Therapists Reveal What It Really Means When It Feels Like Your Partner Picks Fights for No Reason
No matter how pointless these fights may feel, they often speak to some underlying issue in the person picking the fights or with the relationship in question. “I’ve had whole sessions with couples about how someone loads the dishwasher,” says couples therapist Tracy Ross, LCSW. “But it’s not really about the dishwasher. It’s about holding each other in mind and accepting each other's influence.” The person picking the fight in this example, she says, might really be questioning their partner’s listening skills (Didn’t they hear me when I asked them to load the dishwasher this way?) or empathy (Don’t they care about how their actions affect me, or about making me happy?).
Unpacking the real reason why a partner may be picking fights for (what seems like) no reason can help you avoid the rabbit hole of everything becoming a fight. “When this is the climate in a relationship, the positive emotional currency is quickly drained,” says Ross.
Below, therapists break down the potential motivations behind a person’s tendency to pick fights about random or unimportant things, and share advice for mitigating this kind of conflict.
5 reasons why your partner is picking fights for what feels like no reason
1. They’re craving connection
At the very least, picking a fight with someone forces their attention—which may be all that your partner is seeking from you (albeit, in a not-so-great way). “If a person is feeling lonely, unseen, or as if they’re not a priority to their partner, they might pick a fight as a bid for connection,” says Ross.
“If a person is feeling lonely, unseen, or as if they’re not a priority to their partner, they might pick a fight as a bid for connection.” —Tracy Ross, LCSW, couples therapist
As an example, consider this common scenario: Your partner arrives home and asks how your day was, but you don’t look up from your phone to respond. “They may feel slighted, hurt, unimportant, or simply disappointed about not having that momentary connection, so when you then ask for a glass of water, their response may be to pick a fight,” says Ross—say, about why you can't get the water yourself.
Of course, the fight here isn’t actually about the glass of water; it’s about the attention that your partner is seeking from you but not receiving, says Ross. They’re just not capable of or choosing to communicate that desire more productively in the moment.
2. They fear or reject the idea of real intimacy
Some people may actually find it difficult to tolerate too much harmony, says Ross, as paradoxical as that may sound. After all, harmony often fosters intimacy, closeness, and connection—with which many people are uncomfortable, says clinical psychologist Abby Medcalf, PhD.
Perhaps your partner would rather avoid intimacy than do the vulnerable work of opening up and trusting you with their feelings. In this case, “picking fights for no apparent reason is the perfect way to keep [you] at a distance and keep themselves ‘safe,’” says Dr. Medcalf.
It's also possible that your partner may be so afraid of getting their heart broken should they get too close to you, that they manufacture random conflict in order to prevent that. This is a common tendency in people with an insecure attachment style, says Ross: “[In these people], there is this underlying fear that their loved one’s attention and affection will be withdrawn at any moment. A coping mechanism is to pick a fight in order to beat them to the punch.”
In a similar realm, an insecurely attached partner may also feel unworthy of the kind of love you might be willing to provide—so, they end up self-sabotaging in order to prove themselves right, says Dr. Medcalf. “They pick fights, the other person rejects them, and they say to themselves, ‘I knew it! When things get a little tough, they’re not there for me,’” she says. “They’re testing their partner and creating a self-fulfilling prophecy of being abandoned or rejected.”
3. They’re seeking the upper hand in the relationship
Speaking of self-sabotage…it’s also possible that a person picking fights for no reason is doing so as a way to ensure they’re in control of the relationship at all (very real) costs.
“Many people are uncomfortable when things are going well,” says Dr. Medcalf. “It makes them feel out of control and anxious, as if they’re constantly ‘waiting for the other shoe to drop,’” she says. Whereas, when they’re fighting, they’re engaging the other person on a certain level, which makes them feel better because at least they’re in control of things, she says.
4. That’s how they learned to communicate as a child
In some cases, a person might not even realize that the little fights they’re constantly starting are fights, especially if bickering was modeled as regular communication behavior in their childhood household.
“How you saw your parents or siblings relate to one another and to you is how you learned the ‘right way’ to communicate, listen, and understand yourself,” says Dr. Medcalf. If your partner grew up in an environment where adults in their vicinity were constantly fighting with each other, they might have learned that fighting is how you show others that you care, she says, which may be why they’re perpetuating that behavior in your relationship.
5. Picking fights for no reason has become a habit of theirs
Like any negative relationship behavior, the more that a partner is picking fights for no reason, the easier it is for that to become the default pattern, says Ross: “It’s easy to just inadvertently keep the negativity going if that is your ‘go-to’ habit.”
How to deal if your partner is constantly picking meaningless fights
From the outset, it’s important to be compassionate, no matter how difficult that may be, says Dr. Medcalf. Given the above, your fight-starting partner may very well be operating from a place of loneliness, fear, or insecurity—all of which are emotions deserving of your kindness.
You can de-escalate things by first determining the particular emotion that is driving them to spark conflict in the first place. Often, an argumentative person may subconsciously expect you to just figure out the problem by “reading their mind,” says Ross. (As in: He should know, I’ve told him this so many times, or Why doesn’t she just do it?)
To keep from falling into this trap, take a moment during the next seemingly meaningless conflict to ask about what’s really going on, says Dr. Medcalf. “Stop the conversation, say what you’re feeling, and then ask how they’re feeling. For example, you might say, ‘I’m feeling a lot of tension all of a sudden. How are you feeling right now?’” she suggests.
At first, your partner might deflect or fire back defensively, but you can guide them toward communicating actual emotions by continuing to share your own. “Remember that picking fights is largely unconscious,” says Dr. Medcalf. “They probably don’t realize that they’re doing it, but by asking them again to name a feeling, you’ll effectively bring them into the present moment.”
Once they hopefully state an emotion (e.g. "I feel upset that you aren’t taking my needs into account"), you can respond to and connect with that feeling, rather than just bickering about whatever surface-level thing started the argument in the first place. This way, the two of you can participate in a productive conversation, which creates a joint opportunity to take care of your relationship, says Ross.
In that framework, you’re also not laying the blame for the bickering on just your partner (for “starting it”), and they’re not laying the blame on just you (for “causing them to start it”). Instead, says Ross, you’re viewing it as a mutual bad habit that you have to work together in order to break.
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