“We’ve been together for 8 years, and over the last few years we’ve been steadily drifting apart. We keep having the same argument over and over, touched off by different things, and we only end up hurting each other. If I try to bring up something that upsets me he just gets angry, and tells me to get over my feelings. We rarely just talk or do anything fun together anymore. When I try to talk with him he gets cold and uncommunicative, and it’s unbearable. What has happened? Why can’t we talk without arguing?”
When a marriage or relationship runs into trouble, the anguish and confusion couples describe often sound like this. Living through a pandemic may have increased how often this type of exchange occurs in your relationship. COVID related stress may have magnified existing relational cracks, or it may have created them. In the same way we are not meant to live in isolation, it is also challenging to live on top of one another. In addition to fearing the disease itself, many couples experienced significant stressors including learning how to work virtually or even losing a job. Initially couples needed to quickly create new routines and simple tasks like grocery shopping became something requiring extra thought. Couples with kids had to figure out virtual school and manage their children’s feelings of loss and fear in addition to their own. Typical outlets for stress like social outings and hobbies disappeared overnight. After a year and a half, many things are better and we’ve adjusted to new ways of navigating life. But many things are not better and most things look different than they did pre-COVID. Let’s talk about what is happening in many relationships.
When people feel unhappy in a marriage or relationship, they want to find out why and fix it. Whose fault is it? One partner may think: Why won’t he/she be nice to me? Why are friends (or phone, laptop, or job) more important? The other partner in the relationship may be wondering: Why did they change their mind about me? I can’t talk to my partner without feeling defensive.
Whose Fault Is It When You Can’t Stop Fighting?
As the two of you try to discuss your situation, you may find yourselves debating who is right, instead of focusing on the issue at hand. As you lay out an issue, one person says, “You’re not listening.” The other may reply “You’re being defensive,” and you get nowhere when all you are trying to do is tell each other how you feel.
Daniel B. Wile, (author of After the Fight: Using Your Disagreements to Build a Stronger Relationship) unravels what happens when our efforts to work things out make matters worse. Without thinking about it, each person throws up a protective wall as emotions rise, blame rears its head, and each person judges the other harshly for their part in the struggle. This makes it hard for you and your partner to work together to solve a problem or compromise.
Even If Things Are Intense and You Feel Stuck, There Is Hope
Even if you feel you and your partner cannot talk without fighting, know that it is possible to get to a better place. The challenge is most couples are not able to see the way out of a pattern that keeps taking hold. Without realizing it, each person’s normal attempt to explain or defend adds to the cycle of arguing – exactly the opposite of what is intended! It’s important to make a shift, to take a step back for a new view of the situation.
Unhappiness in a marriage or partnership tends to take on a particular pattern.
- One partner acts as a pursuer, anxious communicator. The other one either gets angry and defensive or withdraws.
- The withdrawer withdraws more, thinking, “I have to get out of here!” to avoid confusing emotions, or another unsolvable argument. The more one person withdraws, the more the other pursues and vice-versa.
- Pursuing and distancing is like a terrible dance that you keep falling into no matter how badly you want to stop doing it.
What Does It Take to Break Out of the Cycle of Arguing?
The first step in finding a new way to deal with the struggle is to become aware of what you are feeling underneath the surface. This also helps to be more aware of the cycle itself. It’s not always easy to work out what is happening emotionally. This is precisely where a caring counseling professional can really help.
What Are Some Ways to Become More Self-Aware?
Take a step back and slow down. Look at what you can do to understand your own needs better, when you feel at bit calmer. On your own, think about your deeper feelings and needs behind the concerns and issues that arise between you and your partner. When you are able to reflect on what you need from your partner, whether it be words, actions or both, clearly communicating those needs helps to shift the cycle of communication.
In addition to reflecting on your own deeper feelings and needs, it is helpful to pay attention to how you are participating in the cycle. Often there is a focus on blame during these kinds of struggles and when each partner is able to own their part within the cycle, it can lead to deeper understanding and connection. You may start to rediscover the warm bond and acceptance that brought you together to begin with. These tender feelings are the ones that fuel love.
It takes calm to be open to your heartfelt needs. It takes work to find words that describe your longing to love and be loved. It takes willingness and courage to express these words to your partner, in a different way than before.
5 Tips for Breaking the Cycle of Arguing
Here are five tips to help you begin shifting away from a cycle of arguing:
- Explore being mindful – think about what you need and why your partner’s behavior is hurtful. Also, recognizing our own reactions helps us see what is maintaining the unproductive cycle and break out of the pattern. Likewise, recognizing our part in the dance of romance helps us see what we might do more of instead.
- Invite openness – Find ways to be open to your partner’s needs and listen and let yourself feel compassion. Listening to someone’s perspective does not mean to you agree 100%.
- Allow curiosity – Be curious about your partner’s inner world. Empathy breaks down when we are frustrated or angry; being open to and curious about each other’s inner world takes us out of the stories in our head and lets us reconnect to each other.
- Think about ways to be emotionally available –If a partnership has been painful for a long time, a couple may benefit from learning about their emotional attachment styles.
- Remember your needs are okay: Explore ways to express your needs in your relationship. Sometimes a shift in how things are said can make a big difference.
One person can start the process. You can shift out of the cycle of arguing on your own. Working with a therapist can help in finding your voice and new power to create change. By shifting your focus to your heartfelt needs with a trusted guide, you can move from anger to self-awareness and compassion.
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- How to calm strong emotions and feel more present to yourself
- Understand your need for attachment (and your attachment style)
- Learning to speak gently for your needs from the heart
- How to respond if your partner is defensive