Here you go again, fighting with your partner about the housework, or money, or weekend plans. Or maybe you’re fighting about what counts as “on time,” or “clean,” or “honest.” Whatever it is, it’s nothing new. In fact, it seems like you’ve been having this same old fight forever. And this argument’s stubborn recurrence is particularly stressful because it usually involves core values or beliefs that are important to you — about what’s right, what’s fair, and what partnership is all about. A fight like this can feel like an endless loop and that your relationship is spinning its wheels. How to escape this seeming dead-end? Therapist and author Linda Carroll has some answers.
Barriers to Overcome
- The past. “Most repeated fights are not about what the participants think they’re fighting about,” says Carroll. “There’s often a lot of history in the fight.” A current partner’s actions may evoke memories of bullying, disappointment or other past pains.
- Hot-button issues. The “baggage” and sensitivities we bring to repeated fights may include core values and questions like “Who’s in charge of my life? What do I need to feel good? and, Am I valued and accepted for who I am?” says Carroll.
- The attraction flip-flop. Characteristics that attracted us to our partners in the beginning may become sources of friction later on. “We may fall in love with someone because of his or her open-heartedness and generosity,” Carroll says. “But later, when the ‘love drugs’ (the chemicals that flood our system when we fall in love) wear off, these qualities may seem impractical, annoying, even dangerous, and we’ll fight about that.”
- The “loop.” When a male partner does something a female partner finds objectionable, she may interpret it as him withdrawing from the relationship, says Carroll, and that can trigger a “fight” response from her in the form of a curt remark. That remark may be interpreted by her partner as criticism, triggering a “flight” instinct that causes him to withdraw further. This triggers the woman’s anger, and the loop builds up steam.
Strategies for Success
- Accept what you can’t change. No matter how hard you try, says Carroll, nothing you do is going to alter your partner’s behavior. Your partner has to decide whether or not to adjust — and typically that choice comes out of empathetic understanding, not pressure.
- Look inward. “In the middle of an oft-repeated fight,” Carroll says, “I’m mostly aware of what the other person is doing. But since I can’t change that person, I need to look at myself. I need to ask myself, ‘Why am I reacting like this? What are my choices, now?’ This helps provide an exit from the ‘loop.’”
- Let go of your need to be right. “When I know I’m right and you’re wrong,” says Carroll, “I know I’m in trouble!” Our self-righteousness may feel justified, but it will usually fuel even greater conflict and distance.
- Let the storm pass. While arguing, most of us are “flooded” — bombarded by neurochemicals that make it hard for us to relate constructively. Once you get to this reactive stage, you may have to “agree to disagree” until you are both calm enough to relate in a way that allows for resolution. If there’s an ongoing issue you can’t make progress on even when you’re both feeling calm, consider seeking the help of a skilled counselor. For more relationship resources or to find a therapist, visit www.pairs.com.
Jon Spayde is the author of How to Believe: Teachers and Seekers Show the Way to a Modern, Life-Changing Faith (Random House, 2008).