Why We Fight:

The Fear-Shame Dynamic in Relationships

Couples don’t fight about what they think they fight about. It’s not “the big four” they identify in surveys: money, sex, raising the kids, or in-laws.

Most couples fight because they inadvertently cause shame and fear in each other. As long as this unconscious fear-shame dynamic is active, talking about the issue is likely to make it worse.

There is a survival-based mechanism observed in most social animals, in which fear and anxiety of female members of the pack serve as an automatic alarm system to stimulate aggressive-protective behavior in the males. (The better sense of smell and hearing of females makes them more sensitive to danger and more suited to be social alarms.) When the females get scared, the stronger males form a defensive/aggressive perimeter around the endangered pack.

The human brain is more socially structured than that of any other animal. In us, this primitive interactive mechanism takes on more complicated forms that secretly undermine intimate relationships.

Confronted with the anxiety or fear of a woman, a man typically responds with protection/support. But if he does not know how to protect/support or feels like a failure as a protector, he is likely to turn the aggression onto her (usually in the form of criticism, "superior reasoning," control, etc.) or rein it in by withdrawing in frustration (stonewalling or going quiet). Anger or withdrawal by men often stimulates anxiety or fear of isolation in women, even if his anger or withdrawal has nothing to do with her.

In general, a man is likely to stonewall, be critical, defensive, or contemptuous if he experiences or is trying to avoid the experience of failure as a provider, protector, or lover. A woman is likely to be critical, defensive, or contemptuous if she experiences (or is reminded of having experienced) fear of harm, isolation, or deprivation.

If the couple does not understand this unconscious, interactive dynamic, they will think they have a "communication" problem and will likely continue to provoke anxiety and shame in each other as they try to talk. They will begin to think that they have a bad, insensitive, or selfish partner, and eventually give up on the relationship without understanding the primitive emotional mechanism that did the real damage.

Take the Fear-Shame Quiz for Women or for Men

What can help

The best way to disarm the fear-shame dynamic is to recognize when it occurs, which is just about every time you feel bad about interacting with each other. Identify it as something that is happening to both of you, rather than pain that one person is inflicting on the other. Declare that your connection is important to you and do what it takes to compassionately reinstate it.

Once you make connection, the fear-shame dynamic deactivates. Connected, you can solve the problem that activated it. (Usually it's money, sex, raising the kids, in-laws, or control issues.) If you remain disconnected, even your well-meaning and highly skilled attempts to solve the problem will run a high risk of accidentally stimulating more fear or shame in your partner and casuing further disconnection.