Why Couples Under Stress Fight

Insights from couple’s therapy to help you save your relationship

Life is hard. Within the last three months, we’ve faced illness, financial insecurity, general uncertainty, pandemic, and social unrest. These struggles are causing prolonged stress and putting strain on even the strongest relationships.

And that’s not all. This time of heightened stress is accompanied by restrictions that mean fewer outlets for relieving stress like going to the gym or getting together with friends.

When stress piles up without release, it can lead to increased anxiety and depression  and it negatively impact relationships, leading to conflict, distancing, or escape into addiction and affairs.  

Research from China shows an increased divorce rate during COVID-19 (Wuhan Sees Divorce Rate Soar, 2020),  a testament to the difficulties couples are facing all over the world through the economic, physical, and socio-emotional effects of the pandemic.   

At times of high stress especially, we need to rely on our partner for help. Yet many couples lose this special connection and turn away from each other to try to solve these life challenges on their own. Dealing with stress and pain on your own while feeing disconnected from the person who used to be your support can lead to negative coping strategies like numbing with alcohol, gaming, or pornography.

Understanding how attachment needs can help us shine light on conflict and find a starting point for resolution.

Attachment Needs

We all need to connect to important people in our lives. As children, we depend on our  parents, our primary attachment figures, and as adults we depend on our romantic relationships. This attachment need and how it manifests in childhood and adulthood has been researched and confirmed by social psychologists (Johnson, 2008)—to the most instinctual part of ourselves, emotional connection to a loved one or romantic partner means safety. Psychologist, researcher, and developer of Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) Dr. Sue Johnson says, “Loving connection is the only intrinsic safety that nature offers us” (Johnson, 2008, p. 47).

When we are scared, we need our partner to be there for us. When afraid or distressed we long to reestablish connection in a relationship. The security of this relationship fosters our confidence to go out and take on the world.

If we are met with isolation and loss of connection at a time of need, our brains are wired to panic. Our safety net is gone. Being close to a romantic partner in times of pain and uncertainty calms us down and helps us restore our balance. Connection helps us deal with danger and mitigates our stress reactions.

Love truly is the best survival in times of stress.

3 Main Questions Couples Ask Each Other

As detailed in the book Hold Me Tight by Dr. Sue Johnson (2008), couples ask each other three main questions:

  • Are you there for me?
  • Do I matter to you?
  • Will you come when I need you, when I call you?

Of course, we don’t ask each other the questions in these exact words, or even in words at all. We ask through our actions, our tone of voice, our fears, and our fights.

Emotional Responsiveness is Key to Feeling Safe and Connected

Couples that answer positively to these three questions are emotionally responsive to each other.

If your partner can see you, hear you, and find you, they will feel reassured, and their nervous system will register this connection as safety. It’s important to stay close and respond to our partners in a caring way to stay calm and connected.

These moments of responsiveness promote positive bonding that brings couples closer together.

Emotional Responsiveness is the basis for loving relationship. Dr. Johnson explains that when we are emotionally responsive, it means we are:

  • Accessible: Our partners can find us when they need us.
  • Responsive:  We respond to our partners when they are distressed and make them feel heard and valued.
  • Engaged: We pay loving attention to our partners.(Johnson, 2008)

If we can be found when our partners need us, respond when they’re scared, and remain engaged when they are distressed, our partners will feel safe and connected. They know they are not alone to deal with life’s challenges because they can see and feel that their partner is there for them.

Unmet Attachment Needs That Lead to Conflict

Couples fight significantly more when their attachment needs are not met. Not being able to find your partner when you are scared, not feeling that they see how distressed you are, or your partner not responding at all, leaves you feeling scared and alone. And the loss of emotional connection at times of need is terrifying.

When couples are under stress, it is easy to emotionally disconnect. Conflict starts when partners can’t reach each other at critical moments, when they lose safe emotional connection. When safe connection is lost, we fight to get response from our partner.

Conflict is all about losing safe emotional connection and our attempt to restore it. Couples go into fight-or-flight mode. They get aggressive, blame, or protest in attempt to restore a connection that feels secure, one where their partner responds to them. Fighting is a desperate attempt to get our partner to respond. Anger and criticism are cries for reconnection, to feel like we matter and to feel like we’re seen.

As Dr. Johsnon says, when we fight with our partners, we’re saying, “Notice me, be with me, I need you” (2008, p. 31). These strategies for dealing with distress and fear are unconscious, and they arise in couples of all ages and backgrounds.

The responses wired into us as a reaction to the fear and isolation provoked when our partner does not respond are either aggression or retreat. These reactions are instinctual, primal even. In fact, research with monkeys found that they will attack when their mother is not responsive (Johnson, 2008).

This is how conflict and fighting happens:

When I need you, you are not there. I feel scared and nobody is there to see me. I’m all alone, and I’m starting to feel panicked and overwhelmed.  

I push, poke, prod, criticize, in hopes that you will engage with me. If you don’t respond to me, or if you become rational, offer advice but disappear emotionally from me, I will get even more angry and out of control. Our conflict will escalate. The more you turn the emotional temperature down the more I’ll turn my emotional heat up and become angry. We will get stuck in a cycle of attack-defend.  

In contrast, if we make it clear that we are there for our partners, that we see them and they matter, they will feel calm and reassured. When our partner recognizes our fear and is emotionally responsive, we feel safe and there’s no need to fight.  

Let’s look at these 2 couples:

Sally was recently laid off from job. She worried about their finances and felt guilty that she could not financially contribute to their family. As soon as she learned Sally went to her husband John to let him know what happened. When John learned about the news, his first thought was, “How are we going to pay our mortgage?” He remained calm and  gave her a hug. He told her, “This is going to be hard for our family, I know this was not your fault. We will figure something out as a family. We have gone through some tough times together.” Sally felt reassured by her husband. She regained her balance and felt an even stronger connection to John.     

Lena and Joe were faced with similar challenges. Joe worked in the oil industry and with the recent declining oil prices he was laid off. As a main bred winner, Joe felt guilty and resisted tellling his wife. After waiting for a couple of days, he finally got the courage to talk to Lena. Lena was a stay home mom for their two small children. Her fist reaction was shock and fear. This was going through her head: “What are we going to do? How are we going to pay our mortgage and make ends meet. Do we have to move now?”

Overwhelmed with fear, Lena started yelling at Joe, “Couldn’t you do something to prevent your lay off? Why didn’t you look for another job in a different field like I told you to?” Her fear quickly turned into anger. To defend himself, Joe yelled back at his wife. This quickly escalated into both of them yelling and attacking each other.  

How Couples Can Avoid Conflict During Stress:

When your partner is scared, in pain, or distressed, respond empathically and comfort them. You need to respond YES to these key questions:

  • Are you there for me?
  • Do I matter to you
  • Will you come when I need you, when I call you?

That means you need to respond to your partner’s attachment needs for safety and security. You can do that by being emotionally responsive and by doing the following:

  • Listen. pay attention to your partner’s emotional tone, their distress.
  • Give priority to your patner’s distress. Show them they come first.
  • Respond emotionally and provide comfort and care to your partner. Reassure them, and do it right away—don’t delay.
  • Be available and stay close to your partner physically. Give a hug or hold their hand when your partner is upset.

Avoid any of the following:

  • Reasoning with their emotions
  • Asking them why they feel that way
  • Giving advice
  • Mimimizing their pain
  • Telling them there is no reason to be upset
  • Telling them other people have it worse
  • Criticizing or blaming

When you answer “yes” to those key attachment questions and respond to their cries for reassurance, your connection with your partner will be strong and fighting will diminish. You and your partner will be able to seek each other in times of distress and know that you will find support, validation, and comfort. You will feel secure and safe, and you’ll have a partner with whom you can face any challenge.

Longing for connection and protection from loved ones is human, and meeting one another’s attachment needs is one of the best ways to build a fulfilling and long-lasting partnership. Relationships that feel secure are more satisfying, more intimate, and less likely to end. 

Don’t let resentment, distancing, or constant arguing plague your relationship. If it seems very difficult to reconnect, couples counseling can help. EFT is a research-proven method that is effective for restoring connection in 70-75% of couples.

Dr. Irena offers in-person couples therapy for those who live in Houston and online therapy couples in Texas and New York  City. She uses research-proven method,  known as Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) to help couples develop and maintain the emotional connection and support each other through stressful times.  If you would like to schedule a session, email Dr. Irena for a free 10-minute video consultation:  [email protected] or call (281)-267-1742.

Sources Cited:

  1. Johnson, S. (2008). Hold Me Tight. New York, NY: Little, Brown Spark
  2. “Wuhan sees divorce rate soar after lockdown is lifted.” Global Times. 14 Apr 2020. https://www.globaltimes.cn/content/1185583.shtml
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