by Elliott Kronenfeld

We all have conflicts, and the closer the person, the more intense the conflict. In fact it’s in our closest relationships, with husbands, wives, and children, that our conflicts can become pretty painful fights.  At their worst, those fights repeat over and over again in a pattern that becomes a nasty fight cycle. Couples often come to me when they’re stuck at this point. They want to change but it’s really hard at this point for them to do it on their own.

In a couple’s first sessions one spouse will often want to give me an example of something that hurt. Unfortunately it often comes out as a laundry list of blame which triggers the other partner. The spouse, now turned defendant, pipes up and suddenly I’m not even in the room. In quick succession the back-and-forth gets going full throttle. When couples fight in session I ask if it’s like this at home. The answer is generally yes, if not, “no, it’s worse”. It’s cringe-worthy. I see couples who really love each other but are so stuck in a fight cycle.

Men and women have general patterns to their physiological arousal, the ways their bodies and minds react when they get into fights. Dr. John Gottman has done great research on this. You can read his team’s blog at The short version is this: when we get angry we shift into fight, flight, or freeze responses and none of these is good for listening. You can’t hear anything when you get angry. Anger is great for achieving a goal and if your goal is to score points or hammer home what you want then anger is the right tool for you. Unfortunately, that goal doesn’t fit with reaching your spouse which is just what you need to do to get out of a fight cycle.

Stop acting on your anger and get under it. This is the hardest shift to make when you’re in a fight cycle and the most crucial. Each partner has to recognize that anger hurts intimacy. Ironically anger is a response to feeling your intimacy or security threatened. Anger does a really poor job of securing intimacy as it often sounds like, I’m right and you’re wrong, I win and you lose, I’m a victim and you’re a jerk. Anger really is trying to say, I’m hurt, I’m scared, I’m lonely, I feel left out and I need to getthat across to you emphatically!

So the best action you can take when you’re angry is none at all and the most difficult action you can take when you’re angry is none at all. Feel your anger rise and instead of acting on it, take the time to cool off. Stop, walk away, leave, take a time out! Cooling off is necessary because even when you try to say, “I feel sad”, if said in an angry voice, your spouse is only going to hear, “I’m angry!” or even, “bring it on!” Once you’re cooler, it’ll be easier – but still not easy – to get under your own anger at the sad or hurt feelings that your spouse will be better able to respond to.

Putting a stop on anger really is the hardest step in changing a fight cycle. Humans are wired to get angry, to fight, fly, or freeze in the face of threat. Putting a stop on anger will feel like keeping still while a full speed sedan is bearing down on you.  It’s hard, it painful, and it will help you stop a fight cycle. Only outside of a fight cycle can you find another way to reach your spouse.

Of course if a sedan really is bearing down on you, then please, get out of the way. Safety concerns always warrant leaving a situation.

For more information on anger in relationships and changing your patterns of conflict please contact Elliott at

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