Why Couples Fight: What Are Arguments over Small Things Really About?

What Are All Those Fights Over Small or Silly Things Really About? Insights from couples counseling helps arguing partners change the tune.

You know, it happens in a flash. He forgets to take the trash to the curb, again. She is out at school meetings or with friends too many nights. Somebody forgets a birthday or anniversary, and the dance is on!

Fighting Between Partners is like a Dance of Thoughts, Feelings and Reactions

What dance? By watching each partner, it may seem the issue is about who’s at fault, who’s unreliable, or who’s been wronged. Inside, one person is thinking “She asks too much, I can never get it right with her. This isn’t fair. What about all the things I do?” And the other partner may be thinking, “I can’t rely on him, he really doesn’t care how things are, I have to be in charge of everything.”

Finding the Feelings Beneath the Arguments

Underneath those thoughts are two layers of feelings. The first layer has self-protective feelings, like resentment, hurt, self-righteousness, feeling like a victim, frustration or anger.

Below the protective feelings are the vulnerable fears and emotions. These fears might be about yourself and your own sense of inadequacy, or about the future of the relationship. They may emerge through worry: “Will he or she get sick of me or this dance, and leave?” These fears are really the music that we waltz to when our relationship is hurting.

What to Do About the Emotional Turmoil

If you have heard similar grumbles in your own head, or from your partner, you can be sure the deeper feelings are active. And that we disguise our fears of being rejected, not-good-enough and un-loved by pursuing or withdrawing, because being vulnerable to those we love and value the most can be really scary!

You might be a pursuer if: you ask for more time and attention, and feel a bit desperate if it doesn’t come.  You poke at your partner for help with chores and kids, and complain about how he or she falls short of being a good partner. Underneath, when you look hard enough, you’re likely to find a fear of aloneness, feeling unloved, and maybe feeling emotionally starved for appreciation, affection and closeness.

You might be a withdrawer if: you feel like you can’t get it right with your partner, like s/he wants too much. A feeling of anxiety or even panic comes up when you think you are failing your partner and your impulse is to hide. You spend lots of time on the TV or computer, or your phone. You rarely initiate date nights or maybe even hugs.

Over time, the repeated dance steps take on a life of their own, and the music of pursuit and withdrawal plays all too often. One man I worked with said changing the pattern was like improving his golf swing: “If it feels like the right thing to do, I’m doing it wrong!”

How do you improve a golf swing? How do you improve the way you work with hard feelings you’re facing? With good feedback, practice, and lots of attention to what you’re actually feeling and doing.

When you respond in new ways to old arguments, you can change the tune to allow a more responsive, openhearted dance between you and your partner to begin.

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