Is Arguing a Problem in Relationships?
You’ve met them. They are the couple who show up at a gathering looking irritated with one another. They trade barbs, thinly veiled insults, and pointed complaints. Everyone around them knows they are fighting. And you pray it doesn’t erupt until they leave. When it blows up around friends, it’s uncomfortable for everyone. You are likely to get pulled into it. They can get surprisingly nasty.
If they act like this around others, you wonder what their arguments look like behind closed doors. These no-limit blow-out arguments seem impossible to overcome when they are happening. You wonder how they can stay together, but they do.
You might be that couple.
Is Arguing a Problem?
All couples have conflicts. You aren’t going to agree on every issue all the time. In fact, it’s normal for partners to have different options and opinions about many issues. It’s one of the benefits of being in a relationship. You see the magic when you work through your differing options. Together, you discover better solutions than if you solve the problem alone.
When couples struggle to discuss and negotiate their differences, they have an argument. Most couples have some level of arguing in their relationship. Some get snippy, silent, or irritable with one another. Other couples periodically have medium to blow-out arguments.
Frequent and intense arguing is the most common reason couples come to therapy. They reach out for help when they are gridlocked around issues and they can’t stand how bad the arguing is.
In couples therapy, my first goal is to turn down the intensity of the conflicts. There are many relationship tools that can turn high conflict into low or medium conflict. Most people find lower intensity conflict easier to live with. Next, we work on the gridlocked issue in therapy. We work through the problem to find solutions that both partners can support.
Turning down the conflict works for many, but not all, couples.
For couples who seem destined to argue, is the relationship doomed to misery and an eventual break up?
You can have a high conflict marriage and still be very happy with one another.
Research supports this idea. The Gottman Institute discovered that couples have a great relationship when they maintain a 5:1 ratio of positive to negative interactions. This means that they have 5 positive interactions for every negative interaction.
The positive interactions are the things you would expect–
- doing things for one another
- thoughtful gifts
- good conversations
- spending time together
The negative interactions are all things you would expect–
- ignoring one another’s requests
- not following through
- putting one another down
- making accusations
- avoiding tough discussions
You can have a great relationship with a high conflict style if you maintain this 5:1 ratio. What this means is that, between arguments, you work hard to connect, relax together, and have fun. You build up the good things.
Gary Chapman talks about having a love bank in the relationship. You make deposits when you have positive interactions. Negative interactions make withdrawals from this metaphorical bank account.
The 5:1 ratio means that you need to deposit 5 times as many good interactions as you make withdraws.
There are 4 tricky parts to keeping this balance:
- Giving instructions is usually counted as a negative interaction. To your partner, getting instructions feels like you are telling them what to do. They feel nagged or bossed around.
- The deposits need to include activities that are important to your spouse. If you only do things that feel good to you, your partner might consider them withdrawals.
- For many, it’s hard to end a conflict that hasn’t been resolved. So, it’s hard to enter the rebuilding phase.
- The balance will be disrupted if either of you feel deeply hurt in any interaction. Because arguments get so intense, it’s easy to get hurt by harsh or exaggerated statements.
When you avoid these tricky spots, you can maintain the balance and have a great relationship. It might not feel great all the time, but overall it is.
If this sounds like a lot of work to you, you’re not alone. Keeping a 5:1 ratio in a high conflict relationship takes a lot of time and attention to work.
But if that is how you and your spouse relate, I want to assure you that you can have a great relationship. It will look different than other people’s marriages. They won’t understand why your marriage works. But that’s true for every couple. A good relationship is the intersection of two different personalities.
Your relationship is supposed to look different than others.
Need help turning down the conflict with your spouse? Need to build up the positive interactions to balance out your problem solving style? Schedule a free phone consultation to start couples counseling today.