The Three Fights

August 7th, 2012

Mastering communication has more to do with creating deep understanding than saying the right thing. This is especially true when it comes to resolving arguments. It’s obvious that arguments involve some form of anger. Whether you call it frustration, annoyance, or own it as anger.  What’s less obvious is that arguments are about hurts and fears. Learning to be comfortable and productive with anger means being able to deepen the arguments into these more vulnerable feelings. In order to do this, one most first become aware of it. For awareness is the corner stone to transforming arguments into intimacy.

One of the key components to become aware of is that couple fights have a predictable pattern. Meaning, couples will consistently make the same moves when they are upset with each other, over and over again. When a couple can recognize their pattern, map out and understand the predictable moves, and uncover the deeper fears and hurts driving the pattern, they then gain the power to transform the arguements into something else.


Three typical fight patterns couples have are: attack-attack, attack-defend, and withdraw-withdraw.



In the attack-attack pattern, couples exhibit a high degree of mutual blame, accusations, and criticism. The fight becomes about making the other out to be the “bad guy.” While these arguments appear to be driven by anger, they are actually driven hurt and fear of vulnerability. Safety is lost in these arguments. Aggression and focusing on what the other person did wrong is an attempt to gain control. The hope is, if I can get you to see what you do wrong, I don’t have to expose my vulnerability. Unfortunately, making someone wrong is never a good way to get someone to care about your pain. Eventually, these couples end up in a relationship in which they keep their hand on the trigger at all times, because you are better off shooting first.



In the attack-defend pattern, one person goes on the offensive (criticizing, blaming, accusing, demanding) whole the other goes on the defense (defending, rationalizing, explaining, countering). Anger is often more visible in the attacking partner’s behavior. Anger can be expressed or contained in the defending partner’s behavior, depending on the nature of the strategy. Again, the attacking partner is trying to manage hurt or fear without appearing needy or weak. The defending partner often feels “falsely accused” by his or her “unreasonable” partner. The deeper feelings for defending person often have to do with not being accepted or good enough. Ultimately, not being loved for who they are. Again, the outward behavior for this person is covering the vulnerability that he or she doesn’t dare express.



The withdraw-withdraw dynamic occurs when both parties pull away and break connection to avoid conflict. These couples have few arguments but live parallel loves. They often have had experiences in which they have learned its best not to feel or rock the boat. They “shut down” to protect themselves. As a result of not being able to share their anger, fears, or hurts with each other, the relationship tends to feel flat, like neither is very invested. Again, the withdrawal behavior is a coping strategy for the fears and the hopelessness they feel around their inability to communicate.


Final Notes:

In order to best understand these fight pattern it is important to first understand that humans are biologically wired to be on the alert for threat. We are design to keep ourselves alive and safe. Any threat to our primary relationship will thus trigger fears in all of us. Fear lead to fight, flight or freeze. When you examine these three fights in terms of variations of this biological fact, it helps us see past the surface behaviors that appear during the conflict. As a couple, it is important to work together to help each other move out of fight or flight mode and into a place where vulnerabilities and fears and hurts can openly be expressed.



These three fight patterns and much more are covered on my Hold Me Tight Class starting September 20th. For more information, feel free to call me or visit my workshop page.

Communication Skills Class: The Hold Me Tight Program: Seven Conversations for Building Connection and Overcoming Conflict.

July 26th, 2012

 Looking to improve your communication skills?

Oakland Couples Counseling is pleased to announce the Fall 2012, The Hold Me Tight Program: Seven Conversations for Building Connection and Overcoming Conflict.


This “communication skills” class is designed to help couples examine what goes wrong in their attempts to communicate with each other and how to move from arguments to intimacy.


The class uses Sue Johnson’s book, Hold Me Tight; Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love. (Required text.) Dedicating each evening to a chapter in Sue’s book, the class will examine a new understanding of love that breaks from the belief that needing support, acceptance and understanding from one’s partner is somehow “wrong” or “bad.” Instead, new science studies will be presented demonstrating how the quality of connection that exists between two people has dramatic affects on health, stress, and longevity.


Based on this new model of love and health, the class will help couples determine how they “get off track” when they argue and give them the skills to communicate in a much more meaningful and productive manner.


  • Learn how your communication goes off track.
  • Identify the raw spots and triggers in your relationship.
  • Discover the deeper feelings and needs beneath the arguments.
  • Learn what makes your partner tick and how to deal with hurt feelings
  • Build a greater sense of confidence, security, and trust in your relationship
  • Improve your ability to connect emotionally, intellectually, and sexually.
  • Create a shared vision of the future together.


For more information about this class you can visit the workshop page of my website. Or, contact me directly at 510 499-7137, or at ctoondermft [at]


The Hold Me Tight Program: Seven Conversations for Building Connection and Overcoming Conflict program is eight weeks long. Classes run from 7:00 to 9:00 every Thursday night from September 20th thru November 8th, 2012


Classes are held at the McKinnon Body Therapy Center
 2940 Webster Street, Oakland.


The Hold Me Tight Program: Seven Conversations for Building Connection and Overcoming Conflict program is not for couples struggling with domestic violence, affairs, or severe mental health issues.


Choosing Someone Means Choosing A Set Of Irresolvable Problems

March 19th, 2012

          In any relationship, you will have to learn how to deal with the problems that naturally arise from basic differences in how each of us lives our life. In Dan Wile’s book, After the Honeymoon, Dan explains how choosing a partner means you are also choosing a particular set of “irresolvable problems” that you’ll have to learn to grapple with. These problems often lead to fights. In order to manage these fights and not let them ruin the relationship, couples need to learn to develop a relationship to their fights. They need to learn to gain an understanding and perspective of the fight to allow them to step back and not take things so personally. They need to develop tools to talk about what happened and tend to any hurt feelings that may have arisen.

          He further explains that these irresolvable problems are not signs the relationship is doomed, or that the couple is a bad match. To exemplify this, he describes a couple, Paul and Alice, who frequently get into fights after parties because Alice gets loud and awkward when she gets nervous, where as Paul gets quiet, shy and self-conscious.  Each of their reactions to feeling uncomfortable then exacerbates the other’s feeling of discomfort. In explaining why this couples isn’t just a “poor match” and should be with someone else, he writes:

            “If Paul had married Susan or Gail, his previous two girlfriends, he wouldn’t have had the particular problem at parties that he has with Alice. Neither of these women got loud and awkward when nervous, and neither objected when Paul got quiet.

            But if Paul had married Susan, he and Susan would have gotten into a fight before they even arrived at the party. That’s because Paul, who is rarely on time, would have kept Susan waiting. Susan would have felt taken for granted, which is something she is sensitive about. And Paul would have taken her complaint about his always being late as her wanting to control him, which is something he is sensitive about.

            If Paul had married Gail, he and Gail wouldn’t have gotten out the door, period. That’s because they would have gotten too upset about an argument earlier that day about Paul not helping with the housework. Gail would have experienced his not helping as abandonment, which is something she is sensitive about, and Paul would have experienced Gail’s insistence that he help as a way of controlling him, which, as I just said, is one of his sensitivities.

 If Alice had married Steve or Lou, her previous two boyfriends, she wouldn’t have had the particular problem at the parties that she had with Paul.

            If she had married Steve, she’d have had the opposite problem. Steve gets louder at parties than she does. He would have gotten drunk; she would have gotten angry about it; and they would have gotten into a fight.

            If she had married Lou, both would have enjoyed the party since it would have provided momentary relief from the disconnection that generally developed between them on weekends. But they would have had trouble when they got home and Lou wanted sex. Lou responds to disconnection by wanting sex. It’s his way of reestablishing connection. Alice would have responded by not wanting sex. Sex is something she wants only when she already feel close.”

             As you can see, no matter who Paul or Alice was with, there would inevitably be problems they would have to learn to deal with. Often times it is easy to get a good perspective on these “irresolvable problems” and books by Dan Wile or John Gottman can help. Other times the couple will find themselves struggling to get a hold on things, unable to discuss their issues without it re-escalating into a fight. Even in these cases, all is not lost. A couples therapist trained in system dynamics can help couples figure out how their conversation goes wrong and how to communicate with each other in a way that allows them to successfully grapple with their fights.


Dan Wile (2008), After the Honeymoon. Oakland: Collaborative Couples Therapy Books.


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