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July 13, 2020

Why Do Couples Fight?

I bet there are certain topics in your relationship that you know will always cause a fight. Maybe it’s money or parenting. Maybe it’s chores or in-laws. The truth is, relationships are filled with communication conflict. Some of it can be anticipated (like with a “hot topic” above), while some of it can feel like it’s coming completely out of the blue.

Verbal disagreements can occur when we feel attacked, unheard, or misunderstood. More simply, researchers have proposed that communication conflict arises when one partner’s pursuit of his or her goals interferes with the other partner’s goals. These “goals” aren’t necessarily tangible things like “finish the laundry,” they merely refer to desires, wishes, or plans that may or may not be conscious. Let’s use the following example:

John and Sarah are expecting a baby in the coming months. John was raised Catholic and believes that religion plays a pivotal role in a child’s life. Sarah was raised Unitarian and was not taught to see religion as particularly important to children’s upbringings. Today, John brought up his desire for their baby to be baptized; Sarah scoffed at John’s feelings and immediately dismissed them as ridiculous. “It’s not like the baby will remember one day—who cares?” she mocked. John—feeling attacked—began lashing out at Sarah for her “inability to raise a Christian child” because of her disrespect for him and for Catholicism. They proceeded to fight for the next 30 minutes before both went to separate rooms to cool off.

According to the goal-oriented view of relationship conflict, we’ll need to look at each partner’s goals to understand what is happening during this fight. John’s goal is to raise his child in a home that teaches and upholds religion—particularly Catholicism. Part of that goal includes having his baby baptized. From this interaction, we can interpret that Sarah’s views of raising her child did not include baptism. But that’s all we know about her goal. Perhaps Sarah is completely aligned with John’s goal up with the exception of the baptism? Or, perhaps they are entirely mis-aligned on their ideas of religion and parenting.

Because relationships are made up of two individuals with their own individual needs, desires, and goals—conflict is, unfortunately, inevitable. There will always be times where the needs of one compromises the needs of the other. Accepting that fact to be true is an important first step to understanding and getting ahead of relationship conflict or fights…

By accepting that fights are always going to rear their ugly head in our relationships, we gain a sort of power over them. Let’s go back to Sarah and John. Instead of Sarah making a joke about John’s desire for their baby to be baptized, what might have happened if Sarah asked him why baptism is so important to John? Had she done so, the two could have engaged in meaningful and calm conversation about the importance of religion—with no harsh or disrespectful language. Similarly, had John not immediately attacked Sarah for being unfit to raise a religious child, perhaps he could have calmly asked “what are your views on raising our child Catholic?” By engaging in a discussion, both Sarah and John would have likely left the conversation having a much deeper sense of each other’s goals and feelings surrounding the raising of their child. With both partners’ goals in mind, compromise is a logical next step.

How to reduce conflict in your relationship

Although we will always have disagreements, we do have a choice about how to navigate them. Sometimes it can feel easier and less vulnerable to simply attack our partner, mock them, or accuse their belief as being wrong. In doing so, we get even farther away from resolving the fight. And the conflict from that fight may even spill into other areas of the relationship.

For couples who are unhappy in their relationships, it becomes even more important to try to get ahead of conflict, or understand the ways conflict can be reduced—since unhappy couples are 10x more likely than happier couples to use a negative tone of voice during a disagreement, engage in the same patterns each time an argument bubbles to the surface, and remain in conflict for longer periods of time. So, how do you reduce conflict?

Makes Conflict Worse – things NOT to do

  • Take the opportunity to bring up other problems in the relationship
  • Only blame your partner for the problem
  • Listen to your partner just so you can criticize him/her
  • Ask hostile and closed-ended questions
  • Assume you know what your partner is thinking and feeling about the issue
  • Repeat your own positions and opinions
  • Follow your partner’s complaint with your own complaint
  • Try to prove that your partner is wrong
  • Tell your partner what he/she needs to do in order to solve the problem
  • Make ultimatums
  • Raise issues with a hostile tone
  • Reject your partner’s view as wrong
  • Interrupt your partner

Reduces or Avoids Conflict – things TO DO

  • Stay focused on the problem at hand
  • Recognize how you are contributing to the conflict
  • Listen to your partner with genuine interest; what is he/she saying?
  • Ask open-ended questions
  • Ask about his/her thoughts and feelings about the issue
  • Summarize what your partner says to make sure you understand
  • Follow your partner’s complaint with a request for more information
  • Work towards agreement/compromise
  • Offer constructive suggestions about what you can do to solve the problem
  • Remain flexible during the problem-solving phase
  • Raise issues in a neutral and gentle way
  • Accept your partner’s views as important
  • Let your partner finish her/his thoughts

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