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Constantly Arguing in a Relationship? Here’s How to Stop.

Constantly Arguing in a Relationship? Here’s How to Stop.

Seth Bender, M.A., LMFTC is a marriage counselor, therapist, and life coach with Growing Self Counseling and Coaching. He helps people create deeper relationships, heal from difficult life experiences and increase their self-confidence. His warm, non-judgmental approach makes it safe to discover new things about yourself, and take positive action to change your life.

How to Break a Negative Relationship Cycle, and Fix Your Marriage

Do you find yourself stuck in the same types of relationship arguments over and over again with your partner? Or like there is constant arguing in your relationship? Do you feel like you’re always making up after a fight? Does it feel like no matter what you do or say, your disagreements with your significant other never get resolved?

If you answered yes to any these questions, don’t worry, you’re not the only one! As a marriage counselor and couples therapist (as well as a married dad) I know that all couples have interactional cycles that get triggered by what partners say and do, and all couples have disagreements from time to time. But when you’re focusing on the wrong things, arguments are never resolved so they keep coming up over and over again. If that’s happening in your relationship, it’s likely that you’re stuck in a negative relationship cycle. Learning how to identify and communicate about primary emotions can help you break free.

Why Couples Get Stuck in Conflict

What usually happens when couples try to work through things after a fight is that discussions around disagreements usually only
center on the topic of the disagreement, or the behavior and anger surrounding it. That is the only the tip of the iceberg, though — the true emotions and needs often lie beneath the surface and rarely get discussed, and that’s why the negative cycles are so hard to break out of! One of the most well-researched, evidence-based approaches in couples counseling is called Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy (the type of marriage counseling that I specialize in). This form of marriage counseling centers around helping couples be able to communicate the deeper issues and primary emotions so that they break negative cycles and build better connection and safety.

What is a Primary Emotion?

Here’s a hint; a primary emotion is not anger or frustration! Those two emotions, while very real, are
often secondary emotions, which are reflections, or by-products, of a deeper emotion beneath the surface.

Primary emotions, on the other hand, usually center around softer feelings – fear, vulnerability, pain, love, and other,
deeper needs. These softer emotions often are based on our needs for emotional safety, connection, and wanting to feel loved and respected by our partners. But when these needs go unmet in our relationships it can lead to anger and negative behaviors that push couples away from each other and destroy trust.

Often in arguments, however, usually anger and frustration are the only emotions that are communicated and talked about afterward, and primary feelings are not recognized or addressed. This leaves the true core issue unresolved, and ripe for another conflict. This dynamic leads to repetitive arguing, and makes couples wonder why they keep having the same fights over and over again. To change the cycle, couples need to learn to access and communicate primary emotions safely. [More information about practicing emotionally “safe” communication here: How to Communicate With Someone Who Shuts Down]

Tapping in to Primary Emotions

Notice How You’re Feeling: One way to start accessing the softer primary emotions is to pay attention to what you’re feeling  – where is the emotion showing up in your body? Emotion always manifests itself somehow in our body, whether through muscle tension, quickened heartbeat, stomach discomfort, or any other bodily reaction you might think of.

Secondary emotions are easier to access – anger in the body can often be accessed before or after is triggered, but primary emotions such as fear or pain will likely manifest some other way. Try to become more aware of your body when you become emotional and begin to match different bodily reactions to different emotions – you’ll notice the difference faster than you think.

Practice Naming Your Feelings: Some people have an easier time accessing primary emotions in the body, but have a more difficult time assigning a name to the primary emotion. This can be especially true for men (but many women can struggle with this too). [For more on this topic check out my “Understnding Men” podcast.] An emotion wheel, or “feelings wheel” (available readily online,) can help put a name to an emotion than a general “fear” or “pain” that may not accurately describe what you are feeling in that moment.

Remember, if you can access and name your primary emotions, then you are taking the first step in communicating those emotions that can help break a negative cycle. [Learn more about how being in touch with your feelings can help you improve your communication in, “Empathy: The Key to Communication and Connection”]

Communicating Your Real Feelings

Get Support: Learning how to communicate primary emotions safely usually should be done with the support of a couples counselor or relationship coach, as many people can find this surprisingly challenging, especially in the beginning. A marriage counselor who is trained in Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy will have the most skill and experience in helping couples get in touch with their feelings, and communicate them in a productive way to their partner.

Create Safety: Communicating primary emotions in a way that is safe for the sharer and listener can feel challenging, especially in cases where couples have had bad experiences when expressing their authentic feelings. However, this type of couples counseling can lead to more effective, longer lasting relationship repair than types of marriage counseling that feel like more of a “band-aid” than a healing process.

Avoid Blame: Someone with a history of not feeling safe expressing emotion will need assurance and trust that they will not be hurt doing so, and that can be difficult to find. Sharing primary emotions in a safe way requires the sharer to own their emotions and share them in a way that is not blaming to the listener.

Focus on Listening: Accepting primary emotions requires the listener to not judge or try to “fix” the pain that sharer is revealing, only to listen, accept the emotion for what it is, and validate the sharer. It sounds easy to do, but it is not, which is why couples counseling or coaching is highly recommended to learn how to and practice communication in a way that provides safety for both the sharer and listener.

Why Change The Way You Communicate in Your Relationship?

Yes, learning how to communicate differently can be challenging but the benefits of safely communicating primary emotions and needs can be relationship-changing. All people need connection and attachment, and couples often feel more connected and trusting after communicating fear and hurt rather than anger. Feeling safer with communication will often also reduce triggering behaviors such as withdrawing/stonewalling, criticism, defensiveness, and trying to “fix” problems, and reducing the frequency of those will also being a couple closer together!

More to the point, learning to communicate softer primary emotions will help break negative interactional cycles – you’re no longer just communicating anger and going around in circles; you’re getting to the root of your anger and frustration, and trusting your partner to hear your authentic feelings. What could bring a couple closer than knowing they can talk about their deepest feelings, and knowing that they will be validated and accepted?

Those deep feelings and primary emotions are already part of all of your arguments, whether or not you’re currently aware of them or talking about them. When you learn how to communicate them directly, you’ll see your relationship change in ways you might not imagine, replacing resentment and anger with understanding, trust, and connection.

I hope this relationship advice helps you stop fighting, start understanding, and find your way back together again.

Seth Bender, M.A., LMFTC

What You Only Learn About Yourself During Relationship Fights.

What You Only Learn About Yourself During Relationship Fights.

Have you been arguing with your partner lately?

If so, here’s a new way of thinking about conflict that can help you improve your relationship… and grow as a person.

As a marriage counselor and relationship coach who’s worked with many arguing couples over the years, I know that most people absolutely hate conflict. That is understandable. Arguments can be uncomfortable, stressful, and even hurtful. If conflict in relationships is not handled well, it can also be very destructive. I get it — I prefer to avoid conflict in my own life too. If there’s an opportunity for reconciliation and compromise, that is always my first choice.

And yet, over the years, both personally and professionally, I have come to be grudgingly respectful of conflict and the unique growth opportunities conflict offers. We all have disagreements — with our partners, our friends and our family. Sometimes these can be resolved peacefully. Sometimes they can’t. As awful as it can be when open conflict erupts in a relationship, it can also be a powerful mirror reflecting back blind spots you might never otherwise see. (Unless you have a relationship with a great coach or counselor who’s strong enough to call you on your stuff — but that’s a luxury many people never get the chance to have).

“Productive conflict” as I like to think of it, has potential that civilized, polite interactions just don’t: It holds enormous transformational energy. (Not unlike a bomb.) Conflict certainly has the potential to destroy things and make a mess. And, productive conflict can also break things open. It can reconfigure the emotional landscape of a relationship in a positive and necessary way. It can even tear down something that needed to be destroyed in order to make space for something new.

Creation and destruction often go hand in hand. And whether or not a fight leads to transformation or tragedy in you life, it always creates a new opportunity for reflection and self awareness. I routinely teach people about how to manage conflict as productively as possible (through private marriage counseling, premarital counseling, my podcasts, and through our relationship classes). But I’m here today to teach you something new: How to use conflict as a tool for self awareness and personal growth.

Here are just a few things that you really only learn about yourself during an argument:

1. How you instinctively respond to fear and pain. Do you lash out, and seek to inflict damage with your words or actions? Or do you withdraw, retreating behind the facade of a dismissive, rejecting ice-queen? Or do you become patronizing and passively-aggressive in order to take your power back? No one is judging — it’s not easy for any of us behave well when we’re really upset. But observing yourself in conflict allows you to understand your patterns, and how you try to protect yourself when you are hurt or afraid. This self awareness can allow you to intentionally grind away some of your sharpest corners, and make different choices in the future.

2. What your unhealed wounds are. Why do we get into fights in the first place? Because someone we’re in a relationship with intentionally or (more often the case) unintentionally jabbed us in a raw, vulnerable spot that triggered our anxieties or insecurities. When are you most likely to go bananas? Is it when you feel rejected? Disrespected? Unloved? Disregarded? Whatever your trigger is, chances are that its fuse is connected to some of your earliest relational wounds. Observing your own reactivity gives you insight into your “unfinished business” with the past, and a really great opportunity to deal with your old baggage once and for all.

3. The unpleasant truth about yourself. I believe that most people are really kind. They care about you. They don’t want to hurt you. And they almost always turn a blind eye to your flaws in favor of maintaining a relationship with the best parts of you. But during a conflict (when the civilized, rational part of our brain goes offline) the brutally honest, and oftentimes unpleasant truth finally gets a voice. For example, over the course of my own twenty-plus year marriage, it’s only been when my husband is feeling extremely upset with me that I get direct feedback about how my actions are hurting him. Hard as that was to hear, it was also necessary because it allowed me to make changes that I wouldn’t have otherwise.

We all judge ourselves by our intentions. It can be hard to take in how we are experienced by others, particularly if their perceptions of us are in conflict with the more favorable, more comfortable way we like to think about ourselves. And yet, when we take feedback to heart, and see ourselves through the eyes of others, we have a growth opportunity. A chance to do better, be better, and grow into a more loving, responsive partners.

4. Our capacity for compassion, tolerance, humility, and love is revealed… and strengthened. In every “productive conflict,” or argument that ends well, there is a turning point. A moment of selflessness when at least one person can stop fighting for their voice to be heard, their perspective to be accepted, and their demands to be met…. and instead turn their attention to the pain, feelings, and needs of their partner.

In this moment of grace, when one partner feels empathy and compassion for the other, conflict ends. It’s replaced with what I believe is the purest form of love: Respect for the needs, rights and feelings of someone else, even if you don’t understand or agree with them.

In this empathetic selflessness, connection is re-established. Relationships are healed. And, best yet, YOU get to expand and evolve, growing in your capacity for compassion, tolerance, generosity and love.

Will your accepting all these hidden gifts of conflict make your relationship better? Certainly. Will doing the work I described above make you a more mature and loving partner? For sure.

But the real winner here isn’t your relationship, or even your partner. It’s you.

Every battle with your partner is a battle with yourself. A war between the parts of you that are vindictive, selfish, angry, and fearful…. and the parts of you that are self-aware, emotionally mature, unconditionally loving, generous and compassionate.

When you use the opportunity of conflict to strengthen the very the best parts of yourself, both you and your relationships will “win” every time.

I sincerely hope that these thoughts stay with you the next time you have a tense moment with someone you love.

xoxo, Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby

Growing Self Counseling & Coaching
Growing Self
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