We all do it. Fuss. Bicker. Squabble. And we usually do it with the people we literally love the most.
It’s almost as if you’re following a script. You say the same things that you said the last time you bickered. You know how long the fight’s going to last, who’s going to complain about what and who will do what when it’s over.
To make matters worse – both of you clam up for the rest of the day, somehow believing that the silent treatment is helpful.
It’s not. In fact, stonewalling as its called is one of the four harbingers of divorce, according to the excellent research by John and Julie Gottman. The other three are contempt, criticism, and defensiveness.
Five common fights and what’s underneath them.
1. The Who’s-Working-Harder-In-This-Relationship Fight.
“Do you even know what I do all day with these kids?” Answered by, “And I get up and go to work every damn day.“
“I haven’t had a day off in months.” Answered by, “I never get a day off.”
Sound familiar? So what’s underneath this fight? Lack of gratitude and score-keeping.
Neither one of you is expressing gratitude or positive affirmation that what you do (or are) is valuable. And there’s too much of a score card being kept of who’s doing what and how much time it takes. Chores that are repetitive and seemingly never-ending such as weeding the lawn, cooking, or doing the laundry may be being taken for granted – or the sole work of the stay-at-home parent.
2. The Everything-But-The-Kitchen-Sink Fight.
“And this is just like last year at your dad’s when you forgot me and the kids.“
“Quit complaining about it. What’s done is done. What do you want me to do?“
What are you really fighting about?
Trust and forgiveness.
In these fights, effort needs to be made in moving beyond hurt feelings for past grievances so that trust can be rebuilt. This may mean addressing your own prior actions and expressing remorse to your partner, whether the pain was intentional or not. One or both of you may hold a grudge – and old wounds may never quite heal. Trust takes vulnerability – and if you’re in self-protective mode, you’re far from vulnerable.
3. The If-You’d-Just-Be-More-Like-Me Fight.
“When I am with the kids, this doesn’t happen.”
“I don’t see why you have to take all that time to do the simplest of things.“
This is judgement, or even contempt. Dr. John Gottman, in his excellent research on couples, tells us that contempt is the number one communication quality that kills a relationship. Honoring the differences between you, and acknowledging each other’s strengths, is vital. Recognize you each bring something special and important to the relationship, and that this can help each of you grow as individuals.
4. The You’re-Wrong-And-I’m-Right Fight.
“That’s not what happened. You don’t know what you’re talking about.“
“Well, you know, the kids see it too.“
It’s a fight about control and power- and each of you are vying for it by denying your partner’s perceptions (at its most severe, it’s called gaslighting) or grabbing power by involving others.
An observation over the years has been that people who are truly secure in and of themselves don’t have to be right. Or prove themselves right. Or be in control all the time. Defensiveness can cover up hurt; the seemingly best defense can mean tearing into the other person.
This particular fight is lonely to win and even lonelier to lose.
5. The It-Sounds-Like-I Am-Talking-About-Me-But-I’m-Really-Blaming-You Fight.
“I feel that you are picking a fight with me when you complain about my mother.”
“I feel that you really don’t care if I come home or not.“
It sounds like, on the surface at least, that you are talking about you. But you’re not. You are angrily telling the other person what you’re telling yourself – about them. This fight is about the fear of vulnerability.
What would be healthier?
“It’s hard for me not to become angry when you talk about my mom. I love her and I love you. So I feel caught in between the two of you.”
“I am trying to figure out why I am feeling so shaky these days about our relationship, and really about myself.“
Blame is easy. The second is much, much more vulnerable – and thus, more difficult.
Vital realizations to stop bickering.
- Realize these fights will go nowhere but they’re damaging. Very damaging.
- Stop focusing on the other person and control your own words.
- Recognize you are really arguing about what’s underneath. You are fighting about trust, respect, vulnerability, fear, control,lack of gratitude or empathy, or loneliness.
- Talk about those things when you are not angry. Risk being vulnerable and express what you’re truly feeling; don’t be afraid to ask for your partner’s help.
- It can be fun to do an exercise with your partner and swap perspectives; you argue your partner’s viewpoint while they argue yours. This way you both will hear what you sound like when you hear your own words, and perhaps gain a deeper understanding of where they are truly coming from.
The good news? I would rather have two people in my office, bickering, than two people who don’t care enough anymore to fight. Your relationship still has passion and intensity, and that can be channeled into healthier directions.
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This was originally published on October 17, 2015 and was updated on November 9, 2018 and then again on January 30, 2021.