What's Your Conflict Style?

Why Do Couples Fight? A Family Systems Take

Oct 07, 2023

Conflict is an inevitable part of human interaction, and in romantic relationships, it often feels like treading on a tightrope. It's a delicate balance between expressing oneself and harmonizing with one's partner. However, when disagreements turn into persistent conflicts, the harmony gets disrupted, leaving couples in a whirlpool of stress and emotional disarray. This blog post dives deep into the psychology of relationship conflicts, shedding light on why couples find themselves at loggerheads and how understanding family systems, communication breakdowns, and the principle of differentiation can pave the way toward resolving conflicts and fostering a healthier, more fulfilling relationship. Through the lens of a family systems theory, we'll explore the dynamics of conflict, unravel the fabric of togetherness and autonomy, and provide insights into navigating the tumultuous waters of relationship discord.

One of the main causes of couples fighting is because they don't understand their conflict style - have you taken our Conflict Style Quiz yet?

For more on Bowen and Differentiation of Self, check this page out



Embracing Differences: A Challenge in Relationships

Falling in love is like getting a dose of the warm fuzzies - everything your partner does is adorable, and you're both vibing on the same wavelength. It's all sunshine and rainbows, until one day, it's not. Suddenly, you notice you're poles apart on things you never discussed before and you've not seen your friends in months.. Whether it's about being a dog person versus a cat person, or having different tastes in movies, the differences start popping up like uninvited guests at a party.

Each tiny difference has the potential to be a disagreement, and each disagreement has the potential to turn into a full-blown argument which could result in the relationship ending. This is a threat to us on some level! The differences don't have to be big either, it could be about serious stuff like political views or quirky little things like which TV show is better. These differences, if not handled well, can create an unconscious tension between two people.

The knee-jerk reaction? Trying to change your partner. If only they could see it your way, everything would go back to being perfect, right? Wrong. Trying to change your partner usually comes off as nagging or criticizing, and let's be real, nobody likes that. It just adds fuel to the fire and before you know it, the gap between you two is wider than ever.

Trying to change your partner is like trying to fit a square peg in a round hole - it's a futile effort to get rid of the discomfort that comes with differences. It's an attempt to recreate the early days of love where everything felt just right. But this only leads to more arguments, creating a vicious cycle of conflict.

The real deal? Embracing the differences. It's about creating a space where both of you can be your authentic selves, quirks and all. It’s about breaking the cycle of trying to change each other and stepping into a rhythm of open communication and understanding.

Navigating through differences isn’t a walk in the park, but it's totally worth it. It's about finding a middle ground while still cherishing what makes each of you unique. It's about having those tough conversations and coming out stronger on the other side. And guess what? It's through navigating these differences that you both grow, learn, and build a deeper, more understanding relationship.

Automatic Reactive Behaviors: Triggers of Conflict

Ever have one of those days when everything your partner says just rubs you the wrong way? It's like they have this superpower to push all your buttons, fill you with frustration without even trying. Well, welcome to the world of automatic reactive behaviors. These are our go-to reactions when stress and anxiety crash our party. It's like having an auto-pilot mode but for conflicts.

Our Automatic Reactive Behaviors:

Attack or Defend: When feeling threatened or stressed, individuals might lash out verbally or physically, or become defensive to protect themselves.

Physical Retreat: Escaping stressful situations physically, like spending more time away from home to avoid confrontation.

Psychological Withdrawal: Mentally disconnecting from stressful situations, like immersing in video games or excessive internet use to avoid facing problems.

Emotional Overload: Getting overwhelmed by emotions, leading to impulsiveness, rage, or tearfulness which disrupts effective communication and resolution.

Let's say you had a rough day at work, and you come home to find the dishes piled up in the sink. Boom! Your automatic reactive behavior kicks in, maybe it's snapping at your partner or giving them the silent treatment. It’s like these behaviors are on standby, ready to jump into action whenever tension brews.

Now, the script isn’t too different on the other side. Your partner has their own set of automatic reactive behaviors. So, when the going gets tough, these behaviors lock horns and voila, you have a conflict brewing.

These automatic reactive behaviors are like sneaky little conflict ninjas. They come out when the anxiety in the room reaches a certain level. They are triggered by the buildup of chronic anxiety, which could be anything from job stress, money issues - like spending too much, power struggles to family issues. And they come in various flavors - maybe it's attacking, defending, withdrawing, or just shutting down emotionally.

The catch here is, these behaviors are often on autopilot. They swoop in before we have a chance to think things through. So, instead of having a calm discussion about what’s bothering us, we end up in a heated argument, saying things we might regret later.

The magic solution? Becoming aware of these automatic reactive behaviors. It's about catching ourselves before we fall into the automatic conflict mode. It’s about learning to respond to situations rather than reacting impulsively to do that we have to learn to understand our emotions and separate them out from our thoughts, and that is part of lowering chronic anxiety and the path to bring back intimacy.. And this isn’t a solo act. It’s a duo performance where both partners learn to recognize when their automatic reactive behaviors are taking the front seat and learn to steer the conversation back to a healthier route.

Navigating through these automatic reactive behaviors isn’t a cakewalk. It requires a good dose of self-awareness, open communication, and a sprinkle of patience. But mastering this can be a game-changer in reducing conflicts and creating a serene, understanding space for both partners.

Conflict Styles: Understanding and Overcoming

We all have our unique ways of handling conflict, like a signature dish but with a side of stress. These conflict styles are shaped by our past experiences, and they pop up every time we find ourselves in the ring, facing disagreement.

Some of us are like the knights in shining armor, ready to face conflict head-on. Others might prefer the silent treatment, turning into ice sculptures when disagreements arise. Then there are the peacekeepers, always trying to smooth things over even if it means sweeping issues under the rug.

Understanding our conflict styles is like having a map to navigate through the stormy seas of disagreements. It’s about knowing when we’re sliding into old patterns that only lead to more discord. It’s the first step towards breaking free from these automatic responses and finding healthier ways to address issues.

But hey, knowing is only half the battle. Overcoming the shackles of old conflict styles requires a conscious effort. It's about practicing new ways of responding to conflicts, whether it’s learning to listen, voicing concerns calmly, or finding a compromise. It’s a joint venture where both partners work together to build a sanctuary of understanding amidst a world of differences.

The beauty of overcoming old conflict styles is that it creates a space for growth, care, understanding, and deeper connection. It’s about moving from a place of conflict to a place of resolution, fostering a culture of open communication and respect. And as we practice and grow, we not only overcome conflicts but also build a stronger, more resilient bond that can weather any storm.

Togetherness and Autonomy: Balancing the Forces

Every relationship dances between the pull of togetherness and the push of autonomy. Togetherness draws us into the warm embrace of love, shared experiences, and emotional intertwining. On the flip side, autonomy propels us towards preserving our individuality, exploring personal passions, and maintaining a sense of self. Striking a balance between these opposing forces is like crafting a delicate piece of art. It's about nurturing a shared life while honoring each other’s independent spirits. By navigating this dance gracefully, couples can foster a relationship that's rich with mutual respect, understanding, and a unique rhythm that celebrates both unity and individuality.

The delicate dance between togetherness and autonomy can easily trip into a realm of conflict when the balance is lost. Too much togetherness can smother individuality, leading to resentment, while excessive autonomy might sow seeds of disconnection. When couples struggle to find a middle ground, disagreements may arise, fostering dissatisfaction. The challenge lies in nurturing a shared existence without overshadowing each other's unique identities, and when this balance tilts, conflicts often find their way to the surface, testing the harmony, trust and understanding in the relationship.

What Else Does Murray Bowen Say About Conflict?

Murray Bowen, a prominent family therapist, had many insights into conflict within relationships. One key concept he introduced is the idea of differentiation of self. According to Bowen, differentiation of self is the ability to balance emotional closeness with autonomy and individuality.

Bowen believed that individuals with higher levels of differentiation are better equipped to handle conflicts in relationships. They are able to separate their own thoughts and feelings from those of their partner, allowing them to respond in a calm and rational manner. This ability to remain composed during conflicts can help prevent escalation and promote resolution.

Another important aspect of Bowen's perspective on conflict is the idea of triangles. He suggested that individuals often pull in a third person or issue when they are unable to resolve conflicts directly with their partner. This can create additional complexity and tension in the relationship.

To overcome these challenges, Bowen emphasized the importance of self-awareness and self-regulation. By understanding their own emotions and triggers, individuals can better navigate conflicts and respond in a more constructive manner. Bowen also stressed the significance of open communication and active listening, as these skills can help partners better understand each other's perspectives and find common ground.

In conclusion, Bowen's insights on conflict highlight the importance of maintaining a balance between togetherness and autonomy, developing a strong sense of self, and practicing effective communication. By incorporating these principles into their relationship, individuals can improve the quality of their connection and work towards resolving conflicts in a healthy and constructive manner.


What are the most common causes of fights between couples?

Every duo in love faces disagreements, with typical concerns circling around communication, managing time, and financial matters. In the early stages, trust and closeness are often at the forefront, while those in long-standing unions may spar over daily chores and habits. Stress, as expected, magnifies these communication hurdles, highlighting the importance of tackling recurring issues in tranquil moments.

A research endeavor led by Amie Gordon involving 100 cohabiting pairs explored usual conflict catalysts. Pairs were prompted to rate 15 potential discord topics based on their personal encounters, sketching a wide spectrum of usual disagreement zones. The revelations were eye-opening. Disagreement was apparent across all spheres, yet kin relationships, religious discussions, and financial matters had a higher contention rate. Intriguingly, a significant number of couples had robust agreement on family and religious matters. The leading trio of contentious domains included communication methods, conventionality (suitable behavior), and sexual concerns, closely trailed by chores and financial debates. Intriguingly, leisure pursuits were the least troubling, with merely 2% of pairs deeming it a recurrent concern.

A separate investigation unveiled that finances topped the chart of issues wedded couples quarrel about, with a whopping 86% of couples who tied the knot in recent years commencing their journey in debt. It was also disclosed that the weightier a couple's debt load, the likelier they were to have financial squabbles.

Fighting is a natural part of any relationship, and couples often find themselves embroiled in heated arguments. While the triggers for fights can vary from couple to couple, there are a few common causes that tend to crop up time and again. By understanding these causes, we can work towards resolving conflicts and nurturing a healthier, more harmonious bond. So, let's delve into the most common reasons why couples fight:

1. Poor communication: Communication is key in any relationship, and when it breaks down, conflicts arise. Misunderstandings, misinterpretations, and lack of effective listening can all contribute to fights. It's important for couples to express themselves honestly and genuinely, while also being attentive and empathetic towards their partner's needs and concerns.

2. Financial issues: Money matters can be a significant source of tension in relationships. Disagreements over spending habits, financial priorities, and budgeting can lead to heated arguments. It's crucial for couples to have open and honest discussions about their financial goals, create a shared budget, and find ways to compromise on expenditures.

3. Household responsibilities: Unequal distribution of household chores and responsibilities can create resentment and friction between partners. Disputes often arise when one person feels overwhelmed by the workload or believes their efforts are not being appreciated. It's important for couples to have regular conversations about the division of labor and find a fair and equitable way to share responsibilities.

4. Intimacy and sex: Sexual issues or a lack of intimacy can also be a common cause of fights between couples. Differences in desire, preferences, or satisfaction levels can lead to frustration and resentment. It's essential for couples to have open and honest conversations about their sexual needs and desires, and to work together to find ways to enhance intimacy and satisfaction in their relationship.

5. Trust and jealousy: Trust is the foundation of any healthy relationship, and when it's broken, fights can erupt. Jealousy, suspicion, and betrayal can all undermine trust and create tension between partners. It's important for couples to prioritize trust-building activities, such as open communication, transparency, and setting clear boundaries. It's also crucial to address any unresolved issues or insecurities that may be contributing to feelings of jealousy.

6. Differences in values and goals: Couples may find themselves arguing when they have conflicting values or goals. Whether it's about career aspirations, parenting styles, or lifestyle choices, differences in these areas can create significant disagreements. It's important for couples to have open and respectful discussions about their values and goals, and to find ways to compromise or align their priorities.

7. Lack of quality time: In the hustle and bustle of everyday life, couples can often neglect spending quality time together. This can lead to feelings of neglect and disconnection, which can eventually lead to fights. It's crucial for couples to make intentional efforts to spend quality time together, whether it's through date nights, weekend getaways, or simply carving out uninterrupted time for meaningful conversations.


Learn more about conflict, family systems and growing great relationships

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