Can couples stop a cycle of constant bickering?
Can couples stop a cycle of constant bickering?

I always argue with my partner - is our relationship doomed to fail?

Relate relationship counsellor Barbara Bloomfield considers whether arguments are fatal for relationships

Barbara Bloomfield
Friday 11 March 2016 12:24
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The influential North American relationship researchers John and Julie Gottman have spent decades analysing both ‘happy’ marriages and ‘unhappy’ ones. They claim it is possible to predict with a 90 percent degree of accuracy which marriages will last and which will break up, on the basis of just five minutes spent observing the way the couple interact with each other.

As a result of studying couples having a row, the Gottmans came to the conclusion that happy relationships don’t have any less conflict or tension in them than miserable relationships. What lasting and stable relationships do demonstrate, they say, is the ability to repair themselves before the rows get out of hand.

Many relationship counsellors would probably agree with this from our own anecdotal evidence. It is not the fact that you argue that is important; it is how you row, how you end your rows and how you make up afterwards that counts.

Be positive

Research seems to show that making appreciative and positive comments about your partner during an argument; not dragging in the 'kitchen sink' of every little thing they have done wrong in the past, and using a certain humour and lightness to bring the row to a gracious conclusion, are all signs of mature couple behaviour that predict a long future together.

But let's be clear that there’s nothing wrong with arguments, dissent and disagreement per se. So why is it that domestic arguments cause such anguish, fear and pain, while we relish passionate and public displays of difference of opinion, like at Prime Minister's Question Time? Why do couples perceive rows as such a threat to their private happiness?

I guess an obvious reason is that the more we love someone and invest in loving them, the less we want to experience the shock and embarrassment of disagreement. At the beginning of a serious relationship we are "loved up" and so full of what we think are our shared hopes and dreams that the first big bust up can be hard to get over. In the eyes of many, a "soul mate" is someone who knows us deeply and knows what we want and need, as if by magic.

Not everyone feels like this. Some individuals and some cultures are much more comfortable with dissent than others. Indeed, heated dispute is seen as a way of showing you care and to try to avoid an argument is seen as not caring. This may be why, at Relate, we often see couples who have come to us at an impasse caused by cultural difference. They simply can’t understand their partner's way of expressing opinions and emotion.

Often, a conflict-avoiding person, who can't stand the idea of raising their voice in anger, will be attracted to a more emotionally expressive individual who is not afraid of conflict. The attraction can be mutual and developmental for each person: the conflict-avoider learns that it is safe to express difference inside a loving relationship and the expressive person learns to take a step backwards and manage their emotions.

However, this developmental leap for each partner is a hard lesson to learn. As relationship counsellors, we can sit with emotionally mismatched couples for weeks and months as we patiently try to decode each person to their partner. It is all too easy for couples to stay in a despairing or blaming place where they fear that their partner will never understand them.

Stay curious

As a counsellor I find myself often explaining to couples that need to rediscover their curiosity and start asking questions again. At the beginning of a new relationship you want to know everything about your partner, you are hungry to learn more about this fascinating person. But as relationships get longer, we get lazy and stop trying to understand. We fall into ruts and routines, including habitual arguments which make us scream with frustration.

People often talk about "showing empathy" towards others as if it were an easy thing to do. In actual fact, it is incredibly hard to be truly empathic, to suspend those inner voices of judgment and blame, and to see the world through another person's eyes. It takes a lot more intellectual effort to ask questions of our partner that deepen our knowledge and understanding, but the rewards are huge.

Instead of wasting our time going round and round the hamster wheel of blame and rowing, we could be choosing to have an entirely different conversation which may bring forth new and surprising information about our beloved. But how do we develop these new powers of communication?

I can suggest a few ideas: if you are having a row, suggest that you and your partner sit down. The act of taking a moment and changing your physical posture will make a difference to the argument. Secondly, decide to carry on your argument in whispers instead of raised voices. This is another 'difference that makes a difference' which will make you more mindful of what you say and do during a row. Thirdly, take a breather or tea break after 15 minutes of squabbling. When you come back to the table afterwards you will have regained some calmness and perspective on the situation.

Perhaps the best advice I have ever heard is to save your passion and intensity for the injustices of the world, rather than squander it on the 'small stuff' of trivial annoyances.

Relate's arguments check-up quiz may help with further insights and have a look at our fun video on how to argue better below.

Barbara Bloomfield is a Relate Counsellor and Counselling Supervisor whose book, 'Couple Therapy: Dramas of Love and Sex' is the world's first graphic novel about couples counselling. To find out more about Relate’s services, visit their website.

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