May 23, 2014 10:08 AM   Subscribe

I'm trying to learn more about the phenomenon of meta-fighting between romantic partners. I don't know if there's a better term for it, but what I mean is when a heated dispute becomes less about the original subject matter, and more about the way in which the current dispute is being conducted. For example, you might criticize me for fighting dirty: using a sharper tone than necessary, being mean, reopening old wounds, trying to change the subject, etc. Are there any psychology or self-help books that deal a lot with the dynamics of fighting/arguing/bickering that might discuss this phenomenon in particular? (Bonus for examples of this in movies or books.)
posted by Beardman to Human Relations (22 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
Hmm, I think almost all fights between romantic partners are about something other than the surface points of contention. I think the book Getting the Love You Want by Hendrix has a good explanation of a "power struggle" within a relationship.
posted by Asparagus at 10:13 AM on May 23, 2014 [2 favorites]

I vaguely remember some of this being covered in the Gottman seminar I attended. So you might start here:
posted by Jacqueline at 10:23 AM on May 23, 2014 [2 favorites]

Mil Millington addressed this, as well as much much more, in his epic blog post Things My Girlfriend and I Have Argued About:
Arguments. There are many arguments we have over arguments. 'Who started argument x', for example, is a old favourite that has not had its vigour dimmed by age nor its edge blunted through use. Another dependable companion is, 'I'm not arguing, I'm just talking - you're arguing,' along with its more stage-struck (in the sense that it relishes an audience - parties, visiting relatives, Parent's Evenings at school, in shops, etc.) sibling, 'Right, so we're going to get into this argument here are we?' An especially frequent argument argument, however, is the result of Margret NOT STICKING TO THE DAMN ARGUMENT, FOR CHRIST'S SAKE. Margret jack-knifes from argument to argument, jigs direction randomly and erratically like a shoal of Argument Fish being followed by a Truth Shark. It's fearsomely difficult to land a blow because by the time you've let fly with the logic she's not there anymore. A row about vacuuming gets shifted to the cost of a computer upgrade, from there to who got up early with the kids most this week and then to the greater interest rates of German banks via the noisome sexual keenness of some former girlfriend, those-are-hair-scissors-don't-use-them-for-paper and, 'When was the last time you bought me flowers?' all in the space of about seven exchanges. 'Arrrrrrgggh! What are we arguing about? Can you just decide what it is and stick to it?'
posted by Diablevert at 10:24 AM on May 23, 2014 [8 favorites]

You are looking for Logical Fallacies, I think. Warning: every time I try to point out logical fallacies in arguments, it makes things worse.
posted by jeffamaphone at 10:27 AM on May 23, 2014 [8 favorites]

Sounds like bad arguing and deflection to me.

Conversely you want to learn how to fight fair.

Basically it boils down to defensiveness and ego, which you can google. People get defensive and attack or deflect. They're defensive because they hurt inside or don't want to admit you have a point.

One other comment about meta-fighting: you're in a mind-fuck of a meta-fight if it starts to become about how the other person thinks instead of the topic at hand. It's not enough to say "ok, we can go for sushi dinner tonight like you want"; the other person has to have you know that sushi is superior to [whatever]. I remember reading a post from the poor chap who dated Lori Gottlieb and how she would harp on him until he ultimately capitulated into her way of thinking. If that's how the fight goes (from your side or theirs) its time to take serious stock of things.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 10:28 AM on May 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

I experience this way more with my mom, although I have certainly experienced it with past partners. I file it under defensiveness and passive aggressivity.
posted by Madamina at 10:29 AM on May 23, 2014

For assistance in Googling, these things are logical/argumentative fallacies. Particularly, ad hominem attacks. Here's the TV Tropes page on that.

On preview - what jeffamaphone said.
posted by melissasaurus at 10:30 AM on May 23, 2014

I'm not sure that logical fallacies are really the answer, here. If couple fights were largely about, like, factual things or finding some kind of truth, or went like

"You didn't take out the trash, and you said you would. That's annoying."

"I did too."

"No you didn't."


Then maybe we'd be talking about defensiveness or ad hominem attacks.

But I think it's far more complicated than that, and that arguments in a relationship often have layers and are more about emotions and intimacy than reaching some kind of truth, and that sometimes it's useful and good to say something like "OMG I can't believe you're bringing this up again, we've already covered this issue before, and I thought we decided..." and sometimes saying that same thing is absolutely deflecting or not dealing with the issue at hand.

I look forward to seeing if anybody else has resources on this, for sure, because it's such a messy issue. Someone out there has to have thought about this more usefully than I have.
posted by hought20 at 10:42 AM on May 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

You are looking for Logical Fallacies, I think. Warning: every time I try to point out logical fallacies in arguments, it makes things worse.

Most relationship arguments aren't about logic, or even the thing being argued about. Meta-arguments about the argument (tone etc.) are likely a flailing way to say something else entirely.

I think most relationship advice books, and relationship counseling etc., include information on how to argue constructively.
posted by jsturgill at 10:44 AM on May 23, 2014

Response by poster: Thanks so far! Yes, to clarify one thing: while I see why people are mentioning logical fallacies (i.e. I mentioned not knowing if there was a name for various ways of fighting dirty, and lots of those are named fallacies), I'm specifically interested in the emotional dynamics between romantic partners in these self-devouring arguments. For example, any writing about the kind of fight that becomes so meta- that the parties can't even remember what they're fighting about...
posted by Beardman at 10:46 AM on May 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

I think the reason fights often go in this direction is because it's not an either/or. It's not that this dispute must be about this particular thing which spurred it on, OR the other bigger issue that it's supposedly a mask for. Often the smaller or particular issue can only be addressed or understood in the context of a larger pattern or issue and that's why those quickly get brought into the picture.
posted by Blitz at 11:08 AM on May 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

This book: Do I Have to Give Up Me to Be Loved by You? has some good scenarios of this happening.
posted by dawkins_7 at 11:14 AM on May 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

Yeah, read John Gottman's The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work: A Practical Guide from the Country's Foremost Relationship Expert. It's not just about "marriage" but all longterm relationships. He researched couples fighting for many years and looked at the content and their physiological responses. He specifically talks about conflict styles generally, and how to change them. One of the big insights I took away is that men tend to be more physically overwhelmed/"flooded" by relational conflict and it takes them longer to emotionally/physically calm down afterwards. So men tend to not want to talk about sensitive/volatile issues, and are less likely to respond if the women brings them up, which he terms "stonewalling." I had no idea that this dynamic had a biological substrate to it. Here's a pretty good summary of his book. I also would recommend Sue Johnson's Hold Me Tight, which blends an understanding of attachment styles (the kind of relationship we had with our parents) with how we act when stressed in relationships. The goal is for partners to learn how to be there for each other in way that help each to feel safe, and how to read each others attachment needs and respond in a way that helps the other person feel connected with. Here's a article she wrote for PsychologyToday summarizing the main ideas from her book.
posted by amileighs at 11:14 AM on May 23, 2014 [4 favorites]

This is kind of tangential but I think that the ask vs. guess divide mentioned constantly on Metafilter and elsewhere is at the root of at least some instances of what you're talking about.

For example a marital argument might start when partner A asks partner B if he could make her a sandwich. If A is an ask person and B is a guess person you could have an argument where B angrily points out that he is in the middle of xyz important thing and why are you putting a burden on him? A is annoyed because she was just making a request and if B was busy he should have just said no and left it at that. B is annoyed because of his perception that A doesn't care enough to notice he is busy and instead adds stress by making demands.

They're not arguing about the sandwich; the "metafight" is about their mutual expectations of one another. Any solution to the argument is going to have to come from mutual recognition of that and ideally a better understanding/compromise about what those mutual expectations are.
posted by Wretch729 at 11:15 AM on May 23, 2014

Most of the worst arguments I can remember having with my ex were over shit like the following:

-Whether Elyse Sewell from America's Next Top Model was a good writer
-Whether Penn and Teller were full of shit or not
-What constitutes "a hamburger joint" as opposed to a restaurant which happens to sell hamburgers

I think that the reason we fought over things like this was because we were both pretty inexperienced and scared of bringing up any of the things that were actually causing tension in our relationship, and so rather than acknowledge them in any way, we'd get our fighting done during an argument so pointless and stupid it couldn't POSSIBLY reflect upon our relationship.
posted by showbiz_liz at 11:19 AM on May 23, 2014 [3 favorites]

This is a comedy piece, but Dave Barry addressed it directly:

How To Argue Like A Veteran Married Couple (excerpted from this book)
posted by Mchelly at 11:30 AM on May 23, 2014

In special education we call these conflict spirals, or fighting about fighting.

A quick Amazon search found quite a few books:

The Conflict Management Skills Workbook;
Conflict Management;
Talk to Me Like I'm Someone You Love.

Looking up relationships and conflict brought over 35,000 hits.
posted by kinetic at 11:46 AM on May 23, 2014

I'm not sure what the term is for this, but it's something that couples therapists work on a lot, sometimes with video-assisted reviews of conversations. This can help couples understand how they are pushing each others buttons --- intentionally, unintentionally, or partially intentionally --- and modify their behavior so as not to do so.
posted by alms at 11:55 AM on May 23, 2014

This is a previous AskMe comment that your question made me think of.
posted by Night_owl at 1:30 PM on May 23, 2014 [2 favorites]

My boyfriend and I have this issue a lot when we get in arguments. One time he actually said that he remembered being so fired up during a fight, but the next day he could not even remember what it was originally about.

One thing I've noticed during these fights is that sometimes I had other issues that was bothering me but wasn't addressed earlier, so when a similar situation occurred, I saw it as a chance to resolve the previous issue as well. Not very healthy, and it just spirals from there. I try to talk about things as they come up now, or decide to let it go for good. Bringing up another issue during a fight just opens up the door for more shit.

Another cause of this for us is that we have different "fighting styles". I tend to shut down and process everything slowly, and can take some time before I'm ready to articulate myself. He's more impatient and tends to snap, and gets even more frustrated when I don't respond (because I'm processing the information to figure out the right way to respond). I hate when he snaps at me. This contributed to a lot of the anger towards how he/I reacted. We ended up having a talk about the ways we fight when we're not fighting, and what we need from each other when we're in fights. It's a process, but for us, he's working on being more patient and I'm working on not shutting down. It helps a lot just to be aware of the issue.
posted by monologish at 1:32 PM on May 23, 2014

In addition to the excellent points above made by other posters, I have noticed some couples do this when they really have nothing positive in common holding them together, and the only emotional bond in the "boring" relationship (now that the newness has worn off) comes from the energies forged in fighting, and possibly makeup sex. Additionally, some such relationships only keep chugging along due to the ongoing drama that comes from dragging friends and family in as unwilling spectators (maybe it helps the couple feel it is "us against the world"). Sometimes it is simply because two perfectly nice people are mismatched, and sometimes it is just one facet of a relationship that is abusive.

The way I have seen this play out psychologically speaking, is that during an argument about something serious, the fearful or passive or not-bored partner A will agree to whatever demands are made by partner B - to get partner B to stop screaming at them, or calm down, or cheer up. Partner B, annoyed because the exciting blowout has been thwarted, and really wanting to inject some thrill into the relationship (or get an ego-boosting sense of dominance if there is abuse going on), will just nitpick about anything hoping one of the points will stick and A will get defensive enough to spark fresh drama. Eventually A gets so worn down by the nitpicking that A explodes with a litany of all the ways B gets on their nerves... And so the original argument devolves into seemingly petty foolishness.

I don't have any examples from books or movies but I have seen it in the relationships of some of my friends, and in my parents marriage. I am not saying this is the emotional dynamic at work in most meta-fights, just that it is what I have observed in my own social circle.
posted by partly squamous and partly rugose at 2:44 PM on May 23, 2014 [2 favorites]

I think there is some value in meta-fighting, when it's approached mindfully. Recognising patterns (like Ask vs Guess, silent vs talk it out, shouting vs not-shouting) is vital to being about to continue actually addressing problems. It does require both partners to step back and work out their needs, but 'you always give me the silent treatment' is a meta-fighty thing that can be addressed in a meaningful way, or in a 'that's because you're not worth talking to you jerk' way.
posted by geek anachronism at 5:27 PM on May 23, 2014

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