Why Romantic Partners Really Argue: What You May Not Know

What's really at the root of arguments and what can help.

Posted Sep 06, 2020

The quality of relationships is the quality of life. Yet, relationships are innately challenging. There tends to be at least some conflict in almost every relationship and there's widespread confusion about what drives it and how to prevent it. This unfortunately can lead to more arguments. Partners often say, "We argue over stupid things." This is somewhat true. That said, there are a lot more things partners are actually arguing about under the surface than what meets the eye, especially for the partners themselves.

When it comes down to it, your partner doesn't actually care as much about whether you turned on the dishwasher, or were 20 minutes late to an important appointment. As an emotionally-focused therapist, I view the core of relationship conflict as a protest against disconnection. This often manifests as a cycle of mutually-enforcing negative interaction rooted in emotional processing from our need for close relationships. With romantic partners especially, emotionally charged exchanges can evolve so fast and become so chaotic that it's too easy to miss what actually happened and how partners could have reacted differently. They can become deeply distressing, to the point where it can feel like you are fighting for your life. We're wired and programmed to bond as social mammals—arguably more than we're programmed to eat. Our need for close relationships and the powerful emotions accompanying them tend to arise sharply and suddenly.

So, focusing on the content of arguments (i.e who forgot to mail the important package) misses the forest for the trees. What fights are really about is the emotional safety in a relationship, partner's' subjective sense of the other’s caring from them (or being there for them), and fear that they will get hurt. In this sense, a relationship solution is emotional vulnerability, accessibility, and responsiveness. This leads to acceptance of painful and disowned feels and parts of self that can significantly strengthen a relationship.

Our relationship and attachment needs are naturally healthy and adaptive. Aside from disagreements rooted in personality differences, partners actually argue because their interactive patterns leave them feeling stuck and disconnected. These patterns are demarcated as the relationship's "negative cycle," in which partners must learn to combat as a team. The out is creating emotionally-bonding experiences of vulnerability and closeness instead of stuckness from their negative cycle. In this sense, their arguments actually demarcate stuck patterns of mutually-reinforcing responses in which their attachment bond feels threatened. Relationships fail not because of increased conflict, but lack of connection, decreasing affection, and reduced emotional responsiveness because of partners’ stuck responses in their "negative cycle." 

Research on partners' arguments suggests that they don’t use communication skills in the heat of an argument. So, contrary to what you may think, if you seek EFT relationship therapy, your therapist won’t be teaching you communication skills often. Most people in struggling relationships generally know how to communicate. You likely communicate quite well with friends, coworkers, strangers, etc. Yet why do you have a hard time communicating with your partner(s)? The answer is that you are caught by a negative pattern of reactions (arguments), feelings unspoken, and confusing or hidden ways of trying to get your need for connection and comfort met. There’s a lot more going on underneath the words that isn’t being communicated. Getting to what's underneath leads us to the true cause of arguments and relationship distress. 

Thus, focusing on communication skills won’t get to the root of the problems or fix them long-term. Research on the arguments of partners shows that they don’t use communication skills in the heat of an argument. In reality, when you’re upset and you need good communication the most, you likely react from your gut at lightning speed. You typically don’t stop to think about using communication skills such as “I-statements” and "reflecting" or "validating" the statements your partner just made.

In this sense, partners need to look closely at what’s underneath their arguments and fueling negative patterns. What is blocking underlying feelings? Partners need to learn to reach out to each other with those feelings such as sadness about the disconnection, feelings of failure or inadequacy, or fear of rejection. 

Therapy can help

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This softer, more vulnerable sharing can feel downright scary and profoundly uncomfortable. Turning toward vulnerability is hard work, but worth it. Good relationship counseling is a deep bonding experience that lasts months and years after therapy ends. You may be nervous, but starting therapy may just save your relationships(s) and change your life. Too many partners start therapy up to seven-plus years too late.

We don't only exercise when we're sick, so why not work on your relationships before arguments escalate and the relationship deteriorates? At the end of the day, what matters more than your relationships? It’s common to be nervous about starting relationship work and EFT can help you with it. Losing the love(s) of your life or hurting in your most important relationship(s) is way more costly than working on them. It may just be the best investment you'll ever make. 

Copyright Dr. Jason Linder. The word "couple" is intentionally avoided here to account for the broad gamut of relationship diversity, such as polyamorous couples.

To find a therapist, please visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.