In some relationships, it can feel like every disagreement between a couple turns into an argument.
And when one or both partners are passionate and opinionated, those arguments can be intense. Take my two clients, Julie and Mark. Julie is a creative director at an advertising agency and Mark is an Intellectual Property lawyer. They have been together for about 8 years, the first two of which were before they got married. Julie and Mark are both opinionated and passionate, and when they first got together their chemistry made it seem like a match made in heaven.
Over time, however, Julie and Mark began to argue. In the beginning, they argued “every now and then” and worried mostly because the arguments were vicious, personal, and volatile. As time went on, however, the space between arguments can become shorter, and the times of peace began to disappear.
Before long, they were “always arguing” over “every small thing” and have begun to wonder whether their relationship can make them happy.
Is fighting a sign that a relationship isn’t a good fit?
A relationship that is filled with arguments isn’t fun, but it doesn’t have to be an indication that the relationship is in danger. Instead, when I hear about a couple who has developed a habit of arguing, I consider that there is an underlying issue that is unexamined and making one or both partners feel misunderstood, underappreciated, or scapegoated. Once the issue has been uncovered and explored, many relationships find themselves back on solid ground.
In my experience, there are at least two underlying reasons that you may be arguing with your partner that aren’t what you think. Sometimes the same couple can struggle with both underlying reasons!
This was the case with Julie and Mark. Had you asked them to describe their arguments, perhaps Mark would have said, “We got into a fight about how she throws her laundry around and leaves wet towels to mold on the floor.” Or Julie would have said, “We fought for three days about his jealousy.” Often they would both admit they don’t even remember what the argument was about, saying, “We argued like cats and dogs all night, but I honestly don’t even know what started it.” In each case, it might seem like the triggering event is the key to understanding the argument, but this is almost always a red herring. The argument is not about the towels, or the jealous look, or… whatever you were arguing about. Instead, it’s really about an underlying issue.
Two reasons you are fighting that aren’t what you think
1. You idealized or idolized your partner
Early courtship is often driven by infatuation, and when we are infatuated it is easy to miss clear signals about someone’s nature. This is especially true if we feel that our beloved is finally giving us the kind of love and support we’ve always wanted.
Julie and Mark were married after a two-year courtship and Julie couldn’t have been happier. As a child, Julie’s parents had been distracted by work and largely disengaged from parenting, and Julie had begun to wonder if anyone would be willing to take her into consideration, let alone find her interesting or captivating. When Mark showed up, all of that worry fell away.
Mark has been decisive his whole life. As the oldest child in a large family where chaos reigned, he was used to taking control when his parents seemed unable. He takes care of things for Julie, making decisions quickly, and standing up for her when he thinks she has been disrespected. Julie felt like she finally found someone who would look out for her. For his part, Mark felt appreciated, understood, and valued for his strong opinions and forceful personality. This was a marked difference from other relationships where his partners insinuated that he was controlling or domineering. It felt like a fairy tale to both of them.
As their marriage continued, however, Julie began to wish she had more of a say in the way things were. When she tried to contribute, Mark would sometimes get angry and Julie began to feel annoyed and angry while Mark felt confused. He hadn’t changed, and yet the very things that made her happy when they first got together, now made her angry.
Julie and Mark are living with the consequences of idealizing or idolizing their partner. It is natural to show one’s best during the courtship and create a fantasy about your partner. As the relationship matures, however, we realize that there is a regular person underneath. A regular person who is quirky, imperfect, and changes their mind.
As Julie became older and more confident (in part, because of her relationship with Mark!) she naturally wanted to be treated as a peer. Mark, for his part, was used to being in charge and doesn’t yet have the skills to negotiate disagreements with Julie. In both cases, it was the fantasy that was guiding how they treated each other and who they expected each other to be. When the fantasy outlived its usefulness, both of them felt unmoored and uncertain. This is part of the reason they had fallen into a habit of argument.
When this dynamic was revealed and explored directly, they were able to unwind the unrealistic views of each other and see each other for who they really were. This allowed them to see each other as they truly were, and begin to develop more authentic intimacy with less argument.
2. Different individuals feel cared for through different means
Julie and Mark were well suited for each other in part because they both love adventure. They love to ski, to scuba dive, and want to travel as often as possible. Mark’s interest in travel was driven by the desire to have new experiences with the people he loved. He liked to be able to talk about shared experiences after the fact and plan surprises for Julie that would delight her.
While Julie liked these things, too, what she loved the most about travel was the uninterrupted time she could spend talking about hopes and dreams and sharing how she felt.
In the beginning, both were able to meet these needs as they were getting to know each other. As time went on, however, Mark was less inclined towards long conversations about feelings, and he began to get annoyed with Julie for being so “emotional about everything.”
This was especially true as they both became busier at work and there was less time to travel and more time at home. Julie began to feel neglected and dismissed, two feelings she remembers from her childhood and is particularly sensitive about. Mark began to feel pursued and pressured to have what he felt were uncomfortable conversations. Mark says, “I feel like I am always working to show Julie how I feel, finding places to take her to dinner or out to see a show, but it’s never enough. No matter what I do, she’s never happy.”
The truth is that Mark and Julie seek different connection points. Julie connects through deep conversation and Mark connects through shared experiences. Both are valuable ways to connect, but they were experienced by Mark and Julie as at odds.
When we discussed these connection points directly in our sessions, both Mark and Julie had the opportunity to decide how they could meet the needs of the other. With this insight, many of the arguments that had felt so volatile transformed into productive conversations about underlying dynamics that were illuminated in therapy.
Couples Therapy Can Help
While there are many reasons that couples argue, these two common dynamics underlie conflict for many. Regardless of whether your arguments fit into these two categories, all arguments are symbolic of frustrations that need to be brought to the surface and understood.
It is often the case that despite the content of an individual argument, the theme over time is the same. The purpose of therapy is not to eliminate conflict, it is to express frustrations and concerns in a way that leads to deeper understanding and connection. Couples Therapy is the process of discovering the underlying theme and then resolving it so that your communication is more effective and loving. Reach out to learn more.