Arguments are couples’ biggest complaint. Whether the problems are money, sex, jealousy, in-laws, need for more time together, complaints over being “smothered,” or any of a number of other issues, couples almost always present in counseling initially with complaints about arguments.




Couples fight for a number of different ostensible reasons. Yet it’s amazing how often partners, often with a surprised or embarrassed expression, will note how the argument started “over nothing.” These fights can be bitter, brief, frequent, or spread widely over months and even years. They often leave both combatants reeling from the sense of estrangement, and hopeless that the other partner will ever understand their point of view.




Every couples’ fight originates in a deeply felt, if barely conscious, feeling of anxiety. One partner’s defenses against their anxiety conflict with their partner’s own special set of anxieties and defenses, and this creates the argument, which can be conceptualized as a kind of feedback loop.




Couples need to learn to talk the special language of their emotional needs, fears, and anxieties. Moreover, they need to understand how their characteristic ways of defending themselves against anxiety states helps perpetuate the problem.




A Typical Couple




Let us imagine a somewhat typical couple, Terri and Jack. Jack’s relational anxieties center around loss of identity. His father married early, and the marriage was unhappy. He tried to be a good husband and father, but his bitterness over the loss of his dreams, as he worked two jobs to make ends meet, was transferred to his son in the form of a fear of choosing a relationship that would entrap him, the way his father felt entrapped.




Terri’s family divorced when she was twelve. She was the apple of her father’s eye, until the divorce. Afterward her life changed totally. Her father moved to another city, remarried, and had other children. Terri’s mother had to work longer hours, and commute farther for work. Terri found herself more and more alone. She turned to friends, but her sense of rejection by her parents impacted her self-esteem. Later, she had trouble dating, feeling she was not worthy of someone’s love.




Nevertheless, Terri and Jack were very attracted to one another. Their first months together were fantastic. But after a while, and despite the fact they cared for each other very much, more and more often their time together degenerated into fruitless and frustrating arguments. Terri wanted to spend more time together. She tried to not bring it up, because she knew Jack didn’t like it, but she worried he would dump her. Yet, against her own will, seemingly, she started to raise the issue more and more. But when she brought it up, Jack only seemed to become more distant.




For Jack, Terri’s need for more of his time felt like greater commitment. He was unaware of the underlying reasons for this, but it felt very real and threatening. He started to make more and more excuses to beg off seeing Terri. In his mind, Terri was starting to be too “needy,” even though he felt guilty not seeing her. But he could see no other way than to distance himself to feel safe from getting “too involved,” trapped in a relationship that wouldn’t work out. To make matters worse, their arguments accelerated the sense of desperation and fear for both Terri and Jack.




What Can Be Done?




Many therapists would tell Terri to find more friends, or do things that enhance her sense of self-esteem, and they would tell Jack to confront his “fear of commitment.” Such therapists may or may not be right, but such advice makes both Terri and Jack feel like they are doing something wrong, and it doesn’t help lower the frequency of their arguments at all. The advice fails to address the reasons for their behaviors, and the personal sense of necessity that accompanies their defensive postures.




What’s needed is a conversation between Terri and Jack where each describes the fears they have, and identify the interlocking issues that make up the conflict — Terri’s fear of abandonment and Jack’s fear of loss of self-autonomy — so they can understand why they are arguing. Jack needs to understand how his distancing increases Terri’s fear about losing him. Terri needs to understand how her pursuit of Jack’s time increases his fears of becoming over-committed like his father, and imagining he might ruin his life.




When the conversation is non-judgmental and respectful of the other’s feelings, anxieties and fears, you don’t have an argument anymore, but a deeply felt sharing of real problems. From such a respectful conversation comes the possibility of finding a path that works for both Terri and Jack.






About the Author:




Jeffrey S. Kaye, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in San Francisco, California. He has been working with couples and individuals for over 15 years.
More information about his practice can be found at http://drjeffkaye.com . The website includes special information about anxiety, relationships, shyness, adult development, and even has a self-test for depression.




Read more about how relationships really work at my website, http://drjeffkaye.com/relationships.htm .