The 3 Things Every Couple Fights About, According to Esther Perel

Photo-Illustration: Photo credit: Ernesto Urdaneta

Call it a professional hazard, but I love asking my friends what they fight about in their love lives. Money? Sex? God? Laundry? Every interesting couple has friction, and what they argue about is always so unique and illuminating. (And as the columnist for “Sex Diaries” and “Both Sides of a Breakup,” I live for these stories.)

There’s no easy answer as to why we fight or how we fight, but thanks to Esther Perel’s new eight-part course, Turning Conflict Into Connection, which launches today, there is now accessible, professional help from the best of the best to help navigate conflict with our loved ones. Read on for more about what’s underneath our fighting, how to de-escalate conflict, and the relationship between fighting and make-up sex.

When I first heard about your conflict course, my first thought was, Oh no, please don’t take my fighting away from me! I’m one of those people who, romantically, enjoys a good fight …  

In no way do I want you to stop fighting!

Sometimes we fight for justice. Sometimes you fight for fairness. Sometimes you fight to correct a wrong. Sometimes you fight because you’re not being heard. Sometimes you fight because it creates heat. Or it energizes you or emboldens you. Fighting is an energy as well as an interaction. I think some people have witnessed fighting a lot more than others. They’ve witnessed fighting that was insidious and hurtful. And others have witnessed fighting that was temporary and quickly covered over. Some people get scared when they go through fighting, they anticipate terrible escalation, and others just think it’s a loud moment with people who scream and use words and then life continues.

For me, fighting can feel like a sport. But for others, they have no interest in it …

Let me guess, you live with one of those.

Yes, my partner is a peaceful man from a farm in Maine.

There already, at the beginning, was a certain kind of complementarity. Where one person was attracted to the equanimity of the other, and the other was attracted to the person who says whatever they need to say. When you have one who explodes and one who implodes, there can be an acknowledgement that the amplifier would like to occasionally learn the skills of the other. And that the minimizer would occasionally like to experience the freedom of the more explosive one.

We need you.

It’s all in the course. At this moment, we have all become conflict avoidant. We polarize. We lack the skills to manage conflict in a tech-assisted era that is contributing to the atrophy of our social losses. More and more we don’t know how to continue to stay connected to people we like but disagree with. We don’t know how to experience disagreement or divergence without leading to disconnection. Forever, people were married where one believed in God and one did not. Or one was a religious person and one was not. Or one voted for this party, and another voted for another. And they laughed about it. They disagreed, but they didn’t experience it as a personal attack. These days, people cut off siblings, family members because they can’t be in a room with people who have fundamentally different ideas. Even though these are the same people who will jump up to help when something happens to you.

You mentioned cutting people off. After a big fight — with a friend, a family member, a lover — I instantly default to, “I’m done with them. I’m out. Bye.” 

This is where the course comes in. In one hour it gives you a set of skills to choose connection over polarization.

We all overuse the expression “love language,” but should we also understand our own personal fighting styles … our fight language?

That’s a very beautiful question. I think, basically, there are three primary dances in a couple: Attack, attack; attack, withdraw; withdraw, withdraw. Two people who are magnifiers, two are minimizers, or one of each.

Should we establish those things early? So the other person might say, “That is not the kind of dynamic I am interested in.”

No, because you wouldn’t know. You met your guy and you thought, Stable, solid, equanimous, good listener, does not get rattled. You saw the same characteristics and you gave them these nice names. And then what initially attracted you also becomes the source of conflict later. But then you’re naming the same set of characteristics differently. “Quiet” becomes “Never talks, doesn’t tell me what he thinks, takes three months to react.” But you can’t know this upfront. And it doesn’t matter. Because it still doesn’t mean that you made a bad choice. It means that you each made the choice to find the person who has the part that you need to add to your repertoire. It’s complementarity.

So the qualities that often frustrate us about our partners are the same things that drew us in in the first place? 

Yes. Everybody forgets why they chose each other in the first place.

Are there fights that couples can’t come back from? Fights that will ruin you?

Yes, but the ruining doesn’t always happen once. It’s gradual erosion. A loss of decency. A loss of respect. A loss of even thinking that when I [figuratively] punch you, it hurts. Sometimes when I have high-conflict couples, when they punch each other, I even experience, Ay, that hurts.

Why do some of us get so mean?

So when you say, “I fight mean,” I ask, “What is it you’re really fighting for?” You have to look not at what people are fighting about, but what people are fighting for. The underneath.

Underneath, most couples are fighting for power and control — whose priority matters more, who gets to make the decisions. Or they fight for trust and closeness: “Do you have my back? Can I trust you? Will you be there for me?” Or they fight for respect and recognition: “Do you value me? Do I matter?” Those are the main three things.

Don’t some of those raw truths just make things complicated? I mean, why can’t we just fight about the dishes?

Okay. If I don’t do the dishes, you might interpret this as “You don’t care!” or “I will always be alone.” You tell yourself, “I chose somebody so I would finally not be alone, and someone who will be there for me, and take care of me, or at least help me and participate with me, and now every time I ask you to do the dishes, I’m not talking about the dishes! I’m actually talking about how I don’t want to feel alone like I felt my entire childhood, when I was taking care of my siblings because my father left us and my mother had three jobs.” That’s the story. It’s so clear to me. What are you fighting for? To not feel alone. Therefore, you attack. Because what you’re fighting for is way more important than what you’re fighting about.

So how can a couple de-escalate from said dishes scenario?

If the person who did not do the dishes can say, “Listen, I love you. I do so much with you in mind. I carry you with me all the time. It’s too bad that when I forget something, you take this as a complete rejection and then I become the holder of every deprivation you experienced in your childhood. It’s too bad because I absolutely don’t mean to hurt you like this.”

That is very different from: “GIVE ME A FUCKING BREAK ABOUT THE DISHES.”

Can you share some other de-escalation hacks? A girlfriend recently told me that when she and her husband are fighting, they try to watch a TV show and hold hands, even if they’re hating each other. She says it works.

Yes, physical contact can be a very good form of de-escalation if both people are receptive to it. Sometimes you have one person who really needs that contact to know, “We’re still good.”

But one of the most beautiful hacks here is humor. My partner is a master at that. Without sarcasm. Just nice humor. He has a way of saying the funniest thing, and I start to crack. He preempts it in a wonderful way. With humor follows a sense of, “Do you really want to do this?”

Otherwise, it’s what I said before about the dishes. “Please try to say this in a way where I don’t feel like I’m being completely attacked.”

I went into full attack mode recently when my partner didn’t ask how my mammogram went. Full disclosure, I’m not sure if he even remembered I had a mammogram scheduled that day.

Yes. Well, you have lofty aspirations if he didn’t even know you went there. The only time people really know what you want and what you need without you really having to say anything is basically in utero. But from the minute you can communicate, it’s about us letting the other person know. “I’m going to see the doctor today. It really is very important for me that when I come back, you ask me about it. It makes me feel taken care of.” You can even add, “You’re not doing anything wrong by not asking me, but I just like it when you do.”

I wouldn’t be the “Sex Diaries” columnist without asking you about the connection between fucking and fighting.

I think for some people, it’s arousing. The center of arousal in your brain that involves sexual arousal and anger and aggression are actually side by side. For quite a lot of people, fighting is a state of hyperarousal. For some people, you calm down in the orgasm. So physiologically, it’s not a complicated thing to understand.

Interpersonally, it’s a different story. Because the question is, Is it connection? The fighting and fucking is often actually not the most connective sex. That doesn’t mean it’s not pleasant. It’s just not the most intimate form of sex. It brings aggressive energy into the sex. It’s a different charge. However, there are very few people for whom make-up sex can last decades.

The 3 Things Every Couple Fights About