It begins with an accusation -- a tiny ripple in the calm waters of a relationship: "Why didn't you pay that bill? How can you be so irresponsible?"

Then the counter-accusation: "Look who's talking about irresponsible. You left your medicine out where the children could get to it."

The ripple deepens: "At least I don't hate the kids like you do."

Builds to a roll: "You should know about hate -- look at your mother."

Churns to a boil: "Don't bring my mother into this. Your mother lives like a pig."

And becomes a tidal wave: "Well I'd rather live with someone who's sloppy than an insensitive slob. I'm leaving."

Professionals call this "The Kitchen Sink Approach to Fighting," psychologist Burt Grodnitzky told about two dozen couples at a workshop on "Family Fighting" at Annandale's Woodburn Center for Community Mental Health.

"One person brings up something and it starts a chain reaction. They drag in ever shortcoming and weakness they can recall -- no matter how irrelevant. No wonder fighting gets such a bad name."

But fighting "isn't a bad thing to be avoided," says Grodnitzky. "Every couple and ever family fights. It's natural and normal that people will have disagreements.

"I find it's a real problem if there isn't some conflict. Conflict between kids and their parents is a normal part of development as children test their own strengths and self-confidence. And some disagreemtne about how things should be done is inevitable between a couple."

The problem with most fights, however, is that they are destructive instead of constructive. "People tend to approach family problems as if there was one right answer," Grodnitzky says. "And if you insist on proving that one person is right and the other wrong, nothing comes out of the fight but bad feelings.

Fighting, he says, doesn't have to be a win-lose proposition. If both parties listen to each other, try to work through the conflict and use the experience "as a means of having a more productive, satisfactory family life," the result can be a win-win situation.

Most people deal with conflict in one of three ways: passively, aggressively or assertively. These "fighting styles" are usually learned from past interactions, says Grodnitzky, adding the passive fighting techniques, while an assertive approach can lead to effective problem solving.

"The passive, non-assertive person seeks to avoid conflict at all costs," he says. "Frequently they tend to dismiss problems, but in reality they let the feelings and memories build up inside them.

"They may not be aware of doing this. They may think they're 'turning the other cheek' or following a rule that 'if you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all."

Their collection of unresolved bad feelings is often "cashed in for a big blow-up." The person who is the victim of this vilification probably has no idea what brought it on.

These stockpiled feelings can also manifest themselves in physical problems like backaches, headaches or pains. People may use this passive method "out of fear of the rejection that may come if they voice their feelings," says Grodnitzky, "or they may feel they have no rights, or may enjoy playing the poor-little-me, silent-sufferer role.

"The goal of the aggressive approach is domination. There is a lot of finger pointing, talking in condescending tones, using intimidation and wanting to be top dog. The aggressive person feels they have to win by beating the other person.

Among dirty tricks employed by the passive or aggressive fighter:

The Numbers Game -- "Look at how many times I've put myself out for you. When have you done anything for me?"

Playing Archelogist -- Dredging up an incident that happened years ago and blaming someone for something they can't do anything about now.

Trait and Name Calling -- "You're just like your father -- a nogood bum."

Crazy Making -- A Catch-22 bind such as a wife insisting her husband select the restaurant, then spending the rest of the evening making sarcastic remarks about the choice.

A person who uses an assertive approach to fighting, however, "concentrates on getting their needs met without putting themself or the other person down," says Grodnitzky. "There isn't necessarily a winner or loser, but both win by concentrating on solving the problem."

To fight fairly and constructively, Grodnitzky suggests this agenda of questions ans solutions:

1. What is the problem? Get the facts, and both opinions.

1. What is the the problem? Get the facts, and both opinions.

2. What would we like to have instead of this problem? Describe how the situation would be if the problem were solved.

3. What are all of the possible solutions? It helps to list all of them before discussing each one.

4. What are the good and bad points of each solution? Go down the list one by one.

5. Which appears to be the best? (Remember, there are no perfects answers.)

6. Do it.

7. Set a review date some time after the solution is acted on to look at progress made and to give each other feedback.