What Is Really Going On When Couples Fight?

Annie Gurton

Relationship Therapist

Ask an Imago Relationship Therapist about conflict and they will tell you that ‘conflict is growth trying to happen’. This might infuriate an arguing couple even further – after all, who wants to be told that arguing is a good and healthy thing that will lead to growth, when you are angry and frustrated and possibly about to say or do something irreversible to your spouse. Its the last thing you want to hear.

But the fact is that suppression of feelings of anger or frustration is unhealthy, and it is better to express yourselves and for a couple to deal with whatever the issue is. However many couples find themselves having the same argument over and over, and can feel very stuck in their conflict because nothing ever seems to be getting resolved. Circularity in marital conflicts is common, and so is the feeling that the other is simply not understanding what you are really trying to say, mainly because you are not sure of what it is you are asking for either.

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What is really going on is a deep desire for the other to respond in a way that will make us feel better. But our loved one seems unable or unwilling to do whatever it is we want them to do or say, and so the conflict continues.

Harville Hendrix, the founder of Imago Relationship Therapy explains this by saying, ‘When a couple disagrees abut the same thing over and over, it is often because the other person needs to stretch and grow to meet an important need of their partner, and this is not happening, usually because it is extremely hard to do.’ He adds, ‘When we stretch to meet our partner’s need it not only helps our partner to heal but it also helps us to grow as a person.’

What healing? you may ask. Hendrix is referring to the wounds that we all receive in childhood. However idyllic childhoods may seem, and many are far from perfect, we are all wounded in some way. Perhaps because Mum was not there for us when we needed her, perhaps because of the demands of other siblings or because of her own issues. And maybe Dad was at work too often and generally unavailable.

This wounding has benefits and is welcome – it leads to us becoming resilient against the troubles and strife of life – but if there is too much, or at a particularly vulnerable stage, or it is so extreme that it could be called abuse or neglect, we suffer deep emotional wounds which can be healed in our primary intimate adult relationship. This healing can be simply by finding someone who is constant and reliable, with whom we feel safe.

But many people need to re-enact the issues that wounded them, and need their partner to behave in a different way than their parents behaved.   So someone whose mother was constantly distracted or simply absent, will perhaps be super clinging to their partner, causing them to resist and act like the parent. If the spouse refuses to acknowledge and meet the need in their partner to feel safe and attended to, that childhood wound will not be healed. It may be hard for the spouse to respond as they need to because their own parents were not particularly attentive but they have learned to cope by standing on their own two feet. It will be a stretch for them to meet their spouses need for reassurance and comfort, and to deliver a sense of safety, but if they can do that the pair of them will find huge healing benefits.

So you may be arguing about who puts the trash out, or who does the most childcare, or who is untidy or a spendthrift, but most domestic arguments are actually a metaphor or a veil for a deeper issue. In those homes where these issues are discussed and resolved, the childhood wounds have been healed.

All this points to the need for professional guidance when it comes to marital strife. If you are trying to get your partner to hear your underlying feelings and are getting no-where, its no use continuing in the same way. Surprisingly, your partner is not a mind-reader, and anyway, you are unlikely to have a clear idea of your underlying need yourself. Our psyches are very clever at hiding our deeper feelings and wounds from ourselves as much as from others. We live in a world where we dream in metaphor and live by cognitive heuristics or chunking. Our brains may seem quite big but actually struggle to cope with all the information and emotions that enter them every day. Our childhoods, which formed the way we are, become a distant set of memories which are likely to be largely inaccurate.

A certified Imago Relationship Therapist will work with the two of you to help to to each listen so the other will talk and talk so the other can listen, and understand better what is creating the tensions that cause arguments and conflicts.

But while you wait for your first session, you might like to try these tips for healthy conflict:

1. Be aware that when you want to talk may not necessarily be the best time for your partner.   If you have something important to that you want to discuss, ask, ‘Is now a good time?’ and be prepared to wait until later to have the discussion. This approach gives your partner a heads-up that you want their undivided attention, that this is important to you, and you really want them to listen to you. It shows that you are respectful of their time and are not assuming that they are available on your time schedule. Try to make an appointment within 24 hours when you can have an uninterrupted chat.

2.When you are discussing something that triggers strong feelings, learn to mirror your partner. Just repeat back what you hear without appearing sarcastic or as though you are parroting, and without adding your stuff or interpretation. If you do this your partner will know that you have heard them, and they will feel more respected, and your own feelings can subside until you are able to process them calmly.

3. Move from negativity to problem solving. Negativity pushes the other person away while problem solving is co-operative, and you are saying, ‘how can we resolve this so that we both feel okay?’ Negativity kills the feelings of safety between you, and more than anything else, we need to feel safe in our most intimate relationship.

4. Stop criticising or saying negative things about the other. Critical remarks are hurtful and often trigger the other person to become angry and defensive.

5. Use sentences that begin with ‘I’ rather than ‘you’.

6. The traits you hate in your spouse are often the traits we dislike in ourselves. Try to accept those traits as part of who you are and are part of who your spouse is. It helps to remember that none of us is perfect and we all have negative and positive qualities.

7.Remember that whatever your spouse says makes sense to them even if it makes no sense to you.

8. Blaming has no positive effect at all, nor does trying to persuade using reasoning or arguments. The only thing that works is empathy and understanding the other.

9. Find ways to be loving, even if you feel that your spouse is not demonstrating any love to you. If there is an impasse, you are the one who has to break it. Demonstrating hostility never makes for peace.

10. Marriage or a committed relationship is the most intimate and powerful of all human relationships. We know our spouse better than anyone else. We can love them deeply or wound them deeply. Choose to love.


For more information and to get in touch with Annie, head to www.anniegurton.com


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