January 5, 2022 |Gideon Hanekom

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In this post, we’re looking at relationship advice when arguing and consider some important ideas for your relationship.

No two people are ever going to agree on everything, and that’s okay.

In fact, it’s healthy and normal for couples to argue from time to time.

Some experts suggest that married couples who don’t have any conflict are often the ones who end in divorce.

By the same token, however, frequent heated and hurtful conflict is certainly not healthy or sustainable either and can do real damage to a relationship over time.

Other researchers also argue that sometimes expressing anger can actually help a relationship in the long-term by bringing a couple closer to each other (if done constructively).

In other words, it’s not conflict itself that hurts the relationship but how couples resolve their arguments that can make or break their relationship.

For example, when arguing, couples can become so wrapped up in who is right or wrong that they start treating their partner with a complete lack of respect nor are unable to really get what the other person is trying to say or need.

When that happens, conflict becomes a dangerous element and hold a lot of potential risks for a relationship.

There are many risks associated with negative conflict in a relationship.

Relationship Advice When Arguing

First and foremost, it can lead to emotional and physical damage.

When partners are constantly attacking each other, it can be very damaging to their self-esteem and can even lead to depression.

It can also cause problems in other areas of the relationship, such as communication and intimacy.

Couples who argue a lot tend to have less communication and less physical affection (e.g., holding hands, kissing, etc.).

In fact, most couples usually go through periods of negative conflict in a relationship where one or both partners get on the attack and start criticizing their partner.

When this happens, the only way for a couple to move forward and restore their relationship is to work on their connection, improve their communication, and put down their weapons.

However, this is easier said than done.

In order to deal with negative conflict in a relationship, you must develop the ability to put down your weapons and leave your defensive position.

This means being patient and understanding but also figuring out the root issue or causes of frequent conflict.

After doing so, you can work on the solution.

Arguments are never about what they originally seem. Find the root issue and you’ll be better for It.

When two people argue, it’s never really about what the actual issue was.

If you want to get to the root of the problem, you need to find the real issue that’s causing the argument.

Once you do that, both parties can work together to resolve the issue.

The best way to get to the root of a conflict is to ask yourself questions (and the other person) about why the other person feels the way they do.

What is sitting under the surface?

Don’t dig up the past, however.

There’s a big difference between “getting to the root of the problem” and “digging up the past.”

Digging up the past is a tactic that many people use to make someone else feel guilty, but that’s not what we want in this case.

Using phrases like “But you always did this when…” only makes them feel like they’re doing something wrong which only leads to more defensiveness and potential backlashing.

However, understanding the past does sometimes give us insight into many current realities.

One of the best ways, I believe, to understand what arguments are really about is to understand the difference between primary and secondary emotions.

Let me explain.

Understand the difference between primary and secondary emotions

Primary emotions, such as happiness, sadness, anger, and fear, are innate and universal, and we usually experience them physically in our bodies.

Secondary emotions are those that stem from primary emotions, or emotions about emotions, such as anger (secondary) as a result of fear (primary).

Relationship Advice When Arguing

To put it another way, primary emotions are those that are fundamental to our survival, such as happiness, sadness, anger, and fear.

Our primary emotions are often modulated automatically by our brain and body in order to serve our survival.

Secondary emotions, on the other hand, are those that stem from our primary emotions, such as joy, disappointment, rage, and anxiety.

When our primary emotions are not modulated appropriately, we may begin to express secondary emotions in inappropriate ways.

Secondary emotions can become primary emotions, causing problems in relationships.

It is critical to understand that secondary emotions are typically conditioned by experiences and upbringing (culture, religion, etc.).

So, for example, in your culture, it was frowned upon for men to feel (and show) anxiety (fear) because it was regarded as a sign of weakness.

Instead, displaying aggression (anger) was more accepted as an indication of power and control, regardless of the uncertainties of life at the time.

Imagine growing up seeing men act that way and eventually finding yourself in a relationship situation where you’re going through something that’s causing some genuine feelings of worry (primary), but instead of expressing that to your partner and establishing a deeper level of trust, you express anger (in whatever forms).

Furthermore, once you start, you can get into the habit of doing this every time you feel concerned about your relationship.

But what do you think will happen in the long run?

How much conflict do you anticipate, and, more importantly, how effective would it be to work on anger management when the real issue is that you’re scared but don’t believe you’re allowed to feel or express it?

What do you think that would do to your levels of intimacy and overall relationship over time?

Relationship Advice When Arguing

So, if you want to better understand people’s behaviour, including those that cause frequent arguments in your relationship, you must first become aware of your own primary and secondary emotions, as well as those of your partner.

Understanding the past can help you understand what emotions are at work beneath the surface and why they are there.

This is significant because understanding the distinction between primary and secondary emotions can aid in the resolution of relationship conflict by allowing individuals to identify and comprehend their own emotions as well as the emotions of their spouses.

This can help to avoid misunderstandings and conflicts caused by misunderstandings.

Furthermore, understanding the distinction between primary and secondary emotions can assist individuals in more effectively managing and resolving conflicts when they arise.

For example, a person may be frustrated and angry with their spouse, but if they understand the distinction between primary and secondary emotions, they may realise that what they’re really feeling is fear and that the best course of action is to express that fear rather than acting out the anger or frustration.

Also, if the other spouse recognises the distinction, they may choose to address the primary emotion (fear in this case) rather than react to the secondary emotion (which is anger or frustration).

By doing so, a couple can start to move away from perpetual cycles of conflict, where they have the same fights over and over again without resolving them.

Why Couples Have the Same Fights Over and Over

There are numerous reasons why couples fight repeatedly, but two main reasons, in my opinion, are our needs not being met and our need to protect our ego.

Let’s look at each one separately.

Our needs are not being met

We are sentient beings with emotional and physical needs.

When we find ourselves in love relationships with others, our needs must be met in a way that is unique to us in order for the relationship to succeed.

We require love, acceptance, and appreciation.

We require someone to share our lives with, to talk to, to confide in, and to care for.

We need someone to be there for us when we are down, to celebrate our victories with us, and to help us get through the difficult times.

We require someone to make us feel special and loved.

If we don’t feel like our needs are being met by our partners, the quality and longevity of our relationships will suffer, as will our happiness and fulfilment in the relationship.

When this happens, we begin to look elsewhere for ways to meet these basic human needs.

Relationship Advice When Arguing

As a result, the relationship, as you might expect, becomes essentially irrelevant because it no longer serves a purpose in our lives.

It’s easy to see why couples would have the same fights over and over if they’d created a relationship in which their needs weren’t being met.

Consider this for a moment: if you are in a situation that only causes you to feel pain and has little benefit or positive reason for you to be there, how long would it take you to become dissatisfied and for conflict to occur?

I believe that many couples are in constant conflict because they focus so much on the details of the arguments that they never bother to look under the hood to understand what is causing the conflicts.

And most of the time, people are in conflict because they are being attacked directly or because they are dissatisfied on a fundamental level.

The second common reason couples perpetually fight is the contribution of their egos.

Our need to protect our egos

Simply put, our ego is the sense of self that we have.

When we believe we are being attacked or criticised, we defend ourselves.

We believe we must fight for our own survival.

Nobody wants to hear that they are “failing” their partner or the relationship in some way.

But that’s exactly what happens when our partners tell us that we’re not meeting their needs or that we’re falling short of their expectations.

When that happens, most of us immediately feel psychologically threatened and go on the defensive to either justify our position or retaliate by pointing out their flaws as well.

As a result, they feel attacked and respond defensively.

Furthermore, their needs are still not being met, which keeps the original cause of the conflict in play, but with the addition of defensive feelings.

For some couples, conflict becomes a never-ending cycle as a result of very specific emotional needs not being met and feelings of defensiveness occurring whenever there is a hint of that.

Furthermore, when our needs are not being met for an extended period of time, we tend to bottle things up, and these bottled up feelings make us extremely sensitive to all kinds of “wrong” in our relationship.

As a result, some couples don’t need much to spark a fight.

Conflict as a result of something not being quite right obviously becomes a habit in and of itself.

That is, once we have normalised conflict, a couple can literally end up in a situation where they are having conflict for the sake of having conflict.

As I previously stated, the primary issue, in this case, is not conflict.

Many couples have a lot of conflicts because they have such opposing viewpoints on many issues, but they are still happy.

The real issue is not conflict, but rather how you deal with it.

Couples fight; it’s unavoidable and a natural part of life.

Successful couples, on the other hand, deal with conflict in a different way.

And if you’re in a relationship with a lot of tussles, that’s something you should probably pay attention to.

Couples Fight. Here’s How Successful Couples Do It Differently

Couples fight and argue.

It’s an unavoidable fact of life.

But what distinguishes happy couples from those who end up in divorce court?

It’s the way they fight.

Successful couples understand how to fight decently.

Happy couples fight differently because they have different perceptions of what constitutes a fight.

It’s not about winning or losing for them; it’s about resolving the issue and preserving the essence of the relationship.

That is not to say that successful couples aren’t irritable.

They are, but they can express their frustration in constructive rather than destructive ways.

So, what distinguishes happy couples from unhappy ones?

Let’s look at a few distinctions.

Relationship Advice When Arguing

First, since we’ve already discussed defensiveness, let’s discuss unhealthy vs. healthy defences.

In a relationship, there are two types of defences: healthy and unhealthy.

Unhealthy defences are those that take a problem and magnify it, making it more difficult, threatening, and/or overwhelming than it is.

These defences include repression, denial, and isolation.

These reactions create distance and avoidance, which has a negative impact on your relationships.

Healthy defences, on the other hand, enable you to respond to a situation in a more realistic and adaptive manner.

These responses keep you connected and prevent you from becoming overwhelmed.

Anticipation, analysis, reframing, and negotiation are all examples of healthy defences.

When couples first begin exploring healthy conflict resolution strategies, they frequently feel like novices.

They have no idea what to expect or if they will do it correctly.

However, when it comes to relationships, the truth is that the intent of our actions is sometimes more important than perfect execution.

When my partner believes that I have their best interests in mind, even when we disagree, and I do so in a way that respects her and maintains her dignity, whether I say the wrong thing or not doesn’t really matter all that much in the long run.

If I’m willing to negotiate or compromise when confronted, she’ll see it as a healthy response, which will most likely move the conversation forwards and help us resolve the issue at hand.

However, if I’m in denial about doing anything wrong and respond by withdrawing and isolating myself, it is likely that I would elicit even more conflict.

So, happy and successful couples understand the distinction between unhealthy and healthy defences and almost always choose the appropriate response for the situation.

I once read a saying that perfectly expresses this concept.

It is said that

“The difference between a successful and unsuccessful marriage is knowing when to speak up and when not to.”

Furthermore, in order to fight successfully, couples must be able to recognise when a fight is occurring and when it is not.

It’s kind of the idea of knowing what battles to pick.

Just because we disagree on something doesn’t mean we’re fighting about it.

It’s also not an invitation to a quarrel.

The first step to resolving any problem is to identify it.

Couples who want to improve their ability to deal with conflict, must first learn to distinguish between healthy and unhealthy reactions when something is wrong.

But they must also learn to recognise when a fight is taking place and when it is not.

In fact, successful couples who handle conflict well understand how to keep issues in perspective and not allow them to escalate beyond what they need to be.

Unhappy couples tend to do the opposite and “major in minors.”

Relationship Advice When Arguing

Furthermore, they excel at unhealthy responses such as attacks, ultimatums, arguments, name-calling, and threats (this includes invalidating, attacking, arguing, shaming, blaming, and shaming your partner).

However, if you want to improve your ability to deal with conflict, as successful couples do, you must first be able to recognise when a fight is occurring and when it is not.

At its core, a fight can be defined as any disagreement or upset that leads to an argument.

So, starting to discuss problems with in-laws, having a minor disagreement about where to meet for dinner, or arriving home late after a long day at work could all lead to a fight but doesn’t need to be a fight. 

The important thing to remember is that the goal of a fight is not to win or to prove your argument. The goal of a fight is to point out the importance of the issue.

That is usually the point at which happy and unhappy couples part ways.

Happy couples understand the underlying issue (or that there is one), whereas unhappy couples get sucked into the details of the impending disagreement, causing it to blow up.

If you see a fight brewing, stay away from it, de-escalate the situation, leave the room or space, or call a friend and talk about your problem over the phone first as a means of venting.

One of the differences between unhappy and successful couples in conflict situations is what some researchers call Negative Affect Reciprocity.

Negative affect reciprocity means that when someone feels negative emotions toward another person, that person is more likely to feel negative emotions in return.

For example, if one spouse consistently complains and is negative towards the other, the other spouse is likely to reciprocate.

It also tends to escalate the situation leading often leading to conflict.

Successful couples decompress and control their emotions instead. 

So, once again, unhappy couples frequently build the very barriers they keep tripping over.

Successful couples, on the other hand, are able to stay in the moment and focus on what the other person is feeling, even when they are experiencing negative emotions (such as sadness or anxiety), resulting in more successful conflict resolution.

This is referred to by psychologists as Emotion Self-Regulation, and it is something that happy couples excel at, especially during times of potential conflict.

Emotion self-regulation is the ability to control one’s emotions.

This includes both the ability to regulate one’s emotions and the ability to respond to emotions in a healthy manner.

As a result, emotion self-regulation is important for both mental and physical health, and it can help in many areas of life, particularly relationships.

In the end, happy couples have conflict, but they fight differently than unhappy couples.

In general, happy couples are more likely to use problem-solving communication skills and constructively express their feelings.

They are also more likely to repair any damage caused by the conflict.

Relationship Advice When Arguing

Unhappy couples, on the other hand, are more likely to engage in destructive communication techniques like yelling and name-calling.

They are also less likely to repair any damage caused by the conflict.

As a result, the outcome for each is similar to day and night.

If you would like to add anything to this discussion, please leave your thoughts in the comments area below.

About the author

Gideon Hanekom

Gideon Hanekom is the creator of TheRelationshipGuy.com, a popular relationship blog that ranks among the top 50 relationship blogs in 2024. The website helps couples to create happier, healthier, and more intimate relationships. Gideon is a trained professional counsellor and holds post-graduate degrees in Theology and Psychology. His articles have also been featured on respected platforms such as Marriage.com and The Good Men Project.

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