The 3 Worst Couples in Every Therapy Session, According to Esther Perel

What’s your fight language?

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In a relationship, fights happen. But our tactics used during an argument can cause things to escalate rather than calm, says relationship expert and psychotherapist Esther Perel during a recent episode of the In Conversation podcast from Apple News.

More specifically, she says many people lose themselves in the argument’s patterns, which thwarts any attempt at a resolution. And while there are many ways to productively fight, Perel sees three common dynamics in her sessions that are highly dysfunctional. Below, the three couples you don’t want to be, plus how to flip the script.

Couple #1: Fight/Fight

Fight/fight is when two people are both equally defensive to the point that neither will bend. “When you have fight/fight, everything that one person says makes the other person say something bigger, nastier or even more demeaning,” Perel describes. “At the end, you have two people who sit there at their extremes completely polarized with a huge polluted space in between. It’s a challenge, because they fight like they have nothing to lose, when they have everything to lose.” How might this play out in the real world? Well, one person might rattle off a list of grievances and, rather than actively listening in reply or seeking common ground, the other escalates by attacking back with no accountability.

Couple #2: Fight/Flight

In this case, one person attacks while the other shuts down or leaves the room. Says Perel, “They’re so long gone; it’s the invisible divorce that lives in the room, as Megan Fleming calls it.” This dynamic is just as devastating as fight/fight given that one person is surfacing issues and the other is closed off.

Couple #3: Flight/Flight

The easiest way to define flight/flight is to visualize a couple that are both giving each other the silent treatment. On some level, it’s just as polarizing as fight/fight in that both parties are actively avoiding the situation and each other. For example, Spouse A might be annoyed that Spouse B forgot to sign the kids up for camp, but instead of mentioning it, she’ll huff around the apartment. Spouse B might, in turn, notice Spouse A’s avoidance, and react by…putting on his headphones and ignoring her for an hour. A resolution is tough to come by when both sides aren’t open to any form of communication—instead, they’re totally checked out.

A Better Approach?

Perel suggests searching for common ground instead of fixating on the details that widen the gap. “When people are disconnected and ruptured and in a state of breach, you try to create a bridge where potentially each one will go and look at what’s on the other side of the bank,” she explains. It’s also important to prioritize curiosity in an argument—not only to try and consider why your partner may have lashed out, but why you lashed out as well.

Bottom line: Understanding the form of your fight is the first step toward rethinking how you approach conflict, but also how you reach a resolution.

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Rachel Bowie is Senior Director of Special Projects & Royals at PureWow, where she covers parenting, fashion, wellness and money in addition to overseeing initiatives within...