Couples Who Fight as a “Way of Life”

A beautiful sunrise

My wisest mentor, Dr. Elvin Semrad, once said:

“Some people get an awful lot of loving out of fighting like hell for years.”

Several decades of work with couples has taught me to understand what he may have meant by this apparent paradox.

The bond of marriage is a culture medium that nourishes the growth of unresolved childhood longings, frustrations, resentments, jealousies, anger and sadness. Particularly for individuals whose early pain was unvoiced and unseen, and, often, largely unrecognized even by themselves, the emergence of these feelings in relation to a marital partner can set the stage and prepare the script for “fighting like hell for years.”

Ironically, it is the very commitment that allows strong feelings to emerge. One way to put it: as infants and children, we are stuck with the parents and siblings we have. In a marriage, we are stuck with the partner we have chosen. When the choice of partner is a consequence of a repetition compulsion ( the hope to “fix it this time” ), a pernicious state of misery can be the consequence.

For example: A woman raised by a mother who was unhappy and self-absorbed in her own life and a father who was consumed by his work and largely unavailable found herself drawn to men who, while physically attractive to her, intelligent and interesting, were nonetheless emotionally unavailable. When she married, she had not come to terms with the frustration, loneliness, anger, and sadness of her childhood. She was unconsciously recreating the emotional conditions of her early life, “to fix it this time.” The lack of attention from her mother and father was life as she knew it as a child and, like most children, she wasn’t equipped to protest. When, as an adult, she brought her longings for and expectations of emotional attention and empathy to her marriage, she had a full capacity to protest. And protest she did. Loudly and often. Her husband had his own set of unacknowledged and unresolved childhood matters, some of which interlocked diabolically with his wife’s. This couple fought like hell for years.

The development of this pattern is an opportunity both to come to terms with early, unresolved feelings — feelings that must be acknowledged, borne, and put into perspective — and to move beyond re-enacting the patterns endlessly in the marriage.

Somebody once asked Elvin Semrad whether he ever considered divorcing his wife. Semrad’s reply:

“Murder — many times. Divorce? Never.”