Clients often come to see me and tell me about all the “stupid” things they fight about. They understand that their arguments are usually over something petty and go in circles, yet they find themselves fighting about the same things over and over again. Fighting gets chalked up to difficulties “problems solving” or a “lack of communication”, but problem solving techniques and learning new ways of talking to each other rarely works. This is often because the couple doesn’t truly understand what they’re arguing about below the surface, or are too afraid to say how they actually feel.
When starting counseling with a new couple, one of the first things I attempt to do is identify and understand the underlying patterns of the couple’s disagreements. While the surface-level content of an argument may change, the couple is often fighting about the raw emotions or insecurities that lie beneath the surface. An argument about who should do the dishes, for example, may actually be a fight about how one partner doesn’t feel supported or loved. People rarely talk about how they really feel however, as saying to your partner, “I don’t feel supported by you” Or “I feel as though maybe you don’t love me” can be a frightening concept. And perhaps more often, the partner may not actually realize that this is their true feeling!
So how do couples begin to uncover the real reasons for their disagreements? This is often where a therapist can be most helpful, as it can be very difficult to see what the big picture is when you’re stuck in the middle of it. However, there are some questions you can ask yourself that may shed some light on why you seem to fight all the time.
1. “What do I feel right now?”
In order to understand your underlying emotions about a fight, you have to first identify what you are feeling. Notice your bodily sensations: clenched fists, tears, “knots” in your stomach, an increased heartrate or breathing rate and other bodily sensations often indicate strong emotions. Figure out which emotion you are currently feeling. Using the example of your partner not helping with the dishes for instance, you may notice that you have a tense jaw and your head feels hot, indicating anger. You may also be crying, which may indicate sadness.
2. Why might I feel this way?”
Once you’ve identified the specific emotions you are feeling, ask yourself what about the event may have triggered these emotions. Thinking again about the dishes, perhaps you feel this way because you’ve asked your partner to help multiple times and they’ve refused, or maybe you’re so overloaded with other chores at home that you need help with this one. Another possibility is that you’re the one being asked to do the dishes but the way your partner asks is rude or demanding.
3. “What does this say about my partner?”
Next ask yourself what your partner’s motivation might be for acting this way. We often observe the behavior of others and assign meaning to it. If they refuse to help, maybe it means 1. That they’re overloaded at work and truly don’t have time, or 2. That they don’t care about your stress enough to help you. If you’re getting upset when they refuse to help with the dishes, it’s likely that your brain is interpreting their refusal as #2.
4. “What does this say about my relationship?”
Now try to look at the bigger picture of what your emotions and your partner’s actions mean in terms of your relationship as a whole. If you truly feel as though your partner doesn’t care about you when they refuse to do the dishes, maybe your brain is interpreting that to mean that they don’t actually love you and don’t care about the relationship. This would explain why you could get so upset over such a small issue.
The trick with identifying the underlying cause of arguments in a relationship is to know how to solve them. This is another area where couples get stuck and need a therapist’s unbiased perspective to help out. If you attempt it on your own, it often involves looking at other arguments you’ve had and asking the same questions to see if you come to the same conclusions. If not, it could be that you’re overreacting about the dishes and need to do a little bit of work to correct your own thought patterns regarding the issue. If you continue to find that you are worried about whether your partner loves you, examine the evidence in other interactions and see if you can find anything to contradict your theory.
Once you’ve determined the true cause of your arguments, it’s time to tell your partner how you really feel. This means stopping the dishes argument in its tracks and saying instead: “When you refuse to help with the dishes it causes me to wonder if you’re refusing because you actually don’t love me or care about the relationship.” Now you’ve got a real conversation on your hands and you can begin to use those problem solving skills to talk about what really matters.