What Keeps Marital Fights Going?
by Dr. Jay Lindsay
Do you and your partner have the same fights over and over again? All couples do, some more than others.
In a previous article, I discussed what repetitive fights are really about.
I pointed out that recurring arguments are seldom about the issues being fought over. Instead, they are usually about the anxiety couples experience when these fights erode their closeness.
In this article, I will discuss what it is that maintains recurring arguments, that keeps them coming back.
I had been working with Bill and Barb for six sessions and together we had greatly reduced the intensity and frequency of their arguments, many of which they initially had said were about Bill not completing home improvement projects.
What had helped them the most was coming to understand that these repetitive fights were not really about the projects that went unfinished. Instead, they were about the anxiety they both felt about the loss of closeness and the increased distance in their relationship.
Each had begun to fear that the other could not be counted on in times of need. Helping Bill and Barb express this fear and give reassurance that they were really there for each other provided them with great relief. As a result, their repetitive fights had decreased considerably.
Now it was time for me to help them to further reduce the intensity and frequency of their recurring fights by helping them understand what it was that had been maintaining them, causing them to happen over and over again.
I knew that once they understood this, they’d be better able to nip a fight in the bud when it was just beginning.
Insight: Repetitive marital fights are almost always maintained by negative behavioral cycles that are driven by underlying emotions.
In these behavioral cycles, each partner unwittingly cues the other. For example, the more one criticizes, the more the other withdraws. And the more the other withdraws, the more the first one criticizes. Around and around it goes.
This is a criticize-withdraw cycle. It’s just one of a number of kinds of cycles that couples get trapped in.
A negative behavioral cycle is like a whirlpool that spins around, sucks a couple in, and pulls them down and under!
So here’s how I assist a couple in stopping repetitive fights:
I help them to identify their negative cycle and then to identify and process the underlying emotions that are driving it.
Then they can avoid their negative cycle or, if they do enter it, they can catch it early and exit it. That way, they are able to avoid slipping back into the same old fights.
Tip: Try to identify the negative behavioral cycle in your repetitive fights.
In Bill and Barb’s case, the negative behavioral cycle went like this:
The more she demanded that he get the home improvement projects done, the more he resisted. And the more he resisted, the more she demanded.
It was a classic demand-resist cycle. Without realizing it, Bill and Barb had been triggering each other’s problem behaviors.
Tip: Try to identify and process the underlying emotions that are driving the negative behavioral cycle in your repetitive fights.
By underlying emotions, I mean the “softer” emotions beneath the anger. These can include hurt, sadness, a fear of being controlled, or a fear of being abandoned, to name but a few.
Under her anger, Barb felt dismissed, “blown off.” It seemed to her that her needs didn’t matter to Bill. She felt unimportant to him.
Under his anger, Bill felt overwhelmed by Barb’s intensity. He also felt unappreciated for the things he did do around the house that Barb didn’t seem to notice. He feared that he would never be able to do enough to please her, so why try?
In assisting Bill and Barb, I first helped them identify their negative cycle.
Then, I helped them to identify and process their underlying emotions, that is, to talk about them in a way that elicited from each other a compassionate response. The effect was that their cycle lost much of its charge.
Through our work together, Bill and Barb learned how to avoid entering their negative cycle. Those rare times when they would enter it, they were able to recognize this and nip the cycle in the bud before it took over.
Instead of fighting about the same issues over and over, they were able to talk about their underlying emotions and support each other. The result was that Bill and Barb deepened their emotional connectedness. They got closer and stayed closer.
Notice that in the two tips above, I recommended that you try to identify your negative cycle and try to identify and process the underlying emotions that are driving it.
In reality, succeeding at this can be very difficult. It’s a little like being lost in a forest so dense that you can’t find your way out. That’s where a little marital therapy can go a long way!
A good marital therapist is like an eagle soaring above the forest. He can clearly see where you and your partner are. He knows how to swoop in and guide you out of the forest to safety.
As I said above, all couples get caught up in repetitive fights. If yours are taking a toll on your closeness, don’t let it get any worse. Seek help from a marital therapist!
If your marital happiness is being diminished by repetitive fights, I can help. As a marital therapist who has been practicing for over 30 years, I’ve helped thousands of couples get their repetitive fighting under control.
Call me now at (720) 307-5635 and schedule an appointment.
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Master couples therapist and psychologist Dr. Jay Lindsay utilizes Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy (EFT), one of the most researched and effective approaches to marital therapy. Based in Louisville, Colorado, Dr. Lindsay is a marriage counselor who is sought after by couples from all across the country.