Psychologists Sydney / Relationships / Always Arguing in Relationship

Couples often get into argument cycles – where they are always arguing about the same thing. These argument cycles are usually caused by negative communication patterns that restrict understanding and respect in a relationship. A couples counsellor can help you and your partner understand and improve your communication habits and stop the constant arguments.

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Communication is key

Psychologists and relationship counsellors will tell you that good communication is key to a successful relationship. And if you are arguing all the time, then chances are you are no longer communicating well!

Couples, especially couples who have been together for a long time, often get into argument cycles – where you find yourself constantly arguing about the same thing. Interestingly, while the topic of the repeated argument may change, the underlying triggers for the argument and the pattern the argument takes is often the same.

Think about what you and your partner fight about most. Probably something mundane like why the dishes weren’t put away, or why the kids aren’t in bed yet, or why you are out of tomatoes…

Arguments like these probably aren’t really about the dishes, the kids or the tomatoes… rather, you are probably getting into arguments about these things because you are simply not communicating well. Often, couples get into arguments about minor transgressions as a way to cover up real issues that have been left unaddressed. Failing to address and communicate about significant issues or concerns leads to resentment and repressed anger – both of which will ultimately lead to a dissatisfying relationship or relationship breakdown.

At other times the silly arguments are the result of negative communication patterns where both you and your partner are making assumptions and insinuations about what each of you are saying, playing into your frustrations and fears, failing to properly listen to each other. This kind of unhealthy communication is not always indicative of the way that you actually feel about each other – it’s just a nasty argument cycle that you can’t seem to avoid.

Couples counselling can help you understand and improve the way you communicate with your partner, teaching you skills such as empathy, patience and listening which can help you break your argument cycles.

Relationship counselling gurus Dr John Gottman and Dr Julie Schwartz Gottman* explain the four main communication issues which lead couples into negative argument cycles. These are:

1. Criticism

Criticism happens when you are critical of your partner’s personality, rather than their action or behaviour. The Gottman’s distinguish a criticism from a complaint. They argue that expressing a complaint is an important component of a healthy relationship and reduces the liklihood of built-up suppressed anger. Expressing a criticism, however, involves making an accusation against the person’s personality. A complaint often starts with an “I”, whereas a criticism will often start with “You”. For example, a complaint might be “I’d love to eat less fattening food for dinner” whereas a criticism might be “You always cook such fattening food for us”.

2. Contempt

Contempt commonly follows criticism and it is problematic because it can be poisonous for your relationship. Contempt, according to the Gottman model, is statements made with the intention of insulting or psychologically wounding your partner. Common ways in which contempt is often expressed in a relationship is through sarcastic remarks, antagonistic commentary, mocking behaviour or hostility. Contempt is a strong emotion but you would be surprised how often it is used amongst otherwise well-meaning couples. Contempt hurts your partner, and hurts your relationship.

3. Defensiveness

Couples are often so focused on feeling defensive that it often becomes an instinctual reaction. It doesn’t matter what was said, or what was intended when they said it, the other person feels hurt and reacts defensively. Effectively, defensive reactions means you are likely pre-guessing, not listening, and probably over-reacting. You are also not going to be very good at solving real problems in your relationship and you are probably highly reactive and fighting a lot of the time.

4. Stonewalling

Stonewalling happens in a relationship when one or both people in the relationship stop reacting or responding to each other. This occurs most often after all of the other communication patterns – criticism, contempt and defensiveness – have been a standard part of your relationship for some time. Likely, the couple is feeling so overwhelmed by the problems in their relationship that they simply withdraw emotionally from each other.  Stonewalling is an active gesture in that it clearly intends to convey a lack of interest or care. Stonewalling is an indication that your relationship is coming unstuck.

All relationships suffer from these 4 communication patterns from time to time. It’s when these patterns become cyclical and habitual that you risk losing your relationship to ongoing arguments and intense dissatisfaction.

A trained relationship counsellor or couples therapist can help you identify your communication style, and offer you tools to help you avoid these negative communication patterns. With the help of a qualified psychologist or relationship counsellor, you can stop cyclical arguments in their tracks – and start enjoying your relationship again.

* Gottman, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, Random House 2000

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