(LifeWire) -- Ester Horowitz knew her plans for a peaceful meal were history.
Onlookers are often disturbed when they witness open hostility between couples in public.
Dining out with her elderly mother last summer, Horowitz spotted her twin brother, sister-in-law and their three children walk into the restaurant. As usual, the couple was fighting, Horowitz says.
And just as typical was the way their private battle turned public, with each spouse taking turns visiting Horowitz's table to air their grievances and muster support.
When she asked her sister-in-law to take her problems behind closed doors, "she looked at my brother and screamed, saying it was his fault they were fighting.
"If she heard me, she didn't care."
Long accustomed to the pair's skirmishes at family occasions such as weddings and bar mitzvahs, the Merrick, New York, resident resents being a captive audience but has never told her relatives how unfair she thinks their fractious behavior is.
"They've been locked in this pattern for so many years that they can't see past it," says Horowitz, 52, who owns a strategic management firm. "You can almost bet at any one of these events that this is going to go down. We're so used to it we try to pretend they don't exist."
Everyone has seen couples snap at each other in public; even doing it themselves on occasion. However, when such behavior becomes habitual, friends and family members may find themselves turning into reluctant observers of a never-ending battle -- a position that's both uncomfortable and embarrassing.
Jeanne Safer, a New York psychotherapist and writer, says criticizing a spouse in public is "an act of desperation or an indication of long-simmering hostility and frustration."
"It's always destructive to the relationship," says Safer, "as well as a burden to the public who has to listen."
Isabel Maples agrees. The Haymarket, Virgina, resident was taking a leisurely walk recently when she happened upon a woman berating her partner about some chores as they stood in their front yard. The hostility was so palpable that Maples has had a difficult time shaking its impression on her, even days later.
"It really disturbed me," says Maples, 48, who crossed the street to avoid making eye contact with the couple. "It's inappropriate to talk to anyone like that at all, much less in public. It seemed like they had lots of unresolved feelings and emotions."
Safer says that any couple who thrives on public bickering has a lot of private problems, including the need to humiliate the partner without taking responsibility.
Banter or bickering?
Roland Alonzi, 35, a New York public relations executive, says back-and-forth public bickering is just the way some couples communicate. Alonzi says he used to routinely make sarcastic cracks at parties about his former girlfriend.
"I am a funny guy, but my ex used to hate it when I would take private moments between her and me and turn them into an anecdote for entertainment's sake," he says.
In front of a roomful of people, he joked about her parents' volunteer work as clowns at children's hospitals, criticized her political leanings and ridiculed her dream of donating millions to charity if she ever won the lottery. "It wasn't like I was poking fun at a relative's drinking problem or something mean-spirited," he says.
Fortunately, says Alonzi, his current girlfriend appreciates his sense of humor.
Unless it's truly understood by both sides as good-natured banter, criticism should only be delivered in private, says Peter Post, author of "Essential Manners for Couples."
"The idea is to spare everyone involved -- yourself, your partners and anyone else within earshot -- the embarrassment of listening to what is really a private conversation," Post says.
Taking a stand
Regardless of the reasons for a couple's public argument, for the sake of their own peace of mind, bystanders should try to remove themselves gracefully from the fray.
• Ask bickerers to stop. "I was once stuck in an elevator as the husband of a good friend of mine humiliated and belittled her. I stopped him in the middle and said he was making me uncomfortable, and if he had to say anything to his wife, I would appreciate his waiting until I left," says Safer.
• Change the subject. The vast majority of couples' arguments "are exercises in jockeying for who is justified in feeling they are the bigger victim and therefore have a right to verbally -- or otherwise -- attack the other person," says Carl Semmelroth, author of "The Anger Habit in Relationships." He recommends trying to "channel the conversation to more constructive topics."
• Don't take sides. "It is highly unwise to intervene in a domestic squabble," Semmelroth says. "Both parties are likely to turn on you, a probability that makes any experienced policeman especially careful when called on domestic violence cases. My advice is to ignore them."
• Excuse yourself. Whenever possible, it's best to disengage and walk away, Post says. Alonzi concurs: "I usually find an excuse to leave the room or I whip out my iPhone and start checking e-mail."
• Consider ending the friendship. In a worst-case scenario, if the fighting continues even after you tell your friends privately that their behavior makes you extremely uncomfortable, it may become impossible to continue seeing the couple, says Safer. "My husband and I have stopped seeing a couple who insisted on fighting in front of us on a regular basis."
LifeWire provides original and syndicated content to Web publishers. Heidi Sarna is a Singapore-based freelance writer who covers relationships and travel for a variety of online and print publications. Maureen Salamon is a New Jersey-based freelance writer.