If you’re married, or in a committed relationship, you’ve probably noticed that some of your arguments never seem to get resolved. Rather, they regularly get recycled. Why is this such a common occurrence? And why do these situations feel almost insoluble? Here are three common reasons. (And if you can think of others, feel free to add them to the Comments section):
1. Your parents actually taught you that working through conflicts wasn’t possible. However accidentally, you learned from your caretakers to recycle partner arguments because that’s precisely what they did. When they disagreed, they’d both dig in their heels and adamantly—and self-righteously—proclaim the superiority of their position, versus striving to sympathetically understand each other’s perspective in a way that could eventuate in a mutually acceptable compromise. And so, restore marital harmony.
In short, in your upbringing they were terrible models for teaching you how to handle relational discord. Their willingness, or ability, to engage in productive conflict negotiation was nil. So what, inevitably, you took away from their fights was that clashes between “intimate partners” were irreconcilable. Instead, when your internal pressure cooker started boiling, all you could do was to blow up and read your partner the riot act. And regrettably, the only way such a reaction could mitigate your frustration would be to leave your partner so intimidated by your outburst that they simply forfeited to you. Needless to say, such forced surrender can only do further damage to whatever emotional intimacy still exists between you.
In addition, when you were a child, maybe without even being conscious of it, you repeatedly heard them “yes, but” each other or cross-complain until they both gave up even trying to be heard, probably throwing up their hands in disgust or dismay. Or maybe they’d regularly go off topic, drifting into any number of other areas of annoyance. (And at some point they may actually have forgotten what they were quarreling about in the first place!)
In such scenarios, it’s safe to assume that your parents were lacking in basic couples’ problem-solving skills. (But then, how many people do learn them? They’re certainly not taught in school!) John Gottman, nationally acclaimed authority on what makes marriages succeed or fail, details some of these issues in his very first book, A Couples’ Guide to Communication (Gottman et al.,1976). He writes about how partners can bitterly end arguments in a stand-off; or simply go silent, putting up an impenetrable, unscalable wall against additional discussion. For eventually they’re too distraught, or exhausted, to continue arguing over what they’re no closer to solving than when they began.
So, what’s the solution? First of all, ask yourself: “Do I do any of these [counter-productive] things?” When you get upset, can you “catch” yourself in the act of mindlessly copying what your parents, before your very eyes, may routinely have displayed? The fact is that once your buttons are pushed, you react automatically. And what’s automatic—which here means involuntary—is to do whatever you witnessed your parents doing when they were upset.
Regardless of whether you actually imitated their behaviors as a child, these reactions may yet be instilled, or conditioned, into you. So sadly, they’ll be at hand and feel quite natural to you to “execute” at times when you’re feeling provoked. This is exactly what you need to “reprogram,” and it all starts with awareness and "a-where-ness" as well, since you'll also need to figure out just where you're getting triggered.
More specifically, you’ll need to cultivate the attitude that most of your relational differences are reconcilable. It’s axiomatic that all good marriages depend on compromise. And when you find a way of mutually accommodating your disparate relationship needs, harmony between the two of you can be restored. (And here, see my post “How to Optimize Your Relationship: The 70/70 Compromise”). Once your skeptical mindset toward working through your differences changes from “such an endeavor is bound to be futile,” to “no—resolving most of our conflicts is entirely possible” (as in, “Where there’s a will, there’s a way”), you’ll discover that supposedly permanent obstacles to you and your partner’s happily living together gradually fade away.
2. Getting angry with your partner—and they with you—is an ideal way to protect your ego when it feels under siege. Consequently, going ballistic as an almost foolproof way of safeguarding your vulnerability can become habitual. And very little (if any) of this is conscious. So until you become cognizant that, at a very primitive level, your partner’s words are making you feel threatened, you’ll be driven to verbally attack (or counter-attack) them. Ironically, when your partner’s differences make you uncomfortable, or when you’re feeling criticized by them, an angry reaction conveniently staves off the anxiety that, from the very depths of your being, is beginning to emerge.
Let’s put it this way. We all need to regard ourselves positively. When another person questions our virtue, competence, intelligence, etc., these favorable feelings toward self can easily feel jeopardized. So unless you’ve become fully self-validating, such that another’s negative opinion of you isn’t taken too much to heart (and frankly, how many of us have evolved to this point?), you’ll feel compelled to immediately fend off any felt accusation or indignity.
And, as I’ve emphasized in many of my posts on anger, this all-too-fiery emotion is the only emotion that “immunizes” you from feelings of vulnerability. Because once you’re finger-pointing, you’re projecting onto another any residual negative feelings about yourself that might otherwise intrude: "They’re to blame, they’re at fault—certainly not me!" (see, e.g., my piece “Anger—How We Transfer Feelings of Guilt, Hurt, and Fear”).
In such instances, you’re prompted to hit below the belt—sometimes, way below the belt. You accuse your partner of any kind of nastiness you can think of; rudely interrogate them; adversely attribute to them the harshest, most uncomplimentary, of motives; offer them (unsolicited) a singularly unflattering behavioral “diagnosis”; nail them with a choice (possibly four letter) label; mount your morally superior “high-horse” and condescendingly preach to them about their deficiencies; patronize, or ridicule them; make threats or ultimatums likely to humiliate them, or scare them into submission; and so on.
Additionally when you’re attacking another person (most likely your mate because, typically, that’s your single, most vulnerable relationship), you’re afflicted with the stress reaction familiarly known as “fight or flight.” And the whole-body readiness of this aroused state produces adrenalin that, in literally fortifying you, gives you a sense of power and control which, just seconds before, may have been seriously compromised. Which should give you a good idea of how unconsciously tempting anger can be in its unique ability to keep submerged extremely painful self-doubts from your past.
Another thing about anger is that it keeps you from having to actually listen to your partner’s complaints, which may be quite valid and deserve the closest attention. In fact, if you’re both arguing, you can bet that neither of you is listening very carefully to the other. And that’s actually pivotal to what anger “accomplishes”: It enables you to escape an anxiety-provoking listening mode as you’re totally focused on marshaling all possible evidence against your “clearly-in-the-wrong” partner.
In all too many instances, this defensive stance is mutual. Both you and your partner, through artificially empowering yourselves through anger, are going on the offensive when, in fact, what you’re really doing is defending against an underlying vulnerability that you may have very little awareness of—or insight into.
So, what’s the solution? Here what’s required is that you strengthen your ego and learn how to self-validate (e.g., see my “The Path to Unconditional Self-Acceptance”). Realize that (a) in most instances your partner’s criticisms are as much about them as about you, and (b) you alone reserve the authority to judge yourself, and you can do so benevolently—with compassion, comprehension, and forgiveness. Only then will you no longer have to rely on anger to protect yourself from another’s negative appraisal.
Remember, too, that unless you’re able to cool yourself down, you’ll be governed by the emotional, reactive part of your brain. If you’re to successfully address your relationship problems, you’ll need to set aside your righteous viewpoint and refocus on your partner’s differing perspective, and do so with empathy and understanding. And identifying with your partner’s position and appreciating its subjective validity—even as you dis-identify from your own—will itself moderate much of your anger.
3. There are certain core differences between the two of you—either because of your inborn natures or your basic ideologies. And they’re simply not resolvable. This circumstance, too, accounts for your continuing impasses. These irresolvable discrepancies can be adapted, acclimated, or acquiesced to, but neither rectified nor made compatible. If your partner’s extreme extroversion at times gets on your nerves because they always want to be going out and doing something, whereas you’re essentially an introvert—a homebody, content to quietly pursue your interests and putter around the house pretty much on your own—your partner might well complain: “What’s wrong with you? You never want to do anything!”. In return, you might be expected to gripe, “Why do we have to go out all the time? What’s wrong with your just staying home and being with me and the kids? Aren’t we enough for you?”
The fact is that based on your genetics, each of you will always require more, or less, external stimulation than the other. It’s something that just can’t be helped, so arguing about it relates mostly to each of you feeling that who your partner is somehow invalidates who you are. Which, if you think about it, is kind of crazy—or at least crazy-making. For here you’re not talking about virtues or vices but natural predilections. And it’s hardly logical to object to your partner’s preference, say, for vanilla ice cream when you have a marked preference for chocolate. And yet, however irrationally, many of us feel threatened by such unchangeable discords.
In addition, personal ideologies that have crystallized over time are also enduring (though not necessarily endearing!). And they’re virtually immutable. Yet many couples with strongly discrepant beliefs can’t help criticizing each other for holding so firm to a position they themselves can’t relate to—or might downright abhor. And one reason that couples can fight interminably over ideological differences is that their partner’s discrepant beliefs engender in them a disconcerting feeling of alienation. Whether their irreconcilable views pertain to politics, religious affiliations, or anything else, doubtless these differences can become a prickly thorn in the relationship’s side.
So, what’s the solution? Here, the remedy for such relationship gridlock should be obvious. When there are matters that, realistically, you and your partner will never agree on, it’s best to simply bar them from further discussion—unless, that is, one of you is actively reconsidering beliefs that earlier felt sacrosanct. But regardless of how open-minded you might be about most things, it’s still likely that there are some other things you’ve “definitively” decided upon. And, alas, so has your partner. So where the two of you are, well, close-minded, it’s crucial that you both endeavor to appreciate and respect these unalterable differences.
Remember, when you begin to accept these discomfiting parts of your partner’s make-up or acquired beliefs, you can eliminate what, till now, has caused you so much gratuitous distress.
Ask yourself: “What’s the alternative?” For looking down on your partner for holding beliefs contrary to your own only puts more distance between you. And that separation will interfere with your being able, or willing, to personally share yourself with them. If, for instance, your partner receives valuable emotional support from their religious observance, can you validate this as vital to them? And graciously accept that fact, even though you yourself may be a confirmed atheist? Certainly, this is no easy feat. But once you can see their ideology as in no way threatening your own, it will be much simpler to accept a difference that, unquestionably, you’d prefer weren’t the case.
To conclude, in reviewing the three key reasons for your repeating—rather than resolving—your relationship conflicts, can you find any of the suggestions offered above helpful in getting out of your present quagmire?
Because occasionally getting into an argument with your partner is inevitable, this hardly means that practical solutions aren’t near at hand. It’s just a matter of developing the will to implement them. So, will you?
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I've already mentioned three other posts I've written for Psychology Today that closely link to the present one. But since two of the topics I cover most for PT are Relationships and Anger, here's a—highly selective—grouping of earlier pieces that expand on various aspects of what's been discussed above:
“4 Essential Rules for Approaching Couples Conflict”
To check out other posts I’ve done for Psychology Today online—on a broad variety of psychological topics—click here.
© 2017 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.
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