Tag Archives: deadly fights

The 7 Deadliest Fights & How To Fight Fair

“We don’t have conversations – we have fights!”

writes one honest reader.

OK – let’s talk about fights. Not what I’d planned, but a very fair point which needs addressing somewhere in a year dedicated to building skills for great relationships.

Of course fights happen, but fighting per se is neither a predictor of divorce nor the death knell for friendships. What matters is HOW you fight. In my experience fights can bring you closer. Fighting means you still care, you are hot and passionate about an issue. And, fights can allow you to get real with one another. But, the wrong sort of fight creates so much pain it can become impossible to stay married.

I’m indebted to Dr. John Gottman for the main ideas here – particularly these 2 books: .

The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work

Why Marriages Succeed or Fail: And How You Can Make Yours Last

So this week and next I’m exploring the 7 deadliest fights. We’ll look at what makes a particular way of fighting so damaging and then – since this blog is about fostering great relationships – we’ll look at how to take that anger and transform it into a fight where you can be real about your thoughts, feelings and needs whilst also being decent and kind.

So here they are ~ The 7 Deadliest Fight Strategies

  1. Attacking
  2. Belittling
  3. Criticizing
  4. Contemptuousness
  5. Defensiveness
  6. Escaping
  7. Escalating

(Today I’m writing about 1 – 4. Next week, 5 – 7. Too long for one week.)

Deadly Fight #1 – ATTACKING

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This is when, in the heat of the moment, you launch verbal missiles at your partner. Often this is a unilateral strike that comes, according to the other, out of nowhere. You launch an angry attack with both guns loaded and firing in such a way that your partner experiences you as angry, hostile, frightening and accusatory.

Maybe it sounds like ~

“I’m so mad at you I could scream!”
“You never listen!”
“How come you are so inconsiderate?”
“How dare you look at me that way!”

What you’re doing is letting off steam regardless of the impact of your anger. You’re probably too upset to know what you feel or need in this moment, so you just emote. It’s a grown up version of a toddler tantrum.

The problem with this is ~

Two-fold. An attack won’t help you solve the problem that precipitated your rage. Conversations tend to end at the same level of emotional heat they began with. In other words, if you start the conversation by shouting, it will likely end with shouting.

But, perhaps even more of a problem than the level of noise is the impact your attack is having on your partner.

Right when you need to be available to one another to solve a problem, your attack will have effectively undermined your “opponent’s” resourcefulness. Fighting is stressful, and stress causes vivid but different responses in men and woman.

The classic “fight/flight” response (coined by Walter Cannon in 1932 and understood as acurate for men and women through 1995 in studies with only 17% female participants!) will kick in for men. This means a hormonal cocktail including epinephrine and norepinephrine will cascade through their system, sending blood from the brain to the extremities preparing them to fight or run. So – if a woman yells at a man, he’s going to either stand there while his body prepares him for a fist fight (not an option in loving relationships) whilst depriving him of his thinking capacity (what he needs when the fight is with words), or of course, he might just leave with an impressive door slam.

Women’s hormones will be inducing the “tend and befriend” response. They will want to reach out – possibly using more words to seek connection, which is not a good match for the now semi-wordless male. Or, they’ll reach out to other women to process the event and get back to the man when they have both cooled down. Not a bad idea – but it would be even better without that initial damaging attack.

Gay? Research seems to indicate that it’s the level of testosterone which determines how the stress response is experienced by any particular individual.

Interested in reading more about the biological responses to fights? Here is one about the male/female contrast
And here is one about the new 2000 study on the female stress response.

STOP!  Right when you feel that flare-up of rage, stop and give yourself a time-out. But, you must tell your partner what is happening. Don’t just storm off. Say something like this: “I’m really angry. I don’t want to attack you as I usually do since I know that’s hurtful. I need some time to sort through what’s making me so mad, and then perhaps we can talk about it more calmly.”

Deadly Fight #2 – BELITTLING

Screen shot 2015-04-17 at 1.11.57 PMThe saddest thing about belittling your partner is that putting someone down tends to stem from a deep place. You can only belittle another person when you actually see them as “less than” in some way.

At some point you convince yourself that your partner is not pulling his or her equal weight in the relationship and you begin to tell yourself a story about this.

You don’t recognize or value whatever it is your partner is doing. To the extent you married someone you once found to be intelligent and wonderful, they will know your put-downs come from some judgment about them, which makes this a very hurtful fighting tactic to be on the receiving end of.

Maybe it sounds like ~

“I don’t have time for this stuff just now.”
“You’ve no idea how much I do around here.”
“Look, if I stop doing what I’m doing, we’ll all suffer.”
“Oh, what you did was supposed to be helpful?”

What you are doing is focusing too narrowly on your contribution and your need to have your partner recognize everything you are doing. You are, however, most likely not taking the time to reciprocate. You may be feeling too indignant at your perception of the unequal distribution of effort, but you are most likely missing a great deal of the bigger picture here too.

The problem with this is ~

That it won’t work to elicit gratitude or renewed effort on behalf of your partner. Indeed, the more you see your partner’s contribution as lacking, the more your partner will feel insignificant in your eyes. When this happens, your partner will seek significance elsewhere. This can lead to infidelity or separation at worst, or to a growing distance between you in which you live parallel lives seeking attention and significance outside the relationship.

APPRECIATE one small thing. Stop before you make any more observations about your partner’s lack of effort or contribution, release the comparison, the  judgment, the habit of focusing on the negative. Allow yourself to become aware of what your partner IS doing.

Right before you lob out another put down, swallow hard and think of something your partner did that you do appreciate, however small. Maybe one of these is true? “Hey, I really appreciate that you . . .”

  • “Earn a good living for our family;”
  • “Shopped for the groceries on the way home; “
  • “Rub my feet when we watch movies.”
  • “Made the bed;”
  • “Walk the dogs regularly.”

Small appreciations, noticed regularly will allow your partner to stop experiencing him or herself as insignificant in your eyes. This may empower them to behave in ways that are more impressive to you.

You are effectively honoring and elevating the behaviors you want more of rather than focusing exclusively on those you want less of.

Deadly Fight #3 – CRITICIZING

Screen shot 2015-04-17 at 1.10.13 PMCriticism takes legitimate complaints – about specific actions or attitudes – to a whole new level by changing the issue from the specific problem to a character assignation.

Maybe it sounds like ~

“You just don’t care about our home.”
“You’re so lazy, look at all those dishes in the sink!”
“You were unbelievably rude to my friend.”
“You’re hopeless – I have to remind you all the time to do this.”

What you’re doing is moving into the dangerous ground of globalizing one specific problem into a general personality flaw. This is a bad habit to get into because once you start to use words like “You’re lazy!” when you see a few things left undone, you begin to believe yourself. And there is a big difference between living with a partner who leaves the occasional task undone and being with a partner who is fundamentally lazy. And your partner knows this too.

The problem with this is ~

That criticism is not a motivator. It has the opposite effect. Most people can’t tolerate criticism from family members. It drives a wedge and creates unnecessary friction.


First, ask yourself this:

“Do I want to live with a lazy, rude, uncaring and hopeless partner, or
do I want to live with someone who blows it from time to time but is a good person?”

You live with the person you see. So, start seeing them as forgetful by all means, but stay
focused on the specific complaint with a request for them to keep commitments. Lose the
character assignation.


  • “You just don’t care about our home.” BECOMES “When you leave clutter behind you everywhere you go, I begin to think you don’t care about our home. Would you be willing to pick up your things when you’re done with them?”
  • “You’re so lazy, look at all those dishes in the sink!” BECOMES  “Hey – would you be willing to either wash your dishes after a meal or put them in the dishwasher?”
  • “You were unbelievably rude to my friend.” BECOMES “Not sure if you noticed, but you interrupted Meg at least three times tonight. I know she’s quiet and shy, but in my book, interrupting is rude.”
  • “You’re hopeless – I have to remind you all the time to do this.” BECOMES  “Can you shut the door?” (Just remind them if they need it. Ditch the character assignation.)


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Contempt is the most damaging response you could possibly offer (short of physical violence) to a disagreement. If you are in the habit of feeling contemptuous of your partner – of mocking them, of rolling your eyes in response to something they say or do, of smirking behind their back in a private joke with someone else – this is contempt.

Maybe it sounds like ~

“You really think I’d read a book you recommend?”
“Oh yes, well see how that works for you then!”
“Great, now you have an idea and you expect me to hear it.”
“Oh heavens!” (
with an eye roll)

When you express contempt for someone it means you have (maybe unwittingly) made a negative judgment about their moral or social standing. And at the same time, you see yourself as above this. In a way you are bordering on a feeling of disgust for the other person’s speech, thoughts, looks, behavior, gender, essence.

The problem with this is ~

It’s deadly! To feel you are the object of disgust in the eyes of the person you love is devastating. Studies show that once contempt has moved in, the relationship is close to death.

one thing. Take a breath. If you are genuinely beginning to feel disgust for the person you live with and in theory love, you need to get help. You can turn this around, but you are on very dangerous ground. Give yourself a time out. Do all you can to remember what you used to cherish about this person.

Even if that quality seems to have vanished – remember it now. Where did that person go? If you look for that person, might you find them? If you are using contempt toward your partner to gain status with those around you, take a good hard look at yourself. Your attempt to make yourself bigger at the expense of your partner might just drive your partner away.


This is the latest article in a year-long series on the “12-most-important-relationship-skills-no-one-ever-taught-me-in-school-but-I-sure-wish-they-had.

Click the box for the full list.Top 12 Relationship Skills

If you are interested in reading this blog in sequence, below are links to the series to date, beginning with the first posting at the top.



SKILL ONE ~ Recognize (and get to know) the many “yous.”

SKILL TWO ~ Learn how to be pro-active: choose how y’all show up.

 SKILL THREE ~ Accept (and get curious about) other peoples’ complexity


SKILL FOUR ~ Master the Art of Conversation