Do you and your partner repeatedly argue about one or more issues with no resolution?
Sometimes the issue may be small. For example, one of you loads the dishwasher from back to front while the other follows no apparent pattern. Or one prefers toilet paper unrolling downward while the other likes it unrolling upward.
Sometimes the issue may be more weighty. For example: a freewheeling spending style vs. frugal habits; the quality or quantity of sex; parenting and discipline practices; or put downs directed at you from an in-law that your partner just laughs off.
While conflict is normal and disagreements can be healthy in relationships, it is important to discern what is really going on when you keep repeating the same frustrating argument.
Here are four questions to ask yourselves that can help you clarify what may lie beneath repeated arguments:
1) Does the issue require a solution?
We have reasons why we get upset when our partner does certain things. The reasons may be rational, emotional or both. Sometimes all that is needed is a solution to the problem.
If dishwasher loading or leaving the toilet seat up causes conflict, one solution is to change behavior. Another is to agree to disagree and let it go. A third solution is to compromise. When the issue is rational, most couples are able to come up with a solution if they try.
On the other hand, if the issue is primarily emotional, changing behavior may not solve the issue. Emotions are not problems to be solved. Rather, they are feelings to be expressed.
The key to emotional arguments is to listen as non-judgmentally as you can to your partner’s feelings. Then, express any feelings you have. Hearing feelings can move things forward. Trying to “solve” feelings is a dead end.
2) Do you really want a solution?
Sometimes arguing serves functions that have nothing to do with the topic. Arguing without resolution can create distance. Sometimes one or both partners want distance.
Perhaps one of you feels smothered, dominated or taken for granted. Arguing is a way to keeping your partner away.
Other times, arguing can be a way of indirectly connecting. Perhaps intimacy is uncomfortable or closeness sparks anxiety. But most of us still want connection. Arguing allows a couple to stay connected, though from a distance.
3) Is the argument a proxy for a deeper issue?
Often arguments don’t get resolved because you are not arguing about the real issue.
If you’ve asked your partner to do something several times and he or she has agreed but not followed through, you may feel disrespected or unimportant. If so, that is what needs to be discussed, not the proper way to load toilet paper.
Many couples fall into a pattern of criticizing or nagging each other. Yet the issue may not be what they are criticizing their partner about. Rather, one or both partners may feel lonely, rejected, taken for granted, unaccepted or not cherished.
The arguing and criticizing may serve as a protest, a plea for help or expression of frustration or despair. If present, such feelings should be addressed head on.
Arguing may also be a way partners avoid facing an unpleasant issue. Perhaps there is an issue of trust or perhaps one or both of you is questioning your relationship.
Such issues may be tremendously anxiety producing. The anxiety generates tension, and the tension erupts into arguments – except the arguments aren’t about what is really the problem. If may feel easier to argue about smaller topics.
4) What are the core feelings you both have in this argument?
Feelings are a universal language. We all have them. Feelings are messages from the emotional part of ourselves. They aren’t necessarily linear and they aren’t supposed to be logical. What they are supposed to be is listened to.
When you think about a repeated argument, tune in to what you were feeling, or what you are feeling right now when you think about it.
We we have a rich variety of emotions, some subtle and some like sledgehammers. We all have certain core emotions. Identifying these can be revealing. In particular, look for:
- Surprise or Shock
Each of these emotions exists for reasons. Anger can be a sign of injustice or a sense that our rights are being violated. Sadness can stem from loss. Fear warns us of potential danger.
Feelings generally attach to circumstances or events. It may be circumstances or events you are arguing about, or those circumstances may be only tangentially related to the feeling.
Feelings can also be triggered by expectations or beliefs. Unmet expectations or unrealistic beliefs will often spark strong feelings.
Identifying and sharing your core emotions allows an authentic path into your and your partner’s heart and psyche. That can spark a healthy discussion which can pave the way for moving beyond repetitive arguing.
Copyright © Dan Neuharth PhD MFT