“I love you, so why do we fight so much?” This quandary is one that most couples face, leading them to question everything from their reality to their relationship to the rationality of love itself. After all, isn’t a certain amount of arguing normal? One recent survey found that couples argue an average of about seven times a day. Yet, just because fighting can be common doesn’t mean it’s inevitable. Having repeated hostile interactions with the person we supposedly love creates misery and emotional distress for both partners. There’s a lot we can learn that explains why we fall into an unnecessary cycle of fighting and that will help us break this destructive cycle.
We can start by having a little self-compassion. Many of us are more open and vulnerable with our partner than almost anyone else, so it makes sense that we’d be more reactive to them and more affected by their responses. However, what we’re reacting to often goes deeper than what’s going on at the surface. We all have impactful experiences and unique attachment histories that shape our behavior as well as our expectations about how relationships work. Because of this, we don’t exactly come to our adult relationships with a clean slate. In fact, studies have shown that when we’re triggered with a romantic partner, the same neurochemicals are released that were when we were kids being triggered by our parents. We rarely realize it, but often, we’re reacting to our partner based on stirred-up emotions from our past.
Much of our anger comes from our past
As children, we form defenses and adaptations to deal with our surroundings. The trouble is we carry these patterns with us into situations and relationships in which they no longer serve us. Shutting down and keeping to ourselves may have been a good way to get by in our family, but it can cause problems when we’re trying to communicate openly with our partner. Being stubborn and standing up for ourselves may have been a necessary defense against an angry or punishing parent, but this response can be inappropriate to a partner who’s simply offering feedback.
All of us have a “critical inner voice” that’s formed from negative attitudes and interactions in our development. This “voice” is like a cruel internal coach that interprets the world around us, and it can get a lot louder when we’re triggered emotionally. It’s also particularly active when it comes to our closest relationships. It can exacerbate and exaggerate situations, which intensifies our responses and leads to more conflict. For instance, a small comment from our partner can be translated into a sweeping criticism when heard through our inner critic (i.e. “That’s the second time she reminded me about our plans Friday night. Does she think I’m an idiot?”) An insignificant action can be seen as a grand gesture (i.e. “He didn’t invite me to that work party. He’s embarrassed by me.”)
Taking action to break up your fights
It is possible to interrupt the pattern of fighting that many couples fall into. Taking the following actions will support you and your partner relating in a way that is respectful, sensitive, and compassionate, while addressing the difficult issues that will inevitably arise between you.
Focus on the positive: As human beings, we’re designed to look for danger. As a result, when we experience ruptures in our early relationships, we are left on high-alert for other negative behavior. Our critical inner voice keeps us on the lookout by warning us that our partner is going to hurt or disappoint us again.
We can counter our negative expectations and our fears around intimacy by changing our focus from what our partner does wrong to what they do right. We can achieve this by making a point to notice what we are grateful for in our partner and by then expressing our gratitude toward them. It may feel like it’s hard to let things go, but you can ignore the “voices” that are pointing out “but he said this” and “but she did that.” Reject the negative view of your partner that your critical inner voice puts forth.
Relate to your partner in the present: Because our closest relationships trigger emotions from our past, we’re very likely to project those emotions onto our partner. For example, we may feel easily criticized or controlled, because that’s how someone related to us when we were kids. A small comment can make us feel attacked, because it taps into old attacks on ourselves, and we then respond in ways that are far more defensive or combative than we would otherwise.
When we recognize this dynamic, we can challenge the distortions from our past and relate to our partner in our life today. We can come to know the familiar images from our history or ways we were once seen. We can question the “voices” that continue to warn us (i.e. “See, this is what happens every time you get close!” “You were always unlovable.”) We can be open to the idea that we might not be seeing our partner accurately, and approach them with curiosity and fresh interest. We can try to see things from our partner’s point of view and understand how they are feeling.
One woman gave the example that when her husband offered to watch their kids so she could work out, she heard it as, “You don’t look good. You should work out.” She responded by teasingly saying, “Oh, is that a hint?” In turn, her husband, heard his own critical inner voice chime in with, “See? You can’t even do one nice thing without her jumping down your throat? She’s so self-centered.” Before they knew it, they were bickering back and forth about what could otherwise have been a kind, simple interaction.
When they talked about it later, the woman recognized how she was overly sensitive to any comments about her body, having grown up being criticized about her appearance. Her husband felt particularly sensitive to being misunderstood based on his own history of having a mom who often felt easily criticized. In this case, making sense of their unique histories helped both partners separate it from their real-time experience. This led them to a deeper understanding that went beyond their one, small interaction.
Take pause instead of reacting: As I’ve mentioned, our interpretation of our interaction with our partner is often based on old attitudes or feelings, but before we can question or make sense of the intensity of our reaction, we’re off to the races and picking a fight. Couples are able to resolve conflicts if they are able to take time to examine what’s really going on. Often, couples react with instinctive emotion that then triggers the other person. If we can take a moment to pause and reflect, we can avoid a lot of the nastiness that arises in a fight. Rather than being reactive, we can be curious. What set us off? Is our anger similar to anger we felt as a child? What are the “voices” that are coaching us and fueling our anger? Why is our partner reacting the way they are? What’s going on with them?
Invite open, honest communication: We can make an effort to keep the channels of communication open by resisting the knee-jerk reaction to defend ourselves when we feel attacked. We may intimidate or silence our partner by being defensive, when our goal should be to invite feedback. Our defensive reactions are driven by the “voices” that lead us to misunderstand or misinterpret our partner because of our own embedded ideas and heightened sensitivity (i.e. “He’s saying you’re stupid.” “She thinks you’re a loser.”)
We can ignore these “voices” and stay undefended and engaged as we talk and listen to our partner. When we’re open, we can learn real ways we hurt and affect each other, and we know the other person better. This doesn’t mean we have to always agree with our partner, but being open to them and with them invites a level of vulnerability that allows us to feel for each other and get closer.
Talk about your feelings: When we’re resistant to admitting what we feel or asking for what we want, these feelings stack up. We may be silent about these things but expect our partner to somehow intuitively know what we need, which leaves us feeling victimized and chronically disappointed. When we do confront our partner, it may then come from an irrational place that they have trouble wrapping their head around. We can challenge the “voices” that advise us to keep our feelings to ourselves (i.e. “Don’t bother anyone with what you want.” “No one cares about how you feel!”) Instead of shutting down or blowing up, we can seek to maintain a steady stream of honest and vulnerable communication about what we feel and what we want. This kind of communication often softens our partner and keeps us on the same page.
Both the way we perceive our partner and the way we respond to them are often filtered through expectations and experiences from our past. Unfortunately, the more stirred up we are on a primal level, the more reactive we tend to be in the moment. That is why, when it comes to fighting with our partner, it’s so valuable to understand our triggers and separate what’s happening from what’s going on inside us. When we take pause and question our reaction, we can sort out what we really think, feel, and want rather than blindly diving into an argument that can injure our relationship.
By challenging our tendencies that lead to more fights and less closeness, we can shift dynamics in our relationship. We can take an honest look at our patterns and understand their roots which will help us start to break free of the cycle and stop fighting in our romantic relationship. It may be a challenge to change fundamental defenses that once protected us, but when we value and ultimately love our partner, creating a kind, compassionate relationship is certainly worth fighting for.