The Emotion at the Core of Every Single Fight

Beneath the provoking, accusing, defending, and yelling lies an instinct telling you, “Be afraid. Be very, very afraid.”


photo courtesy of Guru Khalsa

filed under Fighting

If you follow this column at all, by now you realize that we believe some form of fighting (but not abuse) is inevitable in 99.99% of human relationships. It’s nothing to be ashamed of and it’s not an indication that your relationship is in trouble. That said, fighting is painful and can be destructive. Part of the “work” in relationships is understanding what drives us to fight in the first place.  

Think about the last fight you had with someone you loved. What could possibly have been important enough to cause you to lash out at the person you hold the most dear? Fights cause damage; the things that we say to one another in anger have lasting impact.

So what gives?  

A deep, overpowering instinct forced you into action that you perhaps later regretted and probably tried to justify. Moreover, even though the fight hurt both you and your partner, on some level you still think your actions were justified. What is that justification?  

Simply put, you thought something was at risk. Consciously or unconsciously, you believed that something very important was in danger and that your best course of action was to go on the offense. Against your partner. Even at the risk of harming the relationship, possibly irreparably.  

Was fighting, indeed, the best possible way to get what you thought you needed? Maybe. Maybe not. We’re usually operating on instinct in these moments, and that overrides rationality. It does, however bear a closer look.  

At the most fundamental level, the human condition is a perpetual process of avoiding pain and seeking safety, or of avoiding death and seeking life. On some level, this is what occupies us most of the time. The avoidance component can be summarized as fear in action. You could even argue that the seeking component is a form of fear as well, since we seek the one in order to avoid the other. Avoidance of harm is the deepest of our drives.  

Fear of harm is the root of fighting. In a fight, we’re acting out in order to avoid some perceived threat. In the primordial jungle this process kept us breathing. In the modern age, we could possibly use some new tools. It isn’t easy to change our base instincts, but knowing what they are gives us a little breathing room, some measure of choice in the matter.

When I fight with my fiancé (which I still do even knowing all this), I invariably discover when I calm down that my fear reaction was utterly overblown, that the fear was an abstraction that didn’t reflect reality, and that almost any other reaction available would have been more effective to my ends than a fight.

But that’s afterwards, and it’s far easier said than lived. The real question is how to get to that realization more quickly. I’ll explore that process in my next dispatch to this column.

Erik Newton is the founder of Together.

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