We all do it. Fuss. Bicker. Squabble. And we usually do it with the people we literally love the most.
In all likelihood, it can be as if you’re following a script. You say the same things and so does your partner. You could practically switch roles you know the argument so well. . You know how long the fight’s going to last, who’s going to bring up something from the past, what hurtful names you’re going to call each other, and how it will all wind down – unless you tend to stonewall and not speak for hours or days.
Here are 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?” Their replay? “And I get up and go to work every damn day.“
“I haven’t had a day off in months.” And their reply again? “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 your partner does is valuable. There’s a score card being kept of who’s doing what and how much time it takes. Repetitive chores – the ones that are seemingly never-ending – such as weeding, cooking, or laundry may be being taken for granted – or be considered the sole responsibility of the stay-at-home parent. Really? It’s the 21st century.
2. The Everything-But-The-Kitchen-Sink Fight.
“And this is just like last year at your dad’s when you completely ignored me and the kids.“
To which your partner angrily replies… “What’s done is done. I can’t believe you still bring that up.”
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 tend to hold a grudge where 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.
He says…”When I am with the kids, this doesn’t happen.”
She says, “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 (or… Everyone Else Agrees With me…)
Here’s another favorites. Ever hear… “That’s not what happened. You don’t know what you’re talking about.“
Or, when your partner hits you with, “Well, you know, the kids (or our friends) 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, that’s called gaslighting and can be extremely manipulative) or grabbing power by involving others.
Think about the people you know who don’t get into fights about who’s right. They’re truly secure in and of themselves and don’t have to be right. Or prove themselves right. Or be in control all the time. Defensiveness can cover up hurt; the need for a vicious defense can mean tearing into the other person where you know they’re most vulnerable.
And if someone isn’t ever right, doesn’t ever hear from their partner that they’ve got a good or even better idea, very demoralizing patterns can be established.
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’re picking a fight with me when you complain about my mother.”
Or, “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. You’re using “I’ statements like all the experts say to do. But you’re not. You’re angrily telling the other person what you’re telling yourself – but your actual words are 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 what’s underneath the argument. You’re fighting about trust, respect, vulnerability, fear, control, lack of gratitude or empathy, or loneliness – not how to load the dishwasher or about where you’re going to take a vacation or go see a parent.
- Talk about those things when you’re not angry. Risk being vulnerable and express what you’re truly feeling; don’t be afraid to ask for your partner’s help. And if you can’t talk without anger, consider therapy. Anger can cover up so many emotions and can so easily become the feeling you habitually pull out.
- 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 what’s going on with this person you say you love.
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; updated and republished on February 5, 2023.