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4 Reasons Couples Keep Repeating the Same Arguments

They may be fights we never felt safe having with our parents.

Key points

  • Repeat arguments may reflect issues that run deeper than the surface level of what's being fought about.
  • It's not unusual for us to rehash arguments we grew up witnessing between our early caregivers with our present day partners.
  • Sometimes, we may have fights with our present partners that we never felt safe having with our parents.
  • Conversely, an argument may not be indicative of a deeper issue at all. Open communication and therapy can help us discern this.
Timur Weber via Pexels
Source: Timur Weber via Pexels

Anyone in a relationship for more than a few months has likely experienced the phenomenon. You argue with your partner over something relatively minor. Who does the dishes and when. What time is best to go to sleep. Which partner should pay for groceries.

Maybe the argument is more in-depth but still, not earth-shattering. How much time one partner should spend with the other’s family or friends, say. Whose job is more stressful. Perhaps you thought the argument was settled, only to endure it again weeks or months later. Several weeks or months pass and there it is once more.

Repeat arguments can become significant issues for couples. They can increase relationship stress and deplete a relationship's mutually shared satisfaction, trust, and safety—which partners need to remain committed and close to each other.

What should you do if the arguments you have with your partner feel like broken records? Here are four reasons why spats repeat—and how to stop the cycle.

1. The issue was never fully resolved. If an argument keeps cropping up, chances are you and your partner either haven’t found a solution to the problem at the argument’s root or you’ve come up with a solution but one or both of you is struggling to implement the changes that solution requires. You may have to sit down together and map out what a mutually agreeable solution looks like. Or you may both have to exercise patience as each of you learns to fully execute new behaviors.

Talk with your partner about their thoughts and feelings related to any previously agreed upon solutions and where they might need support from you to realize them. Support can be as simple as acknowledging and rewarding your partner’s efforts to change. (“Thank you so much for cleaning the kitchen before I got home. It made my day much less stressful!” or “I feel so much more connected with you and you make me laugh so much more when you put away your phone at dinner.”)

Perhaps you’re the one who needs more support. If so, ask for it—and explain to your partner how such support will help you make necessary changes that prevent the argued-over problem from occurring.

If the repeated argument is about one partner’s substance abuse, workaholism, secrecy, or other destructive behavior, consider reaching out to a mental health professional for added support, or joining a support group or self-empowerment program (like 12 Step and SMART Recovery meetings).

2. The argument reflects a deeper issue. Sometimes an argument’s repetition reflects a tension or concern shared by one or both partners that runs deeper than the surface-level issue at hand. It’s not just that Partner A never does the laundry, say; it’s that Partner B feels they can’t trust Partner A to adequately support them. This deeper issue may need to be addressed before any progress in resolving recurring arguments is made.

To assess whether there’s a deeper issue at play, ask yourself what feelings, fears, and worries an argument is bringing up, what you imagine the worst outcome is, and whether you’ve ever felt this way before. Then, ask the same of your partner. This can help both of you develop insight into whether recurring disagreements reflect something beneath the disagreement’s face value—or not.

The feelings and concerns recurring arguments elicit can be real but not always true—that is to say: they’re valid and make sense in the context of our personal histories, but they may be our story-telling brain’s way of protecting us from the worst possible outcomes that aren’t necessarily happening in our present. By communicating honestly with our partners—or with a therapist—we can fact-check our assumptions and consider what evidence supports or challenges our interpretations of argument-eliciting events.

Karolina Grabowska via Pexels
Source: Karolina Grabowska via Pexels

3. Your expectations may need adjusting. Especially if you’ve encountered the same issue again and again across multiple partners throughout your dating history, a repeat argument could indicate that your expectations (about everything from how and when to do the dishes to being the center of your partner’s world or the person for whom they drop everything) may require adjustment.

If you’re repeatedly disappointed by your partner(s), try writing down and discussing with people you trust what your expectations are from your mate around recurring issues. Ask these trusted others if they feel your expectations are reasonable. Importantly, speak with your partner about your expectations and whether s/he feels able to meet them.

We all come to relationships with expectations, created by the values and norms our families, cultures, and religious beliefs instilled in us. You may decide that you want to keep searching for someone else to meet your current expectations. Or you might practice recalibrating them a bit to accommodate the present reality (and human-ness) of your partner.

4. You’re drawn to partners who activate your insecurities. It’s not unusual for us to be drawn to people whose personalities and attachment styles echo those of our earliest caregiving and love relationships. This can recreate relationship dynamics that feel all too familiar.

If we had healthy attachment and relationship dynamics growing up, this doesn’t usually cause us immense suffering. But if our earliest love relationships entailed abandonment, disorganization and chaos, unpredictability, suffocation, abuse, or neglect, we may be drawn to partners who display these qualities and behaviors—not because we like the way they feel but because we want to be loved and we’ve learned to associate such experiences with love.

This can lead us to reenact the same arguments we’ve had not just with our present partners, but with important people from our past—previous partners, parents, or others who raised us. We may replicate the fights we saw our parents having, the fights we had with our parents, or we may fight with our present partner(s) about things we were never able to fight with our caregivers about but desperately wanted to.

Take time to reflect on whether recurring arguments with your present partner have come up in previous relationships. Pay attention to the feelings and unmet needs that arise. Do they seem familiar? Try to think of the first time you felt these feelings and unmet needs. If these recollections date back to your childhood or teenage years, this could be a sign you’re reenacting early attachment patterns in your present relationship.

Shvets Production via Pexels
Source: Shvets Production via Pexels

Many of us don’t know that different relationship dynamics are possible until we experience and adjust to those that diverge from the patterns we gravitate towards due to their familiarity. Especially if we didn’t grow up feeling consistently loved, safe, or attended to. Unless we learn new modes of relating and being related to, we can remain trapped in painful cycles that feel interminable.

Honest communication, patience with ourselves, and openness to the possibility of change can go a long way toward healing attachment wounds that interfere with our intimacy as adults. So too can working with a therapist to gain insight into our relationship patterns and practice healthier communication and interpersonal skills that bolster secure connection and closeness with others. If repeat arguments keep plaguing your relationship, it may be time to reach out for support.

To find help near you, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

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