When Chronic Fighting Is What Keeps a Couple Together

Chronic quarreling makes it possible to keep a safe distance from intimacy and closeness. Some people need that.

Amalia Rosenblum
Amalia Rosenblum
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Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in 'Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?' directed by Mike Nichols in 1966.
Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in 'Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?' directed by Mike Nichols in 1966.Credit: Photononstop/Screen Prod
Amalia Rosenblum
Amalia Rosenblum

Each of us knows a couple that is always fighting. They argue just before the guests arrive, and then think that next time there’s simply no need to have guests. But when the next time comes, and they go visit friends, they start to quarrel while they’re still home, getting ready to leave. They fight at home in Israel and think it’s because of the stress, so they go on vacation, but then they fight while they’re waiting for their luggage. Everyone has already witnessed their fights. And everyone – from the scarred children and the exhausted friends to the multi-slammed doors of the house – is involved in them.

Just as they fought in every possible way, so too they made up. They wrote each other letters, they made promises, they bought presents, they groveled, wrote poems, had themselves tattooed. They even tried to separate. One of them even left home for a few days, prompting sighs of relief from some in their immediate surroundings. But some unseen power seems to leave such couples imprisoned within the fight, like two pathetic boxers in the ring.

What’s happening here?

Contrary to what we may sometimes think, such couples don’t enjoy squabbling. They genuinely suffer, feel hurt, insulted and injured. They feel far apart when they fight, but don’t really feel close when they make up. The time between rounds keeps getting shorter, and they try all kinds of solutions, but nothing helps. For some reason, arguing has become the default mode of the relationship.

It’s not just a matter of disputes among couples, either. Siblings, too, can be imprisoned in this violent arena, and certainly duos such as mother-daughter, father-son and other family combinations. Fights in the family are like a high fever: a general symptom that can have any number of causes. Some of the situations that generate arguments reflect important developmental crises in the life of the family (such as one of the children entering the charming stage of adolescence). Other fights are a natural product of life’s dynamics (we both work very hard and at a given moment we compete for the same limited family “prerogative,” such as the right to be somewhat selfish and annoying).

Family rifts are constantly being created, and this is natural. But not all fights are something to be worried about, because sometimes arguing is a healthy or at least transient phenomenon and not a real problem. Still, the rifts can’t always be mended. And chronic fights that cannot be resolved are one of the frequent complaints voiced by couples who go to therapy (along with loss of passion, and so on). Which is why the leading couples therapists, in an effort to find an explanation, have investigated the dynamics of fighting. The conclusion reached by psychologist John Gottman, who observed hundreds of subjects, is that all couples fight – the only difference is how. (His books on “masters” and “disasters” in relationships have become best sellers and are easily available.)

The emotion-focused therapy approach, which was developed at different stages by Les Greenberg and Sue Johnson, enhanced the “all couples fight” approach and tried to understand what they are arguing about. Their conclusion: Almost all fights are ultimately variations on the same theme, namely, they are intended (ironically) to save the relationship, but each partner has a different emotional strategy that he thinks should be used to obtain that end and the two strategies collide and create the dispute.

But before Gottman and EFT, psychologist Murray Bowen also observed chronic and intense fights between family duos. He found that they are an expression of a low “level of differentiation” among family members. The term “differentiation” has become basic to many therapists’ understanding of the family picture they are confronted with. Briefly, according to Bowen, every person has a certain level of differentiation – a way of separating one’s own intellectual and emotional conduct from that of his family members. At the deepest level, differentiation of self attests to the ability to distinguish between one’s feelings and one’s thoughts. Within the dynamic of the family, however, it refers to the ability to withstand pressure from others that pushes a person toward “group identity” and instead to feel his “self” – that is, to recognize what he thinks and feels in a way that is independent of the “stew” of the joint identity of the family or of himself and his partner.

Similarly, the identity of someone who possesses a sufficiently high level of differentiation is not defined in terms of family or partner. In other words, this is not a person who rebels overtly against the family’s values (such as a member of a secular family who becomes religiously observant); he is capable of being close to the family experience in certain aspects (the son of vegetarian parents opens a vegan restaurant) and different in others (becomes a fan of Maccabi sports teams, while the rest of the family roots for Hapoel) – depending on what’s suitable for him. A person who enjoys a sufficiently high level of differentiation does not get uptight because others experience the world differently from him. He has no need to make those close to him conform to his experience or to merge with their experience.

In contrast to people who are sufficiently differentiated, people possessing with a low level of differentiation are unable to experience the difference between their feelings and their thoughts, and, in the same vein, are also unable to extract their authentic experience from the family minestrone. Here we start to begin to decipher the mystery of the never-ending fight.

Seemingly, if my level of differentiation is low, I feel very close to my partner. But in fact – and this is the point – if I suffer from a low level of differentiation, I am afraid of intimacy because I am not familiar with it. I have never experienced closeness in a way that does not swallow me up or assimilate me. My life experience has taught me that if I become excessively close to another person, I am liable to disappear into him completely.

People who possess a high level of differentiation are also afraid of being swallowed up, but are capable – even in situations of high stress, contradictory expectations or intimacy – of remembering themselves and their limits, of knowing what they want and what they do not want, and of realizing that the experiences of merging in a relationship will be transitory and that afterward each person can “return to himself,” in the best sense of the term.

This, however, is not how I will experience intimacy if my level of differentiation is low. When true closeness becomes an option, I am fearful of the possibility wherein, if I swallow the bait and enter into a relationship – I will find myself in a situation where my desires are erased and my boundaries disintegrate. For me, this is a genuine danger, because in the family in which I had my formative experiences, couples and family members know what the others in the family think and feel. (And if you’re from a family like that, you know that family telepathy outdoes any display of parapsychology and mind-reading you will ever see on television.)

In other words, imagine that I grew up, for the sake of the example, in a psychic reality in which everyone knows exactly what’s going on in the inner world of the others in the family. There are no boundaries between the worlds of, say, my mother and me, or between my world and my sisters’ world, and it’s possible that my father can breach the mental boundaries of my brothers. In short, we don’t need permission in order to butt into each other’s psyche. That’s the axiom I bring to my relationship – a dubious inheritance that I will afterward pass on to my children.

Thus, intimacy is not part of the experience of partners who are characterized by low differentiation. This follows from the fact that intimacy and differentiation are terms that relate to the experience of closeness between two subjects. If the level of differentiation that each of us has is so low that we feel like organs of an undifferentiated mass of “family ego” (Bowen’s term), intimacy will not be possible between me and my partner.

When I lie in bed at night alone, I can’t look myself in the eyes. Another person is needed to do that. And for that moment to reflect intimacy, we both need a sufficient level of differentiation to enable us to look each other in the eyes with the ability to move freely on an axis of distance, not out of surrender or submission.

This is the explanation Bowen proposes for the phenomenon of chronic fighting. In his view, even though it’s clear that the unfortunate couples described above don’t enjoy their fights, they still extract a significant benefit from them. The reason: Fights allow people who possess a low level of differentiation to feel close without the risk of being swallowed up.

When we see the miserable couple screaming, stalking out and slamming the door behind them, giving each other dirty looks, we may feel that we don’t have the strength for this anymore. But if we want to understand what they’re going through, we need to remember that people with a low level of differentiation are walking on the edge of an abyss. For them, their partner is the abyss that is liable to swallow them at any moment if they get too close to him. The fight is the bungee rope that ensures them that even if they get close to each other they will not be swallowed up, because their provocative views will protect them. From this point of view, a quarrel protects these couples from intimacy and from the concomitant fear of being swallowed up.

Fighting is such an effective solution for these couples, because in addition it protects them from independence (a term they don’t really grasp) and from the fear of separation and the feeling of loneliness that arises when the lights of high differentiation are shimmering on the horizon. Even though arguments seem to generate distance, and during them the couple will say they feel lonely – in practice, fights produce points of friction that calm us by allowing us to ascertain – at least while the argument is going on – that our partner (however angry, hurt and aggressive he may be) is still there. At the simplest level, it takes two (at least) to fight, so it follows that if we are quarreling we are two and certainly not alone.

In this way, fights become an effective mechanism to preserve the relationship of couples possessing a low level of differentiation. Serious, chronic arguments allow us to feel close without risking a merger, on the one hand, or separation, on the other. That’s one of the reasons that a couple caught up in such a chronic situation finds it so difficult to break loose from it. This is true even though the price exacted by fights becomes higher over the years, and the risk of total separation also increases.

But the picture is not black. According to Bowen, a lengthy, persistent effort is needed to change your place on the axis of differentiation, but the process can be successful, in part because this is actually a theoretical “pass-fail” test. No one gets 100 or 0 in differentiation on her imaginary axis.

Still, making progress up the trail of differentiation can be a risky process if only one member of the couple is making the journey. People tend to enter into relationships with others whose level of differentiation matches their own. Accordingly, if only one partner or family member sets himself the goal of separating his take on life from the collective take, the result will likely be tremendous systemic anxiety. If he succeeds, he will be able to have a positive impact on the emotional experience of everyone in the family, but until then he can expect to encounter serious resistance from those who feel that flesh of their flesh is being torn off.

Dr. Amalia Rosenblum is a family therapist. She can be reached at amalia.rosenblum@gmail.com.

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