-sensitive; no one enjoys talking about deep-seated fears.

Once you understand this negative cycle, discuss how you can change it by being more sensitive to each other's primary fears. For example, my default negative response is to go silent, which triggers Cathy's fear of disconnection. So during an argument, I can choose to stay engaged and respectfully share my hurt feelings with her, which would reassure her that I'm not disconnecting.

Choose a more positive response

The next time your fear is awakened, how could you respond in a more positive manner? Philippians 2:3-4 requires believers to be humble. We are to care not only about our own interests but also the interest of others, the foremost "other" being our spouse.

Take a moment to share with each other your ideal positive responses. As one of you shares, the other should listen and affirm, not make derogatory comments. (No fair saying, "Yeah, right. I can't see you ever responding like that!")

It's essential that you realize you are 100 percent responsible for your own hot buttons and responses and 0 percent responsible for your spouse's hot buttons and responses. You have the power of choice. You're no longer a victim of your past circumstances. You can choose a new, positive way to resolve conflict.

Conflict will always be knocking on the door of your marriage. The good news is that if you deal with your fears, conflict doesn't have to move in and make a mess of your marriage.

Adapted from The First Few Years of Marriage, © 2017 by Jim Burns and Doug Fields. Used by permission of David C. Cook.

The Top-20 Relational Fears

Not only does everyone experience relational fear to some degree, but we also share similar fears. The top-20 most common relational fears are listed below to help you identify what awakens your fear cycle.

  • Being rejected
  • Being judged
  • Feeling disconnected
  • Feeling lonely
  • Being powerless
  • Being invalidated
  • Feeling defective
  • Feeling inferior
  • Feeling worthless
  • Feeling like a failure
  • Being devalued
  • Feeling humiliated
  • Being misunderstood
  • Being abandoned
  • Feeling unimportant
  • Being ignored
  • Being unwanted
  • Being disliked
  • Feeling distrustful
  • Feeling unhappy
Adapted from "Why Good Marriages Go Bad" by Michael and Amy Smalley. Used by permission of SmalleyInstitute.com

The Ways People Respond to Fear

When your spouse pushes your hot button and your fear is awakened, how do you respond? The following list includes some of the most common negative responses. Do you see words that describe your reaction?

  • Withdraw
  • Escalate
  • Blame
  • Manipulate
  • Throw tantrums
  • Go into denial
  • Invalidate/minimize
  • Become defensive
  • Become clingy
  • Become passive-aggressive
  • Go into fix-it mode
  • Complain/criticize
  • Lash out
  • Exaggerate/catastrophize
  • Become enraged
  • Shut down emotionally
  • Deflect with humor
  • Display sarcasm
  • Rationalize
  • Become indifferent
Adapted from Your Best Us: Marriage is easier than you think, © 2016 by Ted Lowe. Used by permission of The ReThink Group.

How strong is your marriage? Find out today with the Focus on Marriage Assessment. This reliable assessment is based on the research and experience of Focus on the Family's marriage experts Dr. Greg and Erin Smalley. Take this free assessment now. 

This article first appeared in the August/September 2018 issue of Focus on the Family magazine. If you enjoyed this article, read more like it in Focus on the Family's marriage and parenting magazine. Get this publication delivered to your home by subscribing to it for a gift of any amount.
© 2018 by Doug Fields and Jim Burns. Used by permission.

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