When Does Fighting Lead to Breaking Up?

How to distinguish the cause of negative feelings in relationships.

Posted Mar 31, 2020

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A couple, sitting together.
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While it may not always seem like it, within relationships, there is conflict. In fact, the Gottman Institute, which studies relationship science, has shown that a whopping 69% of problems in a relationship are indeed "unsolvable," meaning they will exist continuously and usually have their origins in a difference in personality or lifestyle wants and needs.

While there may be conflict in relationship, how does one distinguish the negative feelings that result from conflict from normal to worth breaking up over?  

If all of a sudden you feel a long-lasting change of emotion towards your partner, consider asking yourself what else might be going on in your life: Have you just lost your job or flunked a class? Has someone important to you recently passed away? Have there been any large shifts in your life that may account for your change of mood?

If the answer is yes, you might be experiencing a common defense mechanism I’ve written about here, known as "displacement." The idea with displacement is that because you aren’t, for whatever reason, able to take your frustration out on the situation at hand, you displace it onto your partner instead.

So, instead of yelling at your boss, for instance, who might be the true cause of your stress but yelling at whom would likely leave you without a livelihood, you end up taking your frustrations out at your partner for something totally unrelated instead. Therefore, you displace your negative emotions on someone who would likely be "safe" and forgiving, without sacrificing your job. If you think you may be displacing your feelings, it would be healthier to assess what is going on in your life and lean on your partner to help you come up with solutions together.

If there haven’t been any major life shifts but your mood has changed, then the rose-colored glasses that usually accompany the start of any romantic relationship have likely come off. When we no longer idealize our significant other — which is what happens in the beginning of our relationship likely for evolutionary reasons — we are more able to see our partner for who he or she really is.

Feeling cranky or annoyed by our partner is not necessarily always a negative sign, however, because ultimately it shows that you still feel something in the relationship and care enough to feel annoyed. It may instead mean that you are able to really settle in to being yourselves and improving, together. At this point, it’s worth exploring whether you are a good match together for what you’d like to accomplish in your lives, whether you share the same values, and whether you can meet each other’s needs in the long run. If so, you’ll likely always be annoyed by the way your partner chews with his or her mouth open, but can still lean on and hopefully continue to love just the same.

If you’re fighting a lot as of late, with the caveat that each relationship has individual considerations, what we know from research about general conflict in romantic relationships is that the most satisfying relationships have a ratio of five positive interactions to one negative interaction during a fight. If things have been contentious lately, assess how you are handling conflict while in it: Are you still affectionate? Do you gently tease and laugh, despite being in an argument? If so, you might just be having some trouble communicating your wants and needs, but still feel love, respect, and care for one another.

If you find you are walking on eggshells just to avoid a fight, or you find yourself feeling isolated and alone after an argument, or if, during conflict, you criticize each other harshly, show contempt for one another, become defensive, or shut down, otherwise known by the Gottman Institute as the "four horsemen" leading to divorce, consider re-assessing whether this relationship is right for you.

If these signs of hostility are showing up in your relationship, making up will be hard to do: When we feel our basic sense of respect as a human being is being eroded, which is can be caused by our partner reacting in contempt or deeply criticizing us, we feel, from a deep emotional place, diminished, and fully recovering and restoring a healthy loving relationship can be nearly impossible to do.

As always, if there are any signs of physical or emotional abuse in your relationship, it’s best to end the relationship and seek support.

Check back shortly for posts: "Communication 101" and "How to Fight Fair."

References

Gottman, J. M., & Levenson, R. W. (1992). Marital processes predictive of later dissolution: behavior, physiology, and health. Journal of personality and social psychology, 63(2), 221.

Cornelius, T. L., Shorey, R. C., & Beebe, S. M. (2010). Self-reported communication variables and dating violence: Using Gottman’s marital communication conceptualization. Journal of family violence, 25(4), 439-448.