Arguments are common in all kinds of relationships. It’s not necessarily a bad thing to fight – it is after all a form of expression. Research has found that couples who argue are 10 times more likely to have a happy relationship than couples that don’t fight and they are more likely to stay together.
The problems occur when couples say things in an argument as if it is an absolute truth rather than a reflection of how they are feeling.
‘I feel this way so it must be true…’
‘He comes home from work and doesn’t help with the kids, he doesn’t care about me.’
‘She is always upstairs on her computer in the evenings, she doesn’t want to talk or spend time with me’
‘He goes to see his mother every weekend, she’s more important than us’
‘She’s with the kids all the time, since having children she has no interest in me.’
Couples usually come in and want to talk about the content of their arguments and we are looking underneath the detail because ultimately they are arguing about much bigger things such as power, affection and respect.
There is almost always a pattern to these arguments and when multiple arguments are drawn out the pattern becomes clear to the couple. These arguments are not too much of a problem initially but over time they can be destructive and damaging for the relationship.
Generally these patterns take three different forms, the first is to blame each other, they are both trying to find the bad person, ‘it’s not me it’s you!’ The second is for one partner to pursue and the other to withdraw, this is a common one where couples feel they have lost their secure attachment and finally we have the withdraw-withdraw, this third one is arguably the most distressing, as the couple feel so hopeless they give up on their own feelings and pull away all together.
These patterns of interacting are often a reflection of childhood attachment styles, there can also be other influences such as parent’s relationship and conflict style, an incident that the couple are struggling to get over, work pressures, which are being projected or life stages such as a big birthday or a family bereavement.
As you can see there are many layers and understanding them is essential to change. We know this is not an easy process. We fight because we want to know we matter, listened to and understood. We don’t have to agree but we can acknowledge that our partner has a different point of view. We invest so much time in learning but why when it comes to our relationships are we so reluctant to learn, we know we are having the same old arguments but we don’t do anything about it.
When couples say ‘we never argue’, I know I have a tough case on my hands. The problems don’t disappear because you ignore your frustrations, they get buried and often come out in sarcastic comments or they build up to a point where there’s a blow up with a full list of complaints. It’s really important that things are dealt with as they happen, explored, understood and action is taken to resolve the issue. If this doesn’t happen and feelings are ignored it can lead to all feelings being ignored including the positive, which can be devastating.
It’s important when you are exploring the argument that your partner feels listened to and understood, saying things such as ‘I see what you mean’ or ‘you have a good point’ really help, you might not necessarily agree on everything but acknowledging your partners point of view will make a difference. When you’re acknowledged you feel sane. Remember you don’t have to agree, you have ‘your truth’ but there’s someone else who has a different interpretation of the event to you and that’s ok. Being vulnerable with each other is also important, to be open and to express how something makes you feel, instead of just criticising the other person, this is likely to make them defensive. If you focus on your own feelings ‘I feel unsupported when’ instead of accusing them ‘you don’t help me’ they will feel less attacked and less likely to attack back.
Couples often say things like ‘he always’ and ‘she never’ again this is an unhelpful way to communicate, by using this polarised language it often makes the situation seem worse than it is and the person often feels attacked. Just by using less provocative language such as ‘he sometimes’ or ‘she doesn’t always’ will de-escalate the argument and provide a better way of communicating.
True love takes work. There are many ways to fight smarter and at Relate we have tools to help couples communicate better, express their feelings and reconnect.