You ever find yourself arguing about the same things over and over again with your partner or spouse?  It seems that no matter how long you’ve been together or how many times you’ve been over the same issues, this cycle never seems to change.  Even if you start off arguing about what colour to paint the walls, somehow the argument degrades into the same old dance with the same old accusations being flung around.  You ever feel that way?

Here are some of the most common reasons why we can’t seem to break the conflict impasse with our significant other:

We’re Just Different

Many times our arguments revolve around the fact that we have very different temperaments from our spouses and just see things very differently.  We also come from different family backgrounds:  through our experiences growing up, we learn how to deal with conflict, how to handle our anger and sadness, how to ask for our needs to be met, how to deal with difficulties, how to show love, and so on.

Unfortunately, all too often, couples interpret these differences as “attacks” against themselves, or as moral issues, or as issues of inadequacy.  These differences can then boil down to, if you really loved me and understood me, you wouldn’t do it that way.  That is setting your spouse up for failure, and setting you up for ongoing discontentment with your spouse and your marriage.

That’s why it’s so important for you to know your differences and work to accept them.  You will never change those differences in each other.  Sometimes you just have to cultivate a sense of humour or look for the positives in these differences and choose to focus on these positives.  Arguing about it hasn’t worked so far, has it?  So consider learning to accept and enjoy what makes each of you unique.

Tuning Each Other Out

It may seem obvious to say that arguments spin out of our unwillingness to listen to each other, but many couples would say that they DO listen to each other.  The truth is that often, their idea of listening is to pause to give the person a turn at saying their piece but rarely take the time to really hear what they’re saying.  Instead, they’re often plotting in their heads what they want to say to prove their point.

Beyond just listening to the words that our spouse is saying, it’s also about tuning in to the underlying emotions and concerns and asking questions until we understand their perspective.  It’s about giving them as much time as they need to express themselves without interrupting them, and listening for underlying emotional needs that might not have been met in a while.

Confusing Our Motivations with Our Actions

Another key contribution to recurring conflicts in a relationship is the way we tend to confuse our motivations with our actions.  My motivations for what I say or do to my spouse may be good, but my behaviour may end up being hurtful to him.  When he confronts me, I can then be bewildered since I’m looking at the conflict from the point of view of my motivation, which is good, but HE’S looking at it from the point of view of my behaviour which he didn’t like.

So my choice at this point is to say, but I said that because I wanted to help you and try to defend myself – which is likely to escalate the conflict — or to say, I’m sorry, I didn’t realize that would hurt you, please forgive me.  HIS choice is to either project negative motivations from my action (for example, you said that to me because you’re trying to control me), which will also cause things to escalate, or to accept that I didn’t intend to hurt him and choose to accept my apology.  So can you see how important it is to separate our actions from our motivation and how important it is not to judge my spouse’s motivation just because I don’t like his behaviour.

The REAL Reason We Argue

But let me share another very significant reason why couples get caught in this conflict dance.  Do you know that the majority of conflicts with couples have little to do with the CONTENT of their argument?  It has more to do with the underlying emotions and hurt – what I call the dance:  I do or say something that triggers an emotional reaction in my spouse which in turns causes him to say or do something that triggers a reaction in me, which causes me to say or do something, and on and on.

Here’s a common dance for many couples:  a husband is busy with work and so has been more distant than usual, the wife is feeling neglected, which triggers her feelings of abandonment.  She then approaches him and uses her words to tell him how she feels in an attempt to try to gain closeness with him, but he interprets her words as criticism, which triggers his feelings of insecurity and fear of failure.  He then responds by withdrawing from her, which further triggers her feelings of neglect.  This increases her anxiety, so she ups the ante (because he obviously doesn’t understand how hurt she is) and showers him with a flurry of more words that have escalated in emotional tension, which causes him to shut down even more, which causes her to pursue him more, until he finally explodes or leaves the room in a huff.  Sound familiar?

Behind all the fighting, yelling, crying and withdrawing are two struggling human beings with hurting hearts longing to be understood, accepted and loved just for who they are.  The interesting thing about relationships is that we often interpret how others respond to us by our early childhood experiences and the conclusions we made based on those experiences.  For example, if we’ve experienced emotional abandonment or rejection repeatedly as a child, we will interpret our spouse’s actions and words through that filter, and we will respond accordingly.

It’s therefore very important to understand the underlying hurt and pain that’s underneath our protective anger.  Emotional safety is when we can get to the root of our conflict, and understand each other’s vulnerabilities and hurts and respond with sensitivity to them.  The next time you’re caught in the same old cycle of argument with your spouse, stop and think about what your underlying feelings of hurt are; think about what his or her underlying feelings of hurt might be, and then begin to dialogue at that level.

Here are a few tips to help you break the conflict impasse:

Listen Actively – If a discussion is getting heated and you feel an argument coming, eliminate distractions so that you can focus on what your partner is saying.  Pause in your activities and devote your full attention to your spouse’s words.  If you find yourself focused on the points you want to make and are no longer listening to what your spouse is saying, change your focus and repeat back, in your own words, what you hear your partner is saying.  Don’t make your points until you’ve confirmed that your partner has finished.

Focus on Feelings – It’s easy to argue about facts and opinions. If your partner wants to go on a trip and you think it’s a bad idea, the two of you could argue for hours about the location, the value you get for the money, and various other facts. However, you can’t argue about feelings. Your spouse feels one way about the trip and you feel another way about it. Recognize that if your feelings are particularly intense, they may not be about the subject of the argument at all — you may be feeling anxiety about your finances, for example, and are hurt that your spouse doesn’t seem to be sensitive to your concerns. Take your cue from your feelings, and refocus the discussion on the true source of your concerns.

Don’t Blame Your Partner For Your Feelings – It’s common to project responsibility for our negative feelings to our spouse and blame them for “making” us feel that way:  If your partner didn’t spend money on foolish things, or took more responsibility around the house, you wouldn’t have to get so angry. In reality, your feelings are the result of your own thoughts and opinions about your partner’s actions.  So take responsibility for your own feelings.

Kiss and Make Up – Negative feelings don’t always fade on their own over time, as your brain actually holds onto negative emotions as danger signals to try to protect you and help you avoid them in the future. When the argument is over, do whatever you can to comfort your significant other and make them feel emotionally safe and re-connected. Take responsibility for any negative outbursts you may regret and make sure the bad feelings are behind you.  Otherwise, there is much greater likelihood of going “historical” the next time you fight.

Visit Dr. Lin’s personal blog at for many more useful articles.

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