Therapists who work with couples are familiar with couples who can’t stop fighting. They come in week after week. We calmly and earnestly speak of the importance of constructive communication. They listen for a few minutes, and then they go at it.
“He never listens to me,” one will say.
“Why should I listen to her when all that comes out of her mouth is stupid?”
“What’s the use?”
“That’s what I say!”
And so it goes. They can’t resist. They have a compulsion to quarrel and to keep quarreling.
They will keep it up unless we interrupt. For a few minutes they will listen to what we have to say. We try to point out how devastating their fighting is for their kids, who are doing badly at school, sometimes even becoming violent with other kids or with teachers. We try to point out how destructive it is for them, how their fighting is not doing either of them any good. It is not leading to resolution, and it is keeping them both in a state of torment and affecting their home and work lives. We warn them about how chronic stress is taking a toll on their health.
They listen with their faces, but not with their ears. Their faces are turned to me, but their eyes are blank as their minds are quietly defending. All at once they are at it again, plunged back into the murky water of their addiction.
Yes, for many couples fighting becomes an addiction. Like any addiction, the fighting controls them. The urge to fight is like a heroin addict’s urge to get high. The fighting provides them with a kind of secondary gratification: they can constantly vent their anger on each other. Such couples are seemingly obsessed with winning and with proving that they are right and their partner is wrong, or that they are good and their partner is evil. It is like an ongoing court battle, and the kids are the unwitting judges and juries.
The source of the addiction has nothing to do with their marriage or their relationship. It has nothing to do with anything they have done to each other, even though they have invariably done a lot of things to each other as the conflict has accelerated and darkened over the years. The source is the anger or fear or sadness that each brought with them to the relationship, and this source has its roots in the soil of their childhoods.
They may well have been children of parents who had the same fighting addiction, and that addiction will be passed on from generation to generation to their kids and the kids of their kids. Or they may have gone through various traumas that left them carrying a freight of anger. That anger lay mainly dormant inside them until they met each other and got to know things about each other they didn’t want to know and couldn’t accept because it didn’t fit in with their expectations of what a marriage would be.
After that they constantly rubbed against one another, one hurt personality against another, causing friction and then fighting. Maybe when they were small they couldn’t fight back, but now they can fight back and they don’t want to stop.
So how does one stop this fighting addiction? How does one stop any addiction? Experts who work with addictive personalities, such as alcoholics, say that such personalities won’t stop until they crash. When their life falls apart, when the addiction no longer does what it is supposed to do (provide them with a distraction from their inner pain), then and only then do they have the motivation to change.
Couples therapy can work provided the fighting couple hangs in there. It will be a grind. Couples and families who reach a crisis will have more motivation and that will speed up the process. But otherwise it will take a while. It will entail a very slow wearing down of the couple’s resistance to letting go of their addiction.
In the 19th Century, when physicians came across people who were addicted to disturbed forms of behavior they would put them on whirly-gigs and spin them around until they became dizzy. They hoped this would snap them out of their disturbed pattern. Sometimes we wish we could do that, but of course that wouldn’t be ethical, and anyway we know it would only bring about a momentary pause in the fighting, just long enough for them to regain their balance.
If you’re one of those couples who are addicted to fighting, know that there can be an end in sight and that end will be much more gratifying then the secondary satisfaction of constant venting. Breaking a fighting addiction requires as much courage and fortitude as climbing Mount Everest. Like any addict, it involves a withdrawal process. You may feel empty and alone without your addiction. It might help if you think of your children, your future and your health.
The first step is admitting that you have an addiction and that you need help. You can get that help but turning to a relative or good friend and asking for honest feedback. Or you can get that help by going to an expert such as a couples counselor.
Think it over and take the plunge. Start the detoxification process.