I’m not sure whose voice I hear when I write those words. I think perhaps Ma Kettle, of Ma and Pa Kettle fame, who I watched on TV with horrified curiosity as a child.
We all do it. Fuss. Bicker. Squabble. And we do it with the people we supposedly love the most.
These are the fights that you could practically script. Both people say the same things, over and over. You can predict how long it’s going to last – who does what when it’s over. Someone clams up for the entire day – the silent treatment routine. Someone else complains to their best friend, or worse, their mother.
These fights don’t get physically violent. But they hurt. Like food that was left out too long, bickering spoils what started out as a good day.
You can feel like your relationship is stuck. Stagnant.
As a therapist, I hear, “We can’t communicate.”
What are some of the most common squabbles? And what is really underneath the fighting?
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 am tired too. How long has it been since you unloaded the dishwasher?”
“I haven’t had a day off in months.” Answered by, “I never get a day off.”
Sound familiar? What is missing?
Gratitude. Affirmation. Recognition of what each other contributes, and cooperation when one of you gets tired of doing what is your job or your role. This is especially true for jobs that are repetitive and seemingly never-ending. Weeding the lawn. Cooking. Doing the laundry.
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?
Moving past disappointments and hurts builds trust in a relationship. There could be lack of remorse by one for those hurts – little empathy for the impact of his or her actions – and that is slowly building resentment in the other. Or someone struggles to move past anger, and forgive. These may be patterns that are important to recognize, but not starting out this way.
“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 ridicule. 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.
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.”
Yikes. The first is more of that contempt from above, plus complete discounting of the others’ perception.
Bringing in the kids, or parents, or friends, as your “witnesses?” Just bad all around, unless you are doing a true intervention of some kind.
So what’s underneath one or both needing to be right? It could be several things. A need to feel superior, whose flip side is trying to hide insecurity. Defensiveness that is covering up hurt. Maybe it’s perfectionism or obsessiveness that is out of control. Perhaps there is anger about other things that are not being discussed, but are in the background, causing resentment that needs an outlet.
This particular fight? It 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 are telling yourself – about them. You are blaming them for how you feel.
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.
So what do you do if you bicker like this with your partner?
- Realize these fights will go nowhere and only hurt your relationship.
- Stop focusing on the other person and control your own words. Take responsibility for your own role in the bickering.
- Recognize you are really arguing about what’s underneath. You are fighting about trust, respect, vulnerability, fear, lack of gratitude, empathy or loneliness.
- Talk about those things when you are not angry. Risk being vulnerable.
- It’s fun to actually take the other side of the argument. Argue your partner’s viewpoint and see both what that’s like and what you sound like when you hear your own words.
The good news?
I would rather have two people in my office, bickering, than two people who don’t care enough anymore to fight.
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Thanks as always for reading!
Images courtesy Splitshire.