• Arden Anglican

While it may be impossible to change the behaviours of the people around you, knowing and understanding a little about your own personal fighting style and what triggers you may help you increase your happiness and enhance relationships…and make family gatherings that little bit easier.

So, what are fighting styles? We know conflict is inevitable in relationships, and some degree of conflict is healthy. But for many, conflict feels relentless and unsolvable, even predictable. Even though it may feel beyond repair, understanding our own roles in conflict can take away some of the power it holds.

One useful way to look at tension in relationships is to understand the difference between defensive and attacking behaviours and how they can contribute to, and maintain conflict.

When you adopt an attacking style, you might find yourself doing some of the following behaviours:

  • Raising your voice
  • Pointing fingers
  • Glaring with your eyes
  • Expressing disapproval with your facial expression
  • Blaming others
  • Rejecting others.

Recognise your pattern

Attack/attack patterns:  In attack/attack patterns of conflict, neither person wants to lose, and they go into battle. This type of conflict can keep you on edge, tense and feeling aggressive.

Attack/defend patterns: Instead of attacking, some people develop a defensive fighting style. In attack/defend patterns, attacking and anger tends to spiral in response to the defending behaviour. When you act in a defensive style, you might find yourself doing some of the following behaviours:

  • Making an excuse
  • Turning your body away
  • Looking away or looking down
  • Minimising distress
  • Avoiding people (e.g. hiding out in another room, being busy)
  • Being silent.

When people are acting defensively they often feel overwhelmed. Sue, a 37 year old mum of two noted that as soon as her mother-in-law body expressed disapproval – “it’s the way she says it, her tone of voice and the look in her eyes” -she immediately reacted by feeling like a failure. She would then hide out in the kitchen being ‘busy’ and often missed out on the fun and laughter happening in the family room.

When Sue began to recognise that attacking behaviours were triggering her to react in a defensive style, she began to learn to recognise her own emotions and became able to choose new ways to react.

In addition, Sue found it helpful to learn that attacking behaviours, although seeming to be mean spirited or nasty, are often a type of discharge for internal feelings. She realised that her mother-in-law would probably have preferred to stay home, and might be anxious about visiting her house, or overwhelmed by the noise and activity around her. While not condoning her mother-in-law’s behaviour, Sue noticed that she was able to take her mother-in-law’s comments much less personally. She reduced her time stressing about upcoming visits, and was pleasantly surprised that she felt less triggered by her mother-in-law’s comments.

Changing your pattern

In emotion focused therapies we look at what is going on underneath. For most people, deeper fears underlie what is happening on the surface… Conflict may bring up deeper fears that the other person is:

  • tired of me
  • angry with me
  • stopped loving me
  • may leave me.

Or, it may bring up unhelpful thinking patterns and beliefs such as:

  • I’m a failure
  • I’m stupid
  • I can never get things right.

These types of deeper fears often create strong emotional responses in the body, leading us to begin reacting in either an attacking or defending style. Next time you feel your emotions rising, you might like to try the following.

Tips for getting in touch with your emotions:

  1. Put your hand over your feeling in your body. Take a few seconds to breathe and listen to what is going on. What is this feeling? What has triggered you?
  2. Breathe slowly for one minute. Emotions can change. Sit with your feeling and see if it is changing.
  3. Become aware of your style, the other person’s style, and your part in the conflict. What would happen if you changed your style? Reduced your attacking or defending behaviours? Changed your body language?


Family conflict can lead to difficulties in coping. If you are finding it hard to cope this year due to conflict or any other reason, please seek help from your GP.

Or, if you are in Australia you can call these services:

  • Triple Zero (ph 000) in an Emergency
  • Lifeline (ph 13 11 14)
  • Suicide Call Back Service (ph 1300 659 467)
  • Kids Helpline (ph 1800 551 800)
  • MensLine Australia (ph 1300 78 99 78)
  • Salvos Careline (ph 1300 36 36 22).