Dealing with Arguments in Relationships
Arguments in relationships are completely normal. The success of your relationship doesn’t depend on how many disagreements you have, but on how you deal with them.
When your partner is upset about something, it helps to get curious about what’s going on. Yes, even if you think they’re overreacting! And if you would like your partner to be more interested in your reactions to things, thinking about how much you’ve been doing lately to feel close to each other can help.
Arguments In Relationships: Developing Empathy
Have you ever had an argument with your partner about whether one of you was right, or fair, or reasonable to be upset about something?
It’s easily done, because it can be really annoying when you feel like your partner is overreacting!
But when you focus on each other’s reactions, rather than what caused them, it keeps you from getting to the bottom of what’s really going on.
If a child came to you, feeling upset about something, would you tell them they were being unreasonable?
With kids, we know that they need us to listen to them and take them seriously, even when their reactions seem a bit strong.
We do our best to comfort and reassure them, and work out what they need to feel better.
Happy relationships are built on a foundation of empathy and compassion.
One way to develop more empathy for your partner is to remember that they have a small child inside them, just like you. (Just like all of us.)
Some of their reactions to things are bound to seem unreasonable to you – just like some of yours are going to seem unreasonable to them.
As a general rule, the weirder your partner’s reaction seems to you, the bigger the opportunity it provides for you to understand them better.
So when your partner is upset about something, get curious.
Even – or especially – if you think they’re being OTT, ask them about it.
You can say something like “I can tell this really bothers you, and I want to understand why it’s such a big deal for you.”
Moments like this are opportunities for us to understand each other better – in all our glorious difference.
When you take your partner seriously like this, you’re more likely to get to the bottom of your disagreements instead of getting sidetracked by pointless comparisons.
Arguments In Relationships: Get Curious
Getting really curious about what’s going on between you can help you to break frustrating communication patterns.
You know that moment when you sigh “here we go again…”?
You don’t want to go down that same old path, but it feels like you’ve lost control of the situation, and it’s almost like a fait accompli.
When you get that feeling, stop, take a breath, and ask yourself: what exactly is going on here?
See if you can rewind a bit and spot the moment when things started going wrong.
What was happening? How were you feeling? What was the word, or tone, or look that changed the atmosphere?
If you’re calm enough, you could ask your partner some of those same kinds of questions.
When Conversations Turn Into Arguments
Usually, conversations turn into arguments in relationships when one of us hears something that triggers a fear or worry.
For example, I know that I carry a deep fear that my husband secretly resents me for expecting him to do his fair share of the cooking, laundry, etc.
I know in my head that our arrangement is fair and we’re both happy with it, but when I’m stressed, my inner child – who believes that a “good mum” takes care of everyone – pops up.
So on a bad day, I might interpret him sighing at the washing basket as an attack on me.
But when I’m curious about my reaction, I can make the link, and share it with him.
So in the style of Brené Brown’s excellent suggestion “The story I’m making up about this is…” I might say something like “I had a strong reaction then. I think because I was imagining you resented me…”
By saying it like this you can own your part in it, so it doesn’t come across like an accusation.
And if your partner is open to it, you can ask them the same kinds of questions about moments when they lose their cool with you too.
Feeling Closer to your Partner
If you or your partner haven’t been showing much curiosity about your relationship lately, it can help to look at how close you’ve been feeling.
As infants, it’s only when we feel a secure attachment to our caregivers that we feel safe enough to explore the world.
Similarly in adulthood, it’s only when we feel close to our partners that we feel secure enough to talk about what’s going on in the relationship.
When we don’t feel safe, we don’t feel free to be curious – and this is as true on a psychological level in adulthood as it is on a physical one in childhood.
In Hold Onto Your Kids, Dr Gordon Neufeld and Gabor Maté describe six ways of attaching.
These are as useful for understanding adult relationships as they are for thinking about child development.
We can think of these ways of attaching as levels of intimacy. The order might surprise you!
- Senses – Physical proximity, as registered through smell, sight, sound, or touch.
- Sameness – Identifying with your loved one, feeling you have plenty in common.
- Belonging and Loyalty – The ways we say (and feel) “I’m yours and you’re mine”.
- Significance – How we feel that we matter to (so will be kept close by) our partners.
- Feeling – Warm, loving, affectionate feelings lead into emotional intimacy.
- Being Known – Feeling seen, understood, liked and accepted just as we are.
If you want to feel closer to your partner (and freer to talk more openly about your relationship), this list is a great place to start.
How much have you been touching each other lately?
How do you show your partner that they matter to you?
Do you open up to them about your thoughts and feelings? And how do you make them feel understood and accepted just as they are when they do the same?
More Help With Arguments In Relationships
If you’ve been struggling with arguments in relationships, check out my self-paced online course Love In Lockdown. I wrote it to support couples through the pandemic, but it contains masses of advice for any couple who wants to get more adept at resolving disagreements. It includes videos and PDFs on how to:
- Recognise when a disagreement is becoming unproductive and know what to do next
- Deal with feelings of overwhelm so that they don’t get in the way of you being the parent and partner you want to be
- Understand how your different approaches to coping with stress might cause problems in your relationship, and what each of you can do to avoid this
- Move from irritated by to accepting of each other’s habits