The description offered by Rebecca and Bill resonates with the descriptions offered by many of the other couples we interviewed. Typically, they use a variety of different ways of fighting ranging from the silent treatment, to time off from each other, to outright warfare. Frequently, as in the case of many couples, their fights result in part from (or are at least amplified by) other people and situations in their lives, often their children. Finally, as with many couples, we find that many of the fights concerning the process of fighting itself (the
metacommunication processes we discussed previous)

In essence, Rebecca was getting angry about Bill’s anger and, in particular, the way in which he expresses his anger. This “second-order” anger is particularly destructive in a relationship because it rapidly escalates. First, Bill gets angry and hides his anger only to express it later in an indirect way. Rebecca gets angry because Bill never expressed his anger in the first place. Bill is likely to be very confused about Rebecca’s anger since it isn’t directed at anything that he can see -and feel. Its anger directed at a process rather than any specific content. Given his confusion, Bill is likely once again to get angry, Yet, he is even more likely to hide this anger, because he is afraid of receiving even more of Rebecca’s anger. Thus, the cycle begins again, typically at a more rapid and volatile level. Bill’s later, indirect anger fuels Rebecca’s renewed anger regarding Bill’s inability to immediately express his anger.

Fortunately, Rebecca and Bill seem to have sufficient trust and flexibility in their relationship that they can shift to other modes of fighting. For example, Rebecca writes a letter rather than talking directly to Bill or Bill taking a walk to “cool off”. In this way they defuse the escalating condition. Other couples are less fortunate, having no other modes of fighting in their repertoire. They have very little trust in the willingness or ability of their partner to monitor their own feeling; hence, they can’t enter into a more thoughtful and detached period of deliberation or negotiation regarding the sources of their anger and fighting.


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William BergquistWilliam Bergquist, Ph.D. An international coach and consultant in the fields of psychology, management and public administration, author of more than 50 books, and president of a psychology institute. Dr. Bergquist consults on and writes about personal, group, organizational and societal transitions and transformations. His published work ranges from the personal transitions of men and women in their 50s and the struggles of men and women in recovering from strokes to the experiences of freedom among the men and women of Eastern Europe following the collapse of the Soviet Union. In recent years, Bergquist has focused on the processes of organizational coaching. He is coauthor with Agnes Mura of coachbook, co-founder of the International Journal of Coaching in Organizations and co-founder of the International Consortium for Coaching in Organizations.

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