Couples’ Fights: What Is One Big Common Denominator?

Couples fight for many reasons. Yet, at the heart of most fights are violated expectations. There is a significant difference between expectations and desires and it is this difference that causes much painful struggling in couples relationships. Expectations have a “should” quality implied about them. For example, “My partner should do X. It’s just the right thing to do. Therefore I have permission to be passive without putting much effort into helping bring those expectations into being.” However, when someone really desires something and especially if they want it quite fiercely, they will activate themselves to obtain it. Desire alone is not sufficient to realize the harvest, but it kindles effort. Too often when couples are fighting, one partner is saying they want an outcome or they wish for something, but what they really mean is,  “I expect my partner will comply with my expectation, without my exerting any effort.” Of course, it is never expressed that way! It can challenge us as therapists to confront this passivity. Here is one way you might bring the passivity to a client’s attention…. I am sitting here listening to you fight. I’m not sure if you recognize the expectations you have surrounding this fight.  It is common for all of us to expect our partners to listen well, be appropriately thoughtful, reliable, and affectionate. When that doesn’t happen we become nagging, testy, defensive, or demanding.  Think about it. Many times when you are frustrated with each other, it is probably because your partner did not live up to one or more of your expectations. It's not that you walk around with this list in your head. It’s usually subconscious. You just know when an important expectation has been violated because you feel bad. Here’s an extreme example. When you go to a restaurant you expect the waiter to come to your table, bring water, bread, and then ask what you would like to order. You do not expect to make an effort to help the waiter do his job. That’s how expectations work. You believe you don’t need to make much of an effort to get them fulfilled. Often your expectations are rooted in how you saw your parents do things or what you experienced in a previous relationship. Is it possible that your expectation now could become a desire? Could you put effort into working with your partner to make something happen?” These questions can begin to shift the dialogue away from the fight into a discussion of what a client might be willing to do to support their partner to become more responsive to their request. This type of intervention does not work with all fights, but with some partners and some fights it enables you to get out of the middle and move the couple towards more collaborative teamwork. Recently I conducted a conference call designed to help therapists “get out of the middle” not only in arguments, but in the entire process of couples therapy. If you’d like more help “getting out of the middle,” you can purchase an audio recording and transcript of the call for just $37. Click Get Out of the Middle. I wish you courage and success with new interventions.

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Jason Foster
Jason Foster

“Often your expectations are rooted in how you saw your parents do things or what you experienced in a previous relationship”.

And from what you learned watching Friends.

Shawlom Francis
Shawlom Francis

was wondering how you would handle a response that sounds like,” I don’t want it to become my desire, I want it to become my spouses desire!!”?

Jean Pollock
Jean Pollock

I love that reframing of the client’s expectation into a desire. For me, where this gets particularly challenging is with particularly undifferentiated couples (symbiotic/symbiotic), where they both carry high expectation for their needs being met by the other yet are terrified to rock the boat by addressing how that pressure feels to each other.

Shawlom Francis
Shawlom Francis

Could you elaborate on your comment where you said ” yet are terrified to rock the boat….”


Hi -it’s Pete with a strange login name.
Handling a response like – “I want my partner to want xxx”
this is not a simple intervention because you are going to deflate some serious symbiotic expectations. And most of the time they will resist having those expectations deflated and will also resist getting out of the passivity that drives the expectation.

A beginning statement to the passive person, could be something like, “Wouldn’t relationships be so much easier if our partner simply wanted what we want them to do? We make a request and the partner readily agrees. Would that be relationship heaven or what? But alas, humans seem not to be wired that way. Apparently relationships take more effort than we make a request and they respond with some degree of enthusiasm.

However there is a way that you might be able to influence your partner. Take a moment or two and think of how you could make your request that motivates your partner to want to respond to you with desire-energy or passion. You will need to make some effort to think about their interests, values, concerns, desires, hopes, fears, or insecurities.

Then you can approach your partner and say, Honey, I’m not one of those people who just make a wish, request or demand and then sit back and wait for the miracle. No sir, I’m not that passive. So here’s the deal. I would like you to be enthusiastic about doing xxxx and to sweeten the deal, here is why you just might be interested in doing xxxx with high motivation…….”

this is an indirect but pretty strong confrontation of the passivity and symbiotic wish for partner change.

hope this helps

Sara Schwarzbaum
Sara Schwarzbaum

I use a similar intervention with very angry women and men who give up because “People don’t change”. They often respond, surprised, with statements such as: “Dah, I was acting as if I didn’t realize that just because I want something it doesn’t mean he/she will deliver!” Or, “It does not mean he/she can know without me being clear about what I want”.

Jim Walker
Jim Walker

It is interesting that I used a related idea with a very conflictual couple today. I challenged them – after a ratherbitter confrontation to consider if at least part of their anger related to the fact that they each had such strong hopes and expectations of being cared for by the other person (and had experienced some part of this positive nurturance at some time in the relationship)that they could not understand why the other person could not “go the rest of the way”.

I guess there is an important piece here about unspoken promises and hopes.

Dr. Ellyn Bader

Dr. Ellyn Bader is Co-Founder & Director of The Couples Institute and creator of The Developmental Model of Couples Therapy. Ellyn is widely recognized as an expert in couples therapy, and since 2006 she has led innovative online training programs for therapists. Professionals from around the world connect with her through internet, conference calls and blog discussions to study couples therapy. Ellyn’s first book, "In Quest of the Mythical Mate," won the Clark Vincent Award by the California Association of Marriage & Family Therapists for its outstanding contribution to the field of marital therapy and is now in its 18th printing. She has been featured on over 50 radio and television programs including "The Today Show" and "CBS Early Morning News," and she has been quoted in many publications including "The New York Times," "The Oprah Magazine" and "Cosmopolitan."

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