What Do Couples Really Fight About?

What Do Couples Really Fight About?

Ongoing conflicts in a relationship signal a need for attention and action. The intensity and frequency of the fights couples have informs the overall health of their relationship and how satisfied they feel in it. This is not to say that we should leap to end a relationship at the first sign of an obstacle, either. Conflicts happen, but how we choose to address them (or not address them) is important. Healthy conflict navigation deepens emotional connection and strengthens the relationship bond. By expressing our vulnerable selves to our partners, we are letting them know that we want to address the disconnect because we care.

In my clinical experience, I’ve frequently found that while the specific topics couples fight over may change, the root of their conflicts is often buried beneath the more outward presenting problems. In the early stages of a relationship, some couples dismiss or minimize issues because of their greater desire to make things work. Others confront their problems but continue to go in circles, repeatedly dealing with the same frustrations. As a result, a once manageable and seemingly minor issue can turn into a larger ongoing problem. This happens when we don’t know what we’re truly fighting about.

On the surface, couples fight about what appear to be endless issues or the same few revolving issues or no specific issues at all. With some deeper digging, these problems eventually boil down to unmet emotional needs that keep resurfacing (the need to feel attached, heard, liked, accepted, competent, respected, appreciated, etc.). Over time, these unmet needs generate negative feelings that lead to greater and more frequent conflicts. While every human has emotional needs, we don’t all prioritize them in the same way. We’re also not equally pained when they’re unfulfilled. These needs stem from our early childhood experiences and are unlikely to change. They are very personal to us. Without identifying and communicating what those underlying needs are and why they are relevant, couples continue falling into the same patterns of conflict and frustration. 

When you find yourself experiencing a negative emotional response to your partner and before engaging in another fight, take a step back and consider the following:

  1. Process your response. What does it tell you about your emotional needs? This requires us to slow down and tune into ourselves. Our initial response is often anger or frustration. If we act on those emotions alone they can lead to escalation and further disconnect. Exploring the primary emotions driving the anger such as fear, disappointment, sadness, insecurity, shame, and rejection will help you better understand yourself and your needs.
  2. Identify the need and why it matters to you. Think back to your upbringing and significant past relationships. When have you experienced a similar emotional response?
  3. Communicate it to your partner. Open dialogue around these intimate and vulnerable parts of ourselves brings us closer to our partners and reinforces our bond. By allowing your partner to learn those parts of you, you are giving them a chance to respond to your authentic needs and share theirs. 

Noha Phillips, MSW, LMSW provides couple and individual therapy in our downtown Bethesda, MD office and virtually to those located in the State of Maryland. Call or email today to set up your first appointment or a complimentary consultation with Noha!