EducationThe Three Fights

Craig Toonder, MFT. Oakland Couples Counseling

The Three Fights

Mastering communication has more to do with creating deep understanding than saying the right thing. This is especially true when it comes to resolving arguments. It’s obvious that arguments involve some form of anger. Whether you call it frustration, annoyance, or own it as anger.  What’s less obvious is that arguments are about hurts and fears. Learning to be comfortable and productive with anger means being able to deepen the arguments into these more vulnerable feelings. In order to do this, one most first become aware of it. For awareness is the corner stone to transforming arguments into intimacy.

One of the key components to become aware of is that couple fights have a predictable pattern. Meaning, couples will consistently make the same moves when they are upset with each other, over and over again. When a couple can recognize their pattern, map out and understand the predictable moves, and uncover the deeper fears and hurts driving the pattern, they then gain the power to transform the arguements into something else.


Three typical fight patterns couples have are: attack-attack, attack-defend, and withdraw-withdraw.



In the attack-attack pattern, couples exhibit a high degree of mutual blame, accusations, and criticism. The fight becomes about making the other out to be the “bad guy.” While these arguments appear to be driven by anger, they are actually driven hurt and fear of vulnerability. Safety is lost in these arguments. Aggression and focusing on what the other person did wrong is an attempt to gain control. The hope is, if I can get you to see what you do wrong, I don’t have to expose my vulnerability. Unfortunately, making someone wrong is never a good way to get someone to care about your pain. Eventually, these couples end up in a relationship in which they keep their hand on the trigger at all times, because you are better off shooting first.



In the attack-defend pattern, one person goes on the offensive (criticizing, blaming, accusing, demanding) whole the other goes on the defense (defending, rationalizing, explaining, countering). Anger is often more visible in the attacking partner’s behavior. Anger can be expressed or contained in the defending partner’s behavior, depending on the nature of the strategy. Again, the attacking partner is trying to manage hurt or fear without appearing needy or weak. The defending partner often feels “falsely accused” by his or her “unreasonable” partner. The deeper feelings for defending person often have to do with not being accepted or good enough. Ultimately, not being loved for who they are. Again, the outward behavior for this person is covering the vulnerability that he or she doesn’t dare express.



The withdraw-withdraw dynamic occurs when both parties pull away and break connection to avoid conflict. These couples have few arguments but live parallel loves. They often have had experiences in which they have learned its best not to feel or rock the boat. They “shut down” to protect themselves. As a result of not being able to share their anger, fears, or hurts with each other, the relationship tends to feel flat, like neither is very invested. Again, the withdrawal behavior is a coping strategy for the fears and the hopelessness they feel around their inability to communicate.


Final Notes:

In order to best understand these fight pattern it is important to first understand that humans are biologically wired to be on the alert for threat. We are design to keep ourselves alive and safe. Any threat to our primary relationship will thus trigger fears in all of us. Fear lead to fight, flight or freeze. When you examine these three fights in terms of variations of this biological fact, it helps us see past the surface behaviors that appear during the conflict. As a couple, it is important to work together to help each other move out of fight or flight mode and into a place where vulnerabilities and fears and hurts can openly be expressed.



These three fight patterns and much more are covered on my Hold Me Tight Class starting September 20th. For more information, feel free to call me or visit my workshop page.