Why Do We Argue?
October 27, 2021 3:07 AM   Subscribe

My husband and I love each other a ton and have a happy relationship, but we consistently seem to get in one argument a month. If we miss a month, we get into two arguments the next month! It feels like we almost "need" this. Why?

I'm interested in any resources (especially peer-reviewed research) you can point me to on why marital fights occur. Is it possible they serve as a pressure valve for ... I don't know ... too much monotonous love? Is there even any point for us to try to stop these arguments? Or is that a self-serving idea? I see a lot of information online about how to resolve conflicts in marriage, but not much on the mechanisms behind arguments.

Also, on a more personal/anecdotal level, I would also be interested in hearing more about other people's experiences in arguing with spouses or long-term partners. Do you fight regularly? How do you conceptualize these arguments, alone or together?

(I am not looking for advice on how not to argue, just new & different ways of understanding how arguments work in marriage. Our arguments can get emotional but don't involve any shouting, physicality, or cruelty, so I am not worried about my particular situation. I just want to understand it better.)
posted by artisthatithaca to Human Relations (24 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
It’s hard to answer this question without you sharing specific examples of some of your arguments. Can you share more? Is it about the same things, different things?
posted by pando11 at 3:31 AM on October 27, 2021 [1 favorite]

Do you fight regularly?


Occasionally one of us will get grumpy and say something hurtful, but we've both known each other long enough not to retaliate in kind, so these things generally resolve as negotiations rather than arguments, once the grumpy one has calmed down and re-opened the discussion on a more levelheaded basis with an apology for being awful. As well as knowing each other really well, we know ourselves well enough to recognize when we have been awful.

From my point of view, this relationship works on the basis that I'm incredibly grateful to have been chosen as a life partner by somebody willing to stick with somebody as annoying as me, so it seems only fair to return that courtesy. Plus, I love her madly and hurting her hurts me, so there's that too.
posted by flabdablet at 4:33 AM on October 27, 2021 [21 favorites]

This may, like, completely not apply to you depending on various factors, but:

I almost inevitably start or escalate some kind of argument with my fiancé some time in the leadup to my period. Like. Pretty much every single time. Some cycles the buildup is longer/worse than others, because my situation is pretty irregular, and I pick more than one fight or go back to the same fight twice while I'm still in Everything Is Bad mode. If you don't have ovaries/periods/do have them but no PMS/PMDD experiences or if the timing of these fights isn't cyclical at all, this doesn't apply to you at all, but. Just a data point, and I'm working on it, and getting more able to stop mid-escalation and go "hey I think I'm making this a fight because I'm hormonal, my grievance still applies but I think the hormones are making the feelings seem bigger and more urgent."
posted by some_kind_of_toaster at 4:49 AM on October 27, 2021 [15 favorites]

My spouse and I are both very stubborn, both only children, and he in particular is very used to getting his way. I am too, but more like the kind of person who lived alone by choice because I didn't like having roommates rather than the kind of person who will burn it all down to get what I want.

Anyhow, these factors don't mesh well for living with someone, so we tend to get into really trivial fights. Our core values line up and when we disagree about the important stuff we talk about it. It's the silly, living together things that we fight about.

We fought less when we were not holed up together for nearly two years because of the pandemic. We fight less when we have less outside stress. We're also very much each other's safe space, and people tend to act out in their safe space because you can let down your barriers. So when we're under outside stresses, it often manifests in a fight about my dirty clothes on the bedroom floor or him standing in the middle of the kitchen while I'm running around getting the baby ready for daycare.
posted by DoubleLune at 5:44 AM on October 27, 2021 [2 favorites]

I agree it would be helpful (and interesting!) to know what you're fighting about? Is it different versions of the same fight? Or the same "problem" arising in different situations? And what does fighting look like for you two? Are these yelling fights? Icy silent ones? Sarcastic and snip-snappy? Are both of you comfortable (I guess, do you feel safe and heard) during the fights? Do you resolve your issue or just get sick of fighting and drop it until the next time someone blows?

I think marital fights are rarely about the *content* of any given disagreement. Something legitimately problematic likely happened, but when you're jiving and lovey and on the same team I find those sorts of miscommunications are easy to resolve with a conversation. My impression is that lots of marital fights escalate for one of two reasons -

1) Bad habits. One or both of you didn't learn to disagree calmly and/or respectfully, you're not making an effort to listen/understand the other person even though/especially because they don't agree with you, you haven't had enough practice articulating your feelings so they sometimes come out in a big explosion, you don't have the self-control to take a break and calm yourself down so you say/do something hurtful. I actually really like the Gottman e-newsletter for this. It's an easy read and gives me the opportunity to think about how I'd like to act in my marriage (in good times and bad!) when I'm not in the middle of conflict.

2) An underlying issue that has not been resolved. I think this is often about some meaningful difference in core values and expectations, and everyone brings enough accumulated hurt to the conversation that it's just ... hard to keep it calm. I don't think it's realistic to expect that you can be fully aligned all the time, and I believe that navigating those differences is an ongoing part of any long-term relationship. Sometimes in the middle of things it feels overwhelming, but outside of active conflict I try to frame it as an opportunity to learn more about my partner and myself, and I try to hold gratitude for having a wonderful person with whom I have enough mutual love, care, and respect to keep working at it.

In my marriage, we do our best to approach conflict as a conversation, with care for and curiosity about each other. Sometimes when the emotional stakes are high that can be really tricky, and we need to take a break, or apologize for something and start fresh. Most of the time a solution is there if we stop obsessing over our own agendas and grievances and instead try to listen to and understand the other person - it is almost always the case that one or both of us is *missing a very import piece of information* - this could be an actual fact or just something we weren't aware of in the other person's, uh ... emotional landscape, I guess. If we understand why the other person did what they did or acted the way they acted, we often have more compassion and can move toward a compromise or apology or new plan of attack. Understanding takes the claws out of the conflict.

We have a couple of recurrent things that we tend to disagree about, although it almost never escalates to anything I would describe as a fight. But underlying those recurring disagreements, I believe, are a couple of fundamental differences in world view that I don't think we'll ever fully resolve. And that's okay! I expect some amount of ongoing conflict about those subjects ... forever. But it's important to me that my partner and I do our best to communicate calmly and respectfully about even those high-stakes differences. Sometimes just naming it in the moment can help ("wait, THIS is that fight we have, hold on, we're not going to get anywhere like this, let's calm down and circle back").

So I would sum it up as, 1) no, you are not required to fight, but 2) it is very realistic to expect ongoing conflict. If the fights bother you I think you can work together to change your habits in a way that will minimize *fighting* while still allowing you to discuss tricky things. One of the things I treasure about my marriage is how we handle conflict, but it's taken years to get here, and I expect that life will challenge those norms from time to time.
posted by zibra at 5:55 AM on October 27, 2021 [4 favorites]

Do you fight regularly? How do you conceptualize these arguments, alone or together?

No. I'm trying to remember the last time we had anything I'd characterize as a fight and it was seven years ago. It was part of an acute mental health crisis and nothing that would ever have happened otherwise. I conceptualize it as part of a larger experience that was upsetting and traumatizing for both of us for reasons far above and beyond the argument, and that we're both pretty committed to never allowing to get that bad again.

Otherwise, we don't fight or argue. At most we disagree and either talk it through, or shrug and say, okay, we've got irreconcilable viewpoints on this one, we both understand each other's viewpoints but disagree, so let's not keep kicking it around and making both of us miserable, and then we move on. If it's something where a decision has to be made, it's usually pretty clear that one person cares more and then that person gets their way, or we figure out some other way to compromise - we'll do this thing the way you care about, but in return can I do this other thing the way I'd prefer, usually it's pretty easy to figure out a way to make that work well enough for everyone.

Some of that is our individual approaches to conflict, which are very different, frankly both dysfunctional in different ways, but neither particularly conducive to arguments. I was raised in a "repress it really hard and never talk about it until one day you die" family and he was raised in a "get mad hard and fast for about thirty seconds and then it blows over" family. Neither of us would have the slightest clue how to sustain open conflict long enough to actually fight about anything. I've worked on expressing myself better and he's worked on realizing he's getting frustrated before the 30 Seconds Of Anger can get going, and the end result is that we're not too bad at just sitting down for a "hey, this has been bugging me, can we talk it out?" conversation. And then we do.
posted by Stacey at 7:36 AM on October 27, 2021 [3 favorites]

Do you fight regularly? How do you conceptualize these arguments, alone or together?

No, not any more. (Married 27 years.) We have had periods of time where we argued more frequently (3-4 times a year at about 3 points in our marriage), but usually they were because of lack of sleep (babies) or other outside stressors.

For me the key is to tune into myself and if I'm starting to feel really irritated or angry, to turn around do what's now called self-care...go for a walk, have a bath, light a favourite candle, etc. And then once I'm not there, then figure out how and when to approach the subject. The fact that my spouse blew the budget or didn't call to book car maintenance feels super-urgent but actually generally isn't.

We also have given each other permission to walk away from each other and come back later. "Let's talk about this in 24 hours" is a very okay thing to say in my house.

Why not just argue? Well...I think a lot of this is very personal but for us, we want to be each other's place of peace. We want our home to be first and foremost, loving, and for us personally it's hard to do that if a fight is simmering. We both came out of fairly explosive homes and have together deliberately tried for a different way. I don't think that's the only way, but I am sharing my perspective.
posted by warriorqueen at 8:07 AM on October 27, 2021 [1 favorite]

If your fights are things like: whether the navigator actually said left when they say they said right (and the driver heard left and thus made a wrong turn), or whether we should buy more meat when it’s on sale and freeze it, even though one of us insists on having designated meals for anything we buy at the grocery store?

We have those about once a month, too. I think for us it’s absolutely a release valve for the little irritations that inevitably build up when you live with someone, no matter how much you love each other. They’re not harmful fights, never about anything serious, and are usually completely over in about five minutes. I think many people wouldn’t even call them fights but in our otherwise (deliberately) harmonious life they certainly represent a frisson of excitement!

I’m not sure they coincide with a specific time in my cycle but a month does seem to be when the “well of harmony” is empty and needs to be reset, lol.
posted by stellaluna at 8:08 AM on October 27, 2021 [2 favorites]

I found the book Stop Fighting Which is about the meta arguments/judgements/values that drives most arguments.
posted by saucysault at 8:09 AM on October 27, 2021

I've beem married for 25 years now.

Eventually, you've fought through every contentious topic you can think of. You've been there, done that. You know where your partner's hills to die on are. You know the shape of his thoughts. You know what you can live with and what you can't. And where you still disagree, you find a way to accept/ignore/compromise because having the same arguments over and over would be...freaking annoying.

Example of a stupid argument:
I hate it when my husband invites me to watch a show with him and promptly falls asleep. We've had all the rows about this both of us can stomach.

So now, when he falls asleep, I get to complain and grumble at him as much as I like later, but also he gets to sleep. Sometimes I grumble at him so he knows I still love him. He thinks that's dumb, but also I get kisses when that happens. Whatever.
posted by Omnomnom at 8:11 AM on October 27, 2021 [3 favorites]

Have you read John Gottman? Couples therapist. Kind of the go-to framework for this kind of thing.
posted by matildaben at 8:13 AM on October 27, 2021 [3 favorites]

My partner and I have been together for 17 years and we do fight occasionally. I would say once a month on average. But sometimes more frequently (generally when we are both under stress... like during a the process of selling one house, relocating and buying a new house), and then there can be periods of a couple of months with no fights (we were great during the pandemic because we like each other, are both introverts and there was so little outside stuff to deal with).

In our relationship, it is very much a pressure valve. Our fights are short and explosive... a shouting match that generally de-escalates quickly as we withdraw and cool off. And we almost always apologize and make-up soon after- by the end of the evening or the next morning at the longest. We don't sit on our resentments and let them build. We don't say unforgivable things.

I'm not so worried about it. I come from a very conflict avoidant family. The fact that my partner and I do sometimes fight, I think, is just normal. We are very secure in our relationship, and our fights don't seem like they erode that foundation.
posted by kimdog at 8:14 AM on October 27, 2021 [1 favorite]

Well, in the first place - you're two individuals, each with a unique perspective on the world and How Things Should Be. And no doubt your own opinions on How Things Should Be differ from your husband's, in big or small ways.

Now add in the fact that you are sharing living quarters, which just increases the likelihood of a chance when your opinion on How Things Should Be will clash with his in some way, whether it's a big way (like, the role of each of the sexes in division of household labor) or some small way (how to load a dishwasher correctly).

Also, add in the fact that one or another of you may be tired or stressed or cranky because of some unrelated issue, and one of these clashes of opinion which you would have usually just sighed and overlooked is now getting on your last damn nerve and you speak out instead. Or he's also tired and stressed and he speaks out.

And also add in the fact that intimacy between you means that you're usually more comfortable being vulnerable around each other, so if he actually says something about how one of your opinions on The Way Things Should Be is itself "weird", it can by extension feel a little like he is saying that you are also therefore weird. If it were a stranger saying that "you load dishwashers weird", you'd just roll your eyes like "what the hell does she care", but since it's someone you trust and love and are vulnerable around saying it, that lands different, and that may make you feel defensive like "....wait, what? You think I'm weird?"

And all of that can fuel quarrels.

The fact that you're fighting isn't an issue necessarily - it's how you fight, what you do when you fight, and what you each do after the fight that matters. If you get into a hissy fit over Proper Dishwasher Loading Techniques, but then after the fact he said "you know what, that was stupid of me to snark at you about overloading the dishwasher, I was having a bad day at work and I took that out on you, sorry about that" and you said "yeah, I'm sorry too, and you actually do have a good point about not overloading the dishwasher, we just were really super-paranoid about not using up too much dishwasher powder when I was a kid", then that's a good sign. But if you just retreated after the fight and he kept walking around thinking "man, she's an idiot for overstuffing the dishwasher" and you kept walking around thinking "Man, he's so wasteful for wanting to run the dishwasher with just like two cups" then you guys haven't gotten anywhere.

The fight you're having might not be about what you think it's about - it's about two people learning to share living quarters and continuously renegotiating the terms. And sometimes the negotiations just get really lively. Your task is to make sure that even when they're lively, they're productive.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:49 AM on October 27, 2021 [2 favorites]

I'm currently experiencing this, after many years of no arguments. For me, the impulse to argue is a very good sign that I need to spend some time alone. Usually, I'm just exhausted at having to deal with people all day and annoyed as much at the interaction as its content. Going for a long walk instead of arguing is a new strategy that seems to work. Sympathy and best wishes.
posted by eotvos at 8:52 AM on October 27, 2021 [2 favorites]

For some people, after they're in a relationship for a while, at some level they want a little bit of drama. They're a little bored, though not interested in blowing up their lives, so they subconsciously generate things that create "safe" drama.
posted by metasarah at 9:09 AM on October 27, 2021

Response by poster: Thanks for the thoughtful comments so far! The topics we argue about tend to be everyday life stuff rather than core values stuff, but not quite as light as the examples given by Stellaluna (more like: someone is late, someone works too much, someone is careless about keeping phone charged and can't be reached). Like I said, they are not nasty fights, more like ... heated discussions? ... but with an emotional component that does feel different to me than a normal debate. I wouldn't say our monthly arguments bother me, other than in the moment, and I think we're both very happy in our marriage, but they make me wonder why they happen and if we can or should make an effort not to have them.
posted by artisthatithaca at 9:11 AM on October 27, 2021 [1 favorite]

Look for external factors - someone mentioned premenstrual fights above. Check if there are periodic stressors such as crunch time at work, major increase in barometric pressure, sleep disturbance, someone's mother or someone's boss leaving one of you in a state of irritation or sadness, someone withdrawing into themself because they are sick, or because their art or their job requires extra time and attention, the money running short towards the end of the fiscal quarter, health flare ups, asthma flare ups creating shortness of breath, someone spending too much time in places that make them feel inadequate or jealous, or any other thing you can point to and say "from time to time this happens and one of us is not themself."

The cycle I used to go through was triggered when my domestic partner got sick - he would get surly and close down because he felt crappy, so there would be a reduction of eye contact and acknowlegment, which he was unaware of. The little inconsiderate things would build up and the ways we connected and reconnected would be reduced and then I would get irritable and anxious and from both of our viewpoints I would suddenly get cranky and light into him. Once I recognized that I was doing this as a reaction to a change in his behaviour and that he could not help it was possible for me to just back off and keep my sadness and fear to myself instead of making demands on him.

They still happen in a small way from time to time, but they are a lot less destructive when they come with a script that blames my feelings on the situation, not him, and where we know they will be of brief duration and where we both reaffirm that we want the best for each other and express affection and mutual support.
posted by Jane the Brown at 9:14 AM on October 27, 2021 [5 favorites]

If we fight it's when one of us is sick, the baby is having a hard time, I'm premenstrual (I have PMDD so it can be quite bad, I get very tired and very irritable), or one of us is otherwise stressed. We are happy outside of these fights too. I would like to not have them, in that I would prefer we address any issues calmly and without getting so worked up, and in that we care about each other and don't intend to stress or upset the other person, so there's never any big payoff from the fights or improved outcomes that couldn't be gotten through other means. I especially don't like arguing when our children are in earshot. We have patches of doing very well at not arguing and patches were we do less well, like we might have a bad month and then three pretty good months, related to the above stressors.
posted by lafemma at 9:22 AM on October 27, 2021

A little embarrassing, but I now realize that I pick a fight when I’m not having enough sex. I wish I could have figured this out earlier in my life!
posted by HotToddy at 9:54 AM on October 27, 2021 [4 favorites]

more like: someone is late, someone works too much, someone is careless about keeping phone charged and can't be reached

Warning: This stood out to me because of me, not you, so may or may not be helpful.

In our early marriage, I used to get really upset if I couldn't reach my husband (this was pre-us having cell phones!) or if he was late for dinner. (Frankly, sometimes he was really badly late and that was on him.)

But a lot, a lot, a lot of that was my own anxiety, and also our different work and meal styles. He's a guy who when he's doing something (i.e. at work, with friends, etc.) he is wholely immersed in that thing. For me, my mind is in 20 directions at once. He really won't hear the phone. I'll never miss it. Over the years we've actually come together on this - I miss more calls because I'm concentrating and my ringer is off, he had to learn to walk away from work to get our kids (whereas me as an adult he figured I would be ok.)

I grew up with one parent that controlled a lot so meal times, being late, not communicating with that parent, etc., all were totally hard core lines. Late? You are a bad person. Didn't call? You are a bad person. He grew up with shift workers/contractors who often had to stay late, get the job done, make it work somehow, etc.

I wouldn't say we fought, but I personally went through a lot of what I now think of as unnecessary emotion because I was stuck on the idea that spouses are 100% available to each other and...now I am actually 100% confident that I'm okay to handle things, and we are there for each other but part of being there sometimes is allowing the other person not to be there for a bit.

Anyways, I just thought...if your fights are mostly about that, it may be worth just looking at that one thing. Apologies if this is not useful to you!
posted by warriorqueen at 10:26 AM on October 27, 2021 [4 favorites]

Best answer: To my mind, people have a general alignment toward or away from instigating conflict, and an alignment toward or away from holding on to emotional reactions, and a relationship's fight pattern just comes from how those alignments work together.

In my relationships I am not a fight-picker, because while I might get annoyed by this thing or that, I mostly am inclined to just let it go, maybe with a little grumbling to myself.

This sounds like a brag but it is not, because I am definitely still a fight HAVER. Don't start shit, won't be shit, but lord help you if you start shit, lol.

If you're a fight haver in a relationship with a fight picker, then y'all gonna fight regularly and it's probably going to be a bad scene, because there's an imbalance in the direction of the arguments. If two fight pickers are in a relationship, the result is regular but quickly resolved flareups (sounds like that might be where you two are).

Two fight-havers in a relationship won't see lots of active conflict but also might have a lot of unresolved resentment...IF they are broadly incompatible on important things, or generally high-strung personalities, etc. (When you think about couples who never argue there's two kinds, right? The one that always seems like they OUGHT to start arguing, and the one that seems like they never argue at all.)

In my previous relationship, we fought a fair amount. My ex partner was definitely a fight picker, and because we were not great at communication we had a lot of random conflicts to fight about. The problem, as I noted above, is that eventually I just sort of felt besieged, like I was constantly having to defend myself in fights that popped up when I least expected them. I am sure my ex also felt beleaguered by a partner who was forever doing fightable things that he just could not let go.

In my current relationship, we are both fight-havers but we have yet to fight, because 1) our baseline is easygoing, and 2) we are just way more on the same wavelength with each other, so conflicts don't crop up that often. Now...we haven't been together all THAT long (although because of the pandemic, we have spent an assload of time up in each others' space, way more than we would have done as a new couple in normal times), so it could be that eventually lots of little passive, unexpressed resentments will creep in there and be an issue. But so far, not yet.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 10:32 AM on October 27, 2021 [3 favorites]

Do you fight regularly? How do you conceptualize these arguments, alone or together?

We've been together 14 years and occasionally fight though it's usually a fight-and-make-up cycle that happens fairly quickly. Usually there's something external, a stressor or something, and if it's affecting BOTH of us then we're both in our worst-selves mode which can sometimes cause conflict. A few things I've noticed.

- Like HotToddy mentions, if we've had less intimate together time (we're in an LDR) we can be more likely to not give a charitable reading to whatever is going on
- my partner has ADHD and I manage anxiety so there's a component of me being anxious about a thing (you didn't do the thing you said you'd do, or I didn't know how to get ahold of you, or I needed you to be there for me in some minor way and you weren't) or him being spacey on some things, or rejection-sensitive (you said I didn't do something right and I CAN'T TAKE IT ANYMORE, or I forgot a thing completely and I don't know WHY you think it's such a big deal) that can take something that is work-outable and put it somewhere where it turns into a fight instead
- Like eotvos, I really need recharge time and often don't get enough of it when we're together. I love his company and so I don't do a good job of giving myself some downtime which makes me more brittle. I need this more than I used to.

I feel like I'm better at doing "Take one for the team" things, where I can hold in my usual crabbiness and pickiness if there's something hard we're dealing with or especially if he is dealing with something that doesn't affect me so much. I feel like he is less good at this than I am (recognizing the context around people's emotional responses) and this can be a source of conflict.

I think most importantly though, neither of us WANTS to fight so once we have gotten to a place where we can calm down, we always work things out and the rift-repair cycle means that we both feel better at having talked things out and arrived at some workable "Let's try to make things go better next time" approach.
posted by jessamyn at 10:36 AM on October 27, 2021 [3 favorites]

Some degree of conflict is natural to any relationship. Without conflict, you don’t have a relationship— or rather, you don’t have an interdependent relationship, you have a superficial/power struggle relationship. (I think the book Attached goes into this.)

Is the issue that you don’t like the “heatedness”? Or that you feel your needs aren’t being met, and you’re going round and round in circles? (I know you’re not looking for a solution, but if you’re trying to understand this more deeply I’m guessing there’s something nagging at you?)

Any time two people are healthily interdependent they will have authentic preferences & needs that inevitably come into conflict on a regular schedule. (If the relationship is cold or “independent”, there’s no need for conflict.) You could probably look into the typical Gottman research for more data on how couples fight and argue and what it means (more of a top down understanding than a bottom up understanding, though.)

If you like schedules and your husband doesn’t, those are authentic preferences that are going to bug one or both of you every once in awhile. But this is a pretty classic gendered conflict. In the Gottman research, herero relationships where the woman has “influence” over the man tend to succeed, I’m guessing because men tend to have greater societal power, and if they’re not willing to offer some of that to their wife there will always be a power imbalance/struggle. I think issues like “why aren’t you home when you say you will be?” might fall under that area, you might feel like he’s not really listening to you (and probably he’s not), which is statistically bad for the relationship.
posted by stoneandstar at 10:45 AM on October 27, 2021

My spouse and I don't argue much. I do bring up things that bother me and I've gotten better about doing it before I've gotten to a breaking point. I guess I wonder what your strategies are for talking over problems outside of arguments. Because if arguments are the main place you can talk over your problems, then you'll keep having them. If you can calmly talk over your problems and have it actually help in your marriage-- you both take necessary changes based on your talks, then you might not need the arguments. If things don't change, you might keep bickering about it.

I'm pretty willing to bring things up because my spouse is willing to make changes to make me happy. But that means I can start off with asking about why something is done a certain way or request for a specific thing. And often find out that I was missing key information and can make better changes myself now that I know. To me it sounds like you might be missing either the sense that things might change if they were making you unhappy or just a general ability to calmly talk about problems. So that might be something to explore there.
posted by blueberry monster at 10:24 PM on November 2, 2021

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