Do You Keep Having the Same Argument Over and Over?
Recurring problems likely have underlying causes that need to be put to rest.
Posted Aug 15, 2020
Here they go again—Tim and Kara are going around and around again about “that weekend” of two years ago; Frank and Jim seem to be doing fine, but every few weeks, they get into that same battle about who is not doing what about cleaning up the apartment; Henry’s parking his laptop on the dining room table periodically drives Lidia crazy, while Lidia’s getting on him about the wet bathmat can put him over the edge.
Some arguments never die or come around every few weeks or months, or seemingly out of the blue with no rhyme or reason. But they can get ugly fast. The same back and forth erupts in the same relentless pattern. Why can’t they just be put to rest?
Here are a few common sources of recurring arguments, their characteristics, and their solutions:
It’s about old wounds
Tim and Kara keep going back to the weekend of two years ago because Kara was deeply hurt by how Tim seemed to rudely treat Kara’s parents. For other couples, however, it could just have easily been about how Kara flirted with a waiter or an awful past argument they had over sex. While the content can vary, what doesn't change is that it doesn't take much for Kara to go back there and bring it up again.
How to tell: While they did the right stuff at the time—talked about it rather than pretending nothing happened, Tim apologized—Kara is still left with questions about why Tim acted the way he did. She does her best to push those questions and feelings away, but they are really always there below the surface.
The solution: Kara needs closure. Usually, this is about having a different kind of conversation where Tim doesn’t just apologize but is willing to walk through with her why he thinks he reacted the way he did. Or no, Tim doesn't need to say more, but Kara needs the time and space for Tim to hear her out and really listen to her about her hurt feelings rather than his sighing and giving her that here-we-go-again look.
It’s about argument fuel
Actually, Kara has emotionally gotten over that incident, but when she and Tim get into some emotional brawl about something else—money, sex, kids—and it’s ramping up, this is where her head goes and what she pulls out to make her case about Tim’s lack of sensitivity.
How to tell: They start out talking about something else but both quickly get enraged. They have tunnel vision, it is turning into a power struggle, it’s about getting in the last word, making their points, shutting the other guy down. This can also be what is happening for Frank and Jim, and even Henry and Linda doing a tit-for-tat.
It’s about not circling back to solve the problem
This is Frank and Jim. They argue back and forth but are able to call a halt before it gets out of control. An hour or two later, or the next day, one of them apologizes, they makeup but it stops there.
How to tell: While they make up, they never circle back and return to the problem itself. Why? Because they don’t want to have another argument; instead they sweep under the rug, again. Or they do circle back, both agree to "do a better job," there are small efforts made for a week or two but then fall back into their old patterns.
The solution: They need to come up with a solid and concrete plan that they both honestly can agree to (no one giving into to what the other wants to avoid conflict). And to keep it working, they do they need to stay on top of it, check in to tweak it. If it's not working, if the plan starts to fall apart, they need to have a new conversation about why and how, rather than allowing themselves to fall back into old patterns.
It’s about pet peeves and stress
This is most likely Lidia and Henry. The laptop on the table and the bathmats are longstanding, ongoing issues that on most days both have learned to accept or workaround. But sometimes these become “it”—that pet peeve that pushes their buttons and leads to an argument that is way out of proportion to the situation.
How to tell: The fact that it so clearly comes and goes, and so clearly is an over-reaction. The question is why now, today, and not yesterday? Often, it’s because one or both are stressed, or there is some low-level, chronic relationship issue that is not being addressed.
The solution: They each need to slow down and figure out the underlying driver—they’re both tired and cranky and they got triggered. Or it is actually about the bigger dynamic that isn’t being addressed—not about the bathmat but that Henry feels micromanaged a lot, not about the laptop but that Lidia feels unappreciated a lot. If that’s the case, if that’s what still remains as an issue after they are both in better moods and less emotional, they need, like Frank and Jim, to come up with a solution, a concrete plan that works for both of them.
Obviously, more than one driver can be fueling these arguments. But regardless of the source, the solution lies in stepping back, drilling down, and unraveling the underlying issue. And then, as always, it's about taking decisive and committed action.