- Aaron Steinberg, MA, PCC, life coach, trauma practitioner, and co-founder and CEO of Grow Together, a coaching platform for new parents
- Aldrich Chan, PsyD, neuropsychologist and founder of the Center for Neuropsychology and Consciousness (CNC), in Miami, Florida
- Elizabeth Earnshaw, LMFT, licensed marriage and family therapist
Arguments typically fall into one of two categories: solvable and perpetual problems. "Solvable problems result in picking fights that can be easily solved with a resolution," Earnshaw says. In these cases, the couple may very well be fighting about the seemingly menial thing at hand—the wet towel on the bathroom floor, the dishes in the sink, the forgotten chore—because no solution has yet been developed for dealing with it.
"Perpetual problems are fueled by certain underlying issues, needs, or experiences." —Elizabeth Earnshaw, LMFT, relationship therapist
Perpetual problems, on the other hand, result in circular fights. "You'll know it's a perpetual problem if you just keep fighting about it without coming up with a good enough solution to help you move forward," Earnshaw says. "If you keep fighting about the towel on the floor, even when you've come up with ideas to solve it, it's likely a perpetual problem, which is one fueled by certain underlying issues, needs, or experiences."
According to psychotherapist Esther Perel, there are three possible issues for a couple that form the basis for all kinds of arguing, drawn from the work of psychologist Howard J. Markman, PhD. Learn what they are below, plus tips on using this knowledge to navigate future relationship conflicts with your partner.
3 core reasons for arguing within a couple
1. Lack of power and control
One of the main underlying issues that can cause arguing for a couple is power and control. "It can feel threatening to not have control within our relationships, and yet we really don't have a lot of control in them because we have to rely on how another person behaves and thinks," says Earnshaw. Grasping at that sense of control where you don't really have it can start or worsen a fight. "We may feel as if giving up power within the relationship or a particular fight will symbolize weakness," says Earnshaw. So, we seek it out at all costs.
For example, Earnshaw shares that one partner may feel a loss of control in letting their partner parent their children in the way they see fit. Instead of respecting their partner's parenting style and its differences from their own, they may then choose to put their partner down in front of their children by saying something like, "Don't you dare speak to them that way!" It was their initial feeling of disempowerment, then, that triggered the fight.
To resolve these kinds of relationship problems, Earnshaw recommends asking yourself how you can accept your partner's differences and allow them to have enough power and control in your relationship to live out those differences. This will also help you get better at compromising in a way that keeps disagreements from escalating.
2. Lack of closeness and care
Much like we need some sense of power in a relationship to feel comfortable and confident, we also need to feel intimate with a partner and like they truly care about us. When those needs go unmet, arguments can ensue.
Consider the example of someone trying to tell their S.O. about their day and being met with little to no response, attention, or enthusiasm. Maybe their partner is even scrolling on their phone and totally phubbing them, so they say something like, "You are so addicted to your phone!" This could prompt a fight about phone use, but the underlying issue at stake for the partner making the comment is a feeling of loneliness or disconnection—a lack of closeness and care.
What this couple is really arguing about is: "Are you really there for me? Do you care about me? Can I rely on you?" says Earnshaw. But admitting to feeling a lack of care or concern from a partner requires vulnerability, which is why she says that some people may move into what feels like a power position and block themselves from connecting instead. So the thinking goes: If you want to just look at your phone when I tell you about my day, then I'm just not going to tell you anything at all anymore. Naturally, that just foments more disconnection.
A better bet? Try to lean into expressing how you're actually feeling, rather than pointing out your partner's flaws. You might think that they spend too much time on their phone, but what you're really feeling is that they're not spending enough time on you—and it's only in getting vulnerable enough to communicate that feeling that you can move toward real resolution.
3. Lack of respect and recognition
"We all want to be respected and recognized by our partners; it creates a sense of secure attachment," Earnshaw explains. "When we feel disrespected or not recognized, it can create conflict."
An example: One partner cooks all the meals and never hears a "thank you" from the other, leading them to feel unappreciated and unrecognized. As a result, they may lash out at their partner or choose to abruptly stop cooking meals in a way that prompts a fight.
Instead, if you're the person feeling a lack of recognition from your partner, Earnshaw suggests expressing to them that you're not feeling seen, heard, or respected, and how that's affecting you. It's also good practice to regularly take the time to let your partner know that they matter and that you're grateful for their contributions to your relationship, so that they don't wind up in the same boat. Even small (but thoughtful) gestures of recognition can truly help you save a relationship.
Tips for fighting fairly with your partner
No matter the reason you're arguing with a partner (and, TBH, sometimes we find ourselves picking fights for no reason at all), relationship experts agree that it's important to fight fairly. "Engaging in fair and productive disagreements is crucial for maintaining a healthy relationship and resolving conflicts effectively," says neuropsychologist Aldrich Chan, PsyD. Below, he outlines a few rules to ensure you don't say or do anything in your next argument that might harm your relationship for the long haul.
Stay calm and listen
In order to keep things from going off the rails, Dr. Chan stresses the importance of maintaining emotional control and trying to keep anger or frustration from dictation your words and actions. One way to do this? Make a conscious effort to take deep breaths and to take a beat to reflect after your partner says their piece.
"Pay close attention to the other person's perspective without interrupting," says Dr. Chan, "and seek to understand their point of view [before responding], even if you disagree."
Stick to the issue
Dr. Chan also suggests staying focused on the topic at hand without "kitchen sinking," or bringing up all sorts of related issues from the past, which will only put your partner on the defensive.
Focus on communication
"Clearly articulate your thoughts and feelings without assuming the other person knows what you mean," says Dr. Chan. This way, you have less of a risk of being unnecessarily misunderstood and delaying resolution of the issue even further. He recommends being concise and avoiding vague, ambiguous, or generalizing language.
By the same token, it's also important to seek the same kind of clarity from your partner. "If you don't understand something they're saying, ask for clarification rather than making assumptions," says Dr. Chan.
The goal is for the argument to be resolved with both parties feeling good; you don't want to drag it out just because you're trying to "win," says Dr. Chan. So, remember to stay focused on finding a constructive resolution by exploring the kinds of solutions on which you can both agree, he says.
What not to do when arguing with your partner
Make a personal attack
"Avoid attacking the person rather than addressing their ideas or arguments," says Dr. Chan. "Name-calling, insults, and derogatory comments can escalate the conflict and hinder productive communication."
Interrupting your partner while they are speaking isn't just disrespectful; it can prevent them from expressing their viewpoint fully, which can slow the resolution of the fight, says Dr. Chan. "Instead, wait for your turn to speak, and actively listen to what they are saying."
If their words aren't clear to you, ask questions to better understand their point of view and intentions—and give them time and space to answer in full, says Dr. Chan. This way, you won't risk making assumptions about how they're feeling that may not reflect their reality.
Invalidate your partner's feelings
You likely wouldn't feel great if your feelings were disregarded, and the same is true for your partner. "Dismissing your partner's feelings or experiences can lead to defensiveness and resentment," says Dr. Chan. And neither of those things is helpful for resolving an argument.
How to achieve conflict resolution for relationship problems
We cannot stress this enough: Every couple fights, but it's how you fight that will determine the outcome of your relationship going forward. "It's imperative that we view arguing as an opportunity for greater connection and to become better partners," says life coach Aaron Steinberg, MA, PCC, co-founder and CEO of Grow Together, which offers online courses and private coaching to help parents stay connected. "We need to view conflict as something that simply illustrates places inside ourselves or in the relationship where [we need to do some work] and that that is normal, and reflects an ongoing journey."
It's important that you give up the idea of "winning" an argument and instead aim to empathize with your partner. At the end of the day, you're a team, which means that a resolution should be something you come to together.
"We have to be able to get into our partner’s world and understand what really matters to them about the situation and why," says Steinberg. He suggests asking your partner how they feel about themselves in the situation and doing some introspection to assess how your behavior might be having an effect on them.
"So many fights continue because we miss our blind spots and battle to be the hero of the story," says Steinberg. "Once we can understand our impact on them instead of trying to make them understand us, then we can brainstorm together as to how things may need to change."
Frequently Asked Questions About Arguing Within Couples
At what point do couples fight the most?
"Couples fight the most in transitions," says Steinberg, which can be at any stage of dating or marriage—for instance, when you go from no relationship status to committing, from living apart to living together, from engaged to married, from no kids to kids, from one kid to two kids, and so on.
"As we’re anticipating a transition, our relationship is put into a pressure cooker, and all of our apprehension and fears will surface, forcing us to grapple with them internally and together," he says. "Often, we’ll start to unconsciously test each other to see if we’re making a good choice. And after the transition, we have to adjust to our new circumstances, which can also be a mess."
Speaking of new circumstances, any change in your life situation outside of your relationship (for example, a new job or drama with friends) can also make arguing in your partnership more likely—particularly if the new thing prompts stress. Case in point: Fighting on vacation, which might sound counterintuitive, but is actually pretty common, given the often inherent stress of traveling and the shakeup in routine.
How often do healthy couples fight?
"I’ve found that it’s not exactly about the frequency of fighting but about how the fighting happens [when you're talking about a healthy couple]," says Steinberg. "If a couple is going in circles and hurling character assassinations at each other, this is unhealthy no matter the frequency. If a couple is collaborating toward a more satisfying relationship but it’s an emotional and intense process, then that is healthy, no matter the frequency."
In other words, there are healthy couples that frequently fight, but use these moments as an opportunity to grow together. And in this way, fighting more can become a positive thing for their relational health, whereas a couple who finds themselves arguing less often might be just brushing certain issues under the rug. "What we know for sure is that no fighting at all is not healthy," says Steinberg. "When couples don’t fight, it’s most often a sign that they are extremely disconnected; they are not fighting because they just aren’t trying."
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