Why Arguing Can (and Should) Make You Closer

Familiarity breeds more than contempt.

Posted May 03, 2016

Krivosheev Vitaly/Shutterstock
Source: Krivosheev Vitaly/Shutterstock

How has your relationship changed over time? Chances are, it's mellowed somewhat, but it's also possible that some sharp edges are sharper than ever. The longer you know your partner, the better you're able to push each other's buttons. With time comes familiarity and comfort, but also the ability to get under your partner's skin in ways that only you can.

It’s never pleasant to be in an argument with your intimate partner. In fact, some people will go out of their way to avoid conflict altogether. Though this may seem to be the best way to maintain a relationship, conflict avoidance is not considered an advisable strategy. Better to air your differences, as long as you can do so in a respectful and constructive manner.

Other couples find plenty to argue about. If you’re in such a relationship, you find yourself bickering about almost everything, to the point where you can feel your stress levels rise the moment a particular topic or theme repeats itself. “Why did you turn left when you should have turned right?” “Slow down, the speed limit is 30 and you’re going 41.” It may reach the point where just getting into the car becomes a source of stress.

That bickering, though, may reflect greater rather than less closeness: Perhaps you’re not in the best of moods, and you’re kind of looking for an outlet to release your unhappiness. You can count on your partner to provide that outlet if you make one of the comments above during a drive through town. Or you are perhaps trying to keep things on a light and pleasant note, and somehow these push-button comments of yours come out before you can stop them—and you know as soon as you've uttered them that you're provoking a rise out of your partner.

It may be possible that the more intimate you are with your partner, the easier it is to find his or her button. If you have a sibling, think back to what it was like in your household growing up. You knew exactly how to enrage your brother or sister with just a word, a look, or a subtle action. Our longest bonds, and they can also be our closest. To this day, you might be able to irritate your sister with just a glance or even an emoticon in a text message. But you’re not worried about losing the intimacy you have with your sister because you know it will always be there. Pushing her buttons may just be a form of entertainment that you and she can laugh about later.

Similarly, with your partner, if you’ve been together long enough you’re quite well aware of what will be irritating—and your partner will also know how to irritate you. It’s within your power to push or not push your partner’s button. As with your sibling, pushing that button doesn’t mean that you’re looking to end or sabotage the relationship. You know that, beneath the exchange of a few choice words, you two have a solid bond. In fact, the better you know your partner, and the closer you feel, the easier the path to resolution should be.

The same knowledge that helps you irritate can also help you soothe.

Research on the factors that promote intimacy in relationships tends to examine the ways that couple can smooth rather than ruffle each other's feathers. University of Zurich’s Anne Milek and colleagues (2015) tested the notion that in a relationship marked by “intradyadic stress” (stress related to each other), if couples take the time to resolve their issues, their intimacy may not decrease; it may even increase.

To test this hypothesis, Milek and her collaborators recruited a sample of 92 women, all of whom had children, and most of whom were married. The women ranged from 31 to 53 years old and all but two were living with their intimate partners. Most reported being satisfied with their relationship. Using the method known as a diary study, Milek et al. asked their participants to fill in a daily questionnaire in which they rated their perceived levels of intimacy—feeling close, secure, cared for, and understood by their partner—the amount of relationship stress they experienced, and the amount of time they shared together.

The authors of the study noted that being able to track intimacy, stress, and time together on a daily basis proved to be helpful in teasing out the contributions of each toward an individual woman’s feelings of relations. It was true that, on any given weekday, a woman’s feelings of intimacy tended to be higher if she and her partner were spending their time together in emotional sync. If you only have an hour together with your partner, and you’re getting along well, you’ll evaluate your intimacy at the end of the day as being pretty high.

Collapsing across the 14 days, however, total time spent together, whether or not in conflict, was related to higher levels of intimacy. Translating this to practical terms, it suggests that you don’t have to spend every minute looking romantically into your partner’s eyes to feel emotionally close. But you do have to spend enough minutes together to be able to get beyond the occasional spats you might have now and then. Because you know your partner so well, by virtue of being together for a prolonged period (especially on weekends), you also know how to get out of the emotional dip from an occasional spat and back onto a more satisfying plane.

Picking a fight just to get into a fight isn’t the most advisable strategy for long-term fulfillment in a relationship. However, knowing what is likely to make your partner angry can also give you the tools you need to make your partner feel better, especially if you’ve got enough time to work through your dispute.

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Milek, A., Butler, E. A., & Bodenmann, G. (2015). The interplay of couple’s shared time, women’s intimacy, and intradyadic stress. Journal of Family Psychology, 29(6), 831-842. doi:10.1037/fam0000133

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2016