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The Real Reason Couples Fight

Psst, I’ll let you in on a therapist secret. When you walk into our office and complain that you and your partner are fighting about something, we listen and nod and empathize. But we know you haven’t told us the real issue.

We know it’s not deliberate, or that you don’t want to tell us. It’s that you probably don’t even know yourself.

And this is the reason you and your partner have the same fight over and over, even if you think it’s about different things.

One of the main benefits of therapy is that we can help you get to the heart of the matter.

We’ve learned to translate fighting into deeper meaning. It’s hard to see this meaning when you’re actually in it. But there are some questions you can ask to help figure it out on your own, or with your partner.

The first is, What’s really happening here?

Let’s take Robyn and Blair, a couple with a young daughter, who both work full-time. Robyn asks Blair to come home early to help with dinner and their daughter before an early evening event. Blair comes home an hour late. The following fight unfolds…

Robyn: I can’t believe you. How often do I ask you to come home early? And here you are, later than ever.

Blair: You always want me home early. You go on about it non-stop. Lay off the pressure, will you?

Robyn: You’re unbelievable. When was the last time I asked you?

Blair: Are you serious? Just last week it was the same thing. We have a deal, you know. I go in later so I can drop Emma to daycare.

Robyn: By half an hour. I’m the one who has to leave work early every day.

Blair: It’s all about you. Do you even care how stressed I am?

Robyn: I’m sick of hearing you go on about your goddamn job. If it’s so damn stressful, why don’t you quit?

Blair: Sure, I’ll just quit my job. What a brilliant idea. (He rolls his eyes.) We won’t be able to pay the bills, but as long as you’re happy --’

Robyn: You’re being an idiot.

Blair: And you’re a relentless nag.

Does this fight sound familiar? Maybe not exactly, but the feel of it?

If Robyn and Blair came for therapy they’d probably say they’re having problems managing work, or schedules, or child care. Robyn might complain that Blair is obsessed with work, or doesn’t pull his weight around the house. Blair might complain that Robyn is too demanding, or over-reactive. So what’s the real issue? Clue: It’s not any of these things. And the same goes for your fights.

A fight isn’t a difference of opinion or disagreement. It’s an emotional storm that can involve shouting, name-calling, sarcasm, crying, swearing, and threats.

So where does this emotion come from? Why do we get all worked up over something that seems so small, like coming home from work an hour late?

It comes from our basic needs in a relationship:

  • Connectedness

  • Validation

  • Affection

From what we’ve seen with our clients, it’s often women who seek connection. And it’s mostly men who want validation. But that’s a generalization and not a rule.

We hear, ‘He doesn’t really care about me, or the family.’ Translation: My need for connectedness is not being met.

We hear, ‘She’s always criticizing me. I can’t do anything right.’ Translation: My need for validation isn’t being met.

With our couple above, Robyn feels insecure about their level of connectedness. She wants to feel close. So when he comes home late, she turns that into, “I’m not important. He doesn’t care.” She feels hurt or abandoned, and that’s why she gets upset. On the other hand, Blair needs validation. His sense of identity and confidence are important. When Robyn complains that he’s late, he hears that as, “You failed. You’re not good enough.” He feels inferior or rejected, and that provokes him to become defensive.

If they understood these deeper needs, they might have avoided a fight.

The same goes for you. Ask yourself: What do I need? To feel close and cared for? Or to feel validated and appreciated? Think about your fights. What really upsets you? Is it when your partner does something to make you feel like he doesn’t care? Or when you feel your partner is criticizing or rejecting you? Bring this awareness into your next disagreement. Try and tell your partner what you’re feeling -- and what you need -- rather than reacting out of hurt. (And yes, easier said than done, but it’s a start.) In the end, you may still disagree, but at least you’ll know what’s really pressing your buttons.

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