Why You Always Have The Same Old Fight: A Couples Therapist Explains
Do you notice that you and your partner always end up having "the same old argument"? It's as if it doesn’t matter at all where the conversation or conflict started ... it just always ends in the familiar sinkhole.
After a while you may understand that the issue isn’t really about the housework, the weekend plans or money. It's something else something you can’t put your finger on. You just know the sinking feeling when you see “the look," hear the sound in their voice or feel your own feeling of sinking inside, that voice telling you, “Here we go again.” This ongoing familiar fight can feel like an endless loop with a dead-end and no way out. But why?
Well, the reason it feels like it's a loop, is because it IS a loop. Without learning how to notice the patterns as they arise, there's no way to stop a vicious cycle in its tracks. That's why I am telling you that there is a way through it. The only place to start is to recognize the barriers each person must overcome, and then developing strategies to manage these barriers productively.
To begin, let's look at what I like to think of as the four common causes of these cyclical, repetitive arguments:
Most repeated fights are not really about what they seem to be about. In fact, they tend to happen because something in our past is being triggered by a present experience, even if it's minor. Our partner might do something that evokes memories of feeling bullied, betrayed or falsely accused in the past and we are actually reacting to our history rather than to what is actually happening now.
The first step here is awareness of these triggers. But read on, as I will elaborate on "exit strategies" in the next section below!
2. Core Issues
The vulnerabilities and reactivity we bring to repeated fights may include core values and questions like “Who’s in charge of my life? “ “Am I valued and accepted for who I am” and “how much can I trust you to have my back”?
Again, take stock of what emotional triggers make you feel particularly vulnerable, and experiment with being accountable to those things when you communicate with your partner.
3. "The Other Side Of Attraction"
Characteristics that attracted us to our partners in the beginning may become sources of annoyance later. I call this "the other side of attraction." In other words, we may fall in love with someone because they seem predictable and reliable. When the "love drug" wears off and the honeymoon phase is over, the same behavior may seem rigid and lacking imagination, and we’ll probably argue about that.
4. The Loop
Repetitive fights breed further iterations of the same argument, period. One person's idiosyncrasies create vulnerable patterns in another person's behavior, which may, in turn, aggravate first person further. And so on ... this is the definition of a vicious cycle.
But let's take this one a little further.
For most women, the number one concern is disconnection, while for men it is feeling unjustly criticized or being seen as incompetent. So let's take a heterosexual couple, Jake and Meg. Say Jake makes weekend plans to go hiking with his friends and Meg feels abandoned. This can trigger a “fight” response from her in the form of anger or sarcasm. Jake sees this as criticism, triggering a “flight” instinct, so he withdraws which intensifies Meg’s fears of disconnection. The loop builds up steam, and continues.
So, now that we've looked at some of the main causes for these repetitive fights, let's consider some strategies to change the dynamic.
1. Build your "exit strategy" toolkit.
No matter how hard you try you cannot change your partners behavior, only your own. Find an exit strategy to the loop. This begins by recognizing when you are in it, and soothing yourself out of your normal reaction. Mantras, breathing slowly, images of your dog, garden or favorite hike can all act as agents to stop your own inner loop of reactivity. Often if one person can break out of it, the other will also become more centered and it can stop.
2. Look inward.
In the middle of the “same old-same old”, we are looking out and see our partner. Their uninviting body language, their mean looking mouth, their unfriendly eyes. The challenge here is to look within, ask yourself, “Would I want to take a selfie of my facial expression RIGHT NOW and post it on social media?” I have taught myself to think of one of the things I appreciate the most about my partner in the middle of the hardest loops, and more and more often it backs me off of my defensive strategy. It doesn’t eliminate the problem but it often helps reframe the fight to be more productive.
3. Let go of your need to be right.
When you KNOW you are right and your partner is wrong, you know you are in trouble! (Of course there are certain things that ARE wrong, lying, hitting, breaking commitments. But most often we are feeling self-righteous about our point of view rather than an actual transgression.) It may feel justified, but it will usually fuel even greater conflict and distance.
4. Agree not to discuss the problem until the storm has passed.
When we are in the middle of the trouble we are bombarded by neurochemicals that are while arguing, most of us are “flooded” — bombarded by neurochemicals that make it hard for us to relate constructively. We are reacting, not responding.
Taking time out, going for a walk, agreeing to come back to it within 24 hours may help you each become calm and reasonable enough to find a resolution. And of course, if there’s an ongoing issue (and no, not just a habitual, unproductive communication dynamic), you may sometimes feel like you can’t make progress. In those cases, consider seeking the help of a skilled counselor or coach.