Why Do Couples Fight — and How Can They Stop?

Two new studies show that our relationships suffer when our needs aren't met.

Posted Feb 21, 2018

If you're in a romantic relationship long enough, at some point you and your partner are going to fight. Fighting doesn't mean you're with the wrong person, or that your relationship is doomed. Conflict is an inevitable part of any longstanding human relationship, especially ones that involve the most intimate parts of our lives. 

At the same time, the frequency and quality of fighting with your significant other has a lot to do with how satisfied you are in your relationship. Most couples would prefer to argue as little as possible. Indeed, I've never once vowed to spend more time squabbling over petty grievances, scheduled a marital spat into my calendar, or wished that a lovely evening would devolve into anger and hurt feelings. On the other hand, there have been plenty of times I've wished I wasn't stuck in an argument. 

If we're so averse to fighting with our partners, why does it happen? Two new studies by a team of researchers from Belgium provide some answers. Gaëlle Vanhee and her colleagues focused on the role of unmet needs in provoking conflict in heterosexual relationships.

Unmet Needs That Lead to Conflict

The researchers found that couples fought significantly more when the following needs were not met:

  • Attachment. We have a fundamental need for secure connection to the important people in our lives. Our attachment style tends to develop early in life, based on our relationship with our primary caregiver(s); that template will then influence (and be influenced by) our experiences in subsequent relationships, including with our significant other. Meeting one another's attachment needs is one of the best ways to build a fulfilling and long-lasting partnership: relationships that feel secure are more satisfying, more intimate, and less likely to end. 
  • Acceptance. Any relationship benefits when we feel fundamentally accepted by the other person. Acceptance doesn't mean universal approval; we might vigorously reject certain choices the person makes and still accept them as they are. Partners are in a particularly powerful place to practice acceptance, because they have seen us at our worst, without the filter of social acceptability that we put on for the rest of the world. Being accepted flaws-and-all tells us a lot about our basic worth and lovability. 
  • Positive Regard. Most of us would not be satisfied simply knowing we're accepted by our partner; we also want to know that they like us. We need to feel a sense of warmth and affection, not just "I accept your many, many flaws," but "you're better than you know." In my clinical practice, I've often found that warmth from a partner can help a person start to develop more positive feelings toward themselves, leading to a virtuous circle in which they actually become a better partner, which in turn makes their partner like them all the more.  
  • Autonomy. One of the fundamental human needs according to the Self-Determination Theory of Richard Ryan and Edward Deci is to be the agent of our own actions. We need to sense that we have some measure of control over what we do and that we're authoring our own lives. Not surprisingly, Vanhee and her co-authors found that people were more unsatisfied with their relationships when they felt overly controlled and less autonomous in them. Additionally, they found more unhealthy communication patterns when partners (particularly men) lacked a sense of autonomy. 
  • Competence. According to Deci and Ryan's research, we also need to feel like we're good at what we do; having that sense of competence is related to all kinds of positive outcomes, including better mental health. As with our need for autonomy, Vanhee and colleagues found that a lower sense of competence in one's relationship (for the male partner) was associated with worse communication; in particular, one partner was more likely to withdraw and avoid conflict when the other person brought up something they were unhappy about in the other person. 

Role of Negative Emotion in Couple Conflict

How is it that unmet needs generate greater conflict and poorer communication in couples? The study authors posit that having unmet needs in a relationship leads to negative feelings, which in turn promote conflict.

For example, being harshly criticized and rejected by our partner fails to meet our need for acceptance, which can provoke feelings of shame and sadness. According to Emotionally-Focused Couple Therapy, these primary emotional responses are often not expressed directly and can transform into secondary emotions, like anger and indignation. These emotions can then drive negative communication between partners, leading to an escalation in the conflict as both partners see themselves as the aggrieved party whose needs are being ignored.  

Vanhee and colleagues noted that further research is needed to confirm this "Primary Emotion → Secondary Emotion → Conflict" pattern. What is clear from existing research is that frustrated needs in a relationship lead to negative emotions, and those emotions lead to fights. 

rocketclips/Adobe Stock
Source: rocketclips/Adobe Stock

How to Meet Your Partner's Needs

If we want stronger relationships, what can we do to better meet our partner's needs?

One of the best places to start is to ask your partner what they need. They might not have even thought of it themselves, so being asked gives them an opportunity to identify unmet needs that are generating negative emotions and conflict. This question also signals to your partner that you care about their well-being.

Consider your own needs, as well: What's missing in your relationship, in the areas described above or in others? Bear in mind that unmet needs can affect us even if we're not aware of the frustrated need (just as exhausted toddlers who are melting down will insist they're not tired). Then consider sharing these needs in a mutually supportive way, perhaps starting with a focus on your partner's needs to avoid the perception of "dueling needs" that are in competition. Otherwise, we can wind up in a stalemate of "I'm unhappy/So am I," with neither partner willing to reach across the divide.  

Keep these approaches in mind as you work to better meet your partner's needs (and your own):

  • Acknowledge. Even before we feel our partner's estimation of us, we need to know they see us. Without this acknowledgment of our presence, we feel ignored and alone. Consider ways to let your partner know you see them.
  • Accept. Are there ways you can let your partner know they are enough, just as they are? Can you let them know that even with the insider knowledge you have on them, you embrace who they are? (This assumes a reasonably healthy relationship dynamic; an abusive relationship is a different story.) Acceptance includes accepting that our partners need what they say they need — we don't naysay their expressed needs, which comes across as fundamentally invalidating. 
  • Respond. When you know what your partner needs, make a habit of responding as best you can. As relationship expert John Gottman says, our partners need to feel that "if you're hurting, the world stops and I listen." Knowing you're available and will answer the call builds trust and strengthens secure attachment. 
  • Communicate Liking. Look for opportunities to let your partner know that you like and appreciate them. We might assume they should know how we feel if we've been together a long time, but they might not sense our positive regard if we don't express it. Depending on their own history or the history of your relationship together, they might even be assuming the opposite. Let them know they're a person worth liking. 
  • Encourage Autonomy. Obviously, we can't have complete autonomy in a relationship. But consider if there may be ways in which you're exerting more control than necessary over how your partner does certain things. It can be hard not to micromanage the other person's efforts, especially if we feel like we know best. At the same time, encouraging a sense of autonomy fulfills your partner's needs and strengthens your relationship. 
  • Support Competence. Discuss with your partner ways he or she feels unable to measure up in the relationship. Are there things you could work on together that would strengthen your partner's sense of relationship competence? Knowing one another's needs and taking steps to meet them also helps you and your partner know you're doing a good job in the relationship. 

Couples often get stuck in a loop in which neither partner is having their needs met, which leads to greater conflict and more need frustration. By being curious about our partner's needs and willing to share our own, we create more harmonious and fulfilling relationships. 

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References

Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2000). The" what" and" why" of goal pursuits: Human needs and the self-determination of behavior. Psychological Inquiry, 11, 227-268.

Gottman, J. M., & Silver, N. (2015). The seven principles for making marriage work: A practical guide from the country's foremost relationship expert. New York: Harmony.

Vanhee, G., Lemmens, G., Moors, A., Hinnekens, C., & Verhofstadt, L. L. (2018). EFT‐C's understanding of couple distress: An overview of evidence from couple and emotion research. Journal of Family Therapy, 40, S24-S44.

Vanhee, G., Lemmens, G., Stas, L., Loeys, T., & Verhofstadt, L. L. (2018). Why are couples fighting? A need frustration perspective on relationship conflict and dissatisfaction. Journal of Family Therapy, 40, S4-S23.