Why can’t we stop arguing?
Persistent arguments are one of the most common reasons couples come to counselling. While I am used to seeing clients argue in front of me, I have never entirely stopped being surprised by the amount of vitriol that people who love one another can throw at each other in my presence.
Couples argue about anything and everything. Sometimes, these are major issues with little chance of compromise, when one wants children, for example, and the other doesn’t. In this case, they have to face the painful reality that they cannot both have what they want in this relationship. More often, though, the arguments are about (seemingly) minor things: whose turn it was to buy toilet paper or take out the bins; why one didn’t text that they would be home later than usual; why the other didn’t wait for them before starting dinner.
A remarkable number of couples seem to argue about tea towels, whether they should be hung up immediately after use, or whether it’s acceptable to leave them on the kitchen counter; one couple I knew agreed that tea towels should be hung up, but argued incessantly because one believed they absolutely must be hung perpendicular to the ground, while the other preferred a jaunty angle. This seemed, to me, a relatively minor point, but for them constituted an irreconcilable difference.
Why do couples argue?
The tricky thing about being in a couple is that you have to put up with another person in your life. In my experience, most arguments flare up because of the difficulties couples experience in accepting and tolerating difference, the “otherness” of the other. At the beginning, difference is often part of what attracts couples to one another, and, when things are going well, difference can continue to be a source of wonder and joy.
But, if there are other pressures on the couple, the differences that once seemed so attractive can start to feel threatening. So, “I’d never met anyone like her before – she’s so spontaneous” becomes “it’s so annoying – we make plans and then she decides to do something else entirely” and “he’s the kindest most generous person I’ve ever met” becomes “why is he such a soft touch? He’s always giving our money away to his family!”
Another issue is that, in the heady, ecstatic days of new relationships, we can feel a closeness for our partners, an intensity of emotion that, while it is thrilling, cannot last. At some point, all couples have to step back from the nights of passionate sex, staring into one another’s eyes and talking till dawn. A little space opening up in a relationship is healthy, but it can be unsettling to discover that the other person is, after all, a separate entity, with different thoughts and feelings.
Are couples arguing more?
Sometimes, it feels that way. I suspect that the pandemic, which forced couples into closer proximity for more hours in the day and cut them off from other outlets, did not help. Couples with children also had to manage additional responsibilities, such as homeschooling, and everyone is dealing with the additional, externally generated stress of the cost-of-living crisis.
These pressures affect us all, but each couple suffers in their own way. If you exert pressure on a vase, it doesn’t shatter into a thousand identical pieces; rather, it cracks along any pre-existing fault lines. It is the same with couples: we all feel the same stresses, but the cracks appear in different places, depending on where our weak points are.
What about the children?
It is undoubtedly distressing for children to see and hear their parents arguing. But, if the couple are able to make up afterwards, they teach children some valuable lessons: that arguments can be recovered from, that people who love one another can and do have different points of view and this is not a catastrophe; that, when we are secure in another’s love, we can, occasionally, be a bit unreasonable and, provided we own what we have done, be forgiven; that we don’t have to be perfect to be loved.
What if I feel unsafe?
Let’s be clear: Some things are never OK. One person using physical force (or threats of physical force) to control another is not a disagreement; it is abuse. Similarly, persistent name-calling or belittling, threats, cutting someone off from family and friends … all these are signs of a coercive controlling relationship, which is not just morally wrong, but a crime.
But, distinct from this unidirectional abuse (one person seeking to control another), many couples do, when riled, say some pretty nasty things to each other, and both can be upset by this and want to change.
How can therapy help?
Some couples I see are initially embarrassed about the level of arguing, worrying perhaps that I might refuse to see them if they own up to how bad it gets. It can be a relief just to discover that the therapist has heard all this before and is unfazed by it. It is quite common for couples to come hoping that the therapist will arbitrate over who is right, and it can be a mighty disappointment to discover that we are not interested in playing the role of judge.
What the therapist can do is give couples a safe space to think about why some of these issues are so very divisive.
In my experience, it’s never really about the tea towel; often the tea towel symbolises something, perhaps a lack of order or care in one’s surroundings, that recalls an earlier time in life, when things really were a mess and domestic chaos was part of a bigger problem. Understanding why one’s partner finds a behaviour so upsetting can be a powerful motivator to change it.
Finally, the therapist can point out when repetitive patterns of arguing are about to start and nip them in the bud. I often find myself saying something like “Ah, I see; you’re showing me how bad things get between you when you argue at home. Thank you for having the courage to share that with me but you can do this very well without me. I think you must have come here because you want to try something different.” And that is where the work begins.
One of the most rewarding aspects of the job is when couples say that something they previously found unbearable about their partners no longer bothers them, or that they had a minor disagreement over the weekend, and it was all sorted out very quickly. For couples who are used to a high degree of conflict, it can be a surprise to discover that minor arguments are just a part of being in a couple and not evidence of their badness.
If you and your partner are having difficulties with arguments and would like help to change what is happening between you, please contact me to book a session.