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What *Really* Makes Arguments Escalate In A Relationship, From A Couples' Therapist

Deborah J. Fox, MSW
Couples Counselor & Sex Therapist By Deborah J. Fox, MSW
Couples Counselor & Sex Therapist
Deborah J. Fox, MSW, is a licensed clinical social worker, couples counselor, and AASECT-certified sex therapist with over 30 years of experience helping people enjoy their relationships and lives again. She has a master's degree in Social Work from Catholic University.
Couple Talking on the Couch

Your cocktails arrive, and you and your partner clink glasses. "Cheers to Friday night!"

Then you hear your phone buzz. "I'll just be just a minute," you tell her, stepping away from the bar to take the call. When you return a minute or two later, you're greeted by an icy stare.

"Why do you always have to answer your phone?"

"I don't always answer my phone! What are you so mad about? I was on the phone for two minutes!"

"I'm mad that you always answer your phone when we're out together."

"That's just not true! And so what if I do? You answer your phone!"

"I just want to have an uninterrupted cocktail hour."

"I just don't see what the big deal is!"

A tense silence ensues.

How does something seemingly so small spark an argument with such powerful feelings and confusion? Followed by the inevitable, "Here we go again...another evening ruined." Where is that instruction manual on your partner anyway?

The truth about what triggers arguments.

It's a common experience to feel as if there are hidden tripwires set for you to stumble over at your most unsuspecting moment. Often the intensity of your partner's reaction doesn't appear to match up with the current situation. This is what makes these sudden flare-ups so confusing. I know many times people look back at an argument and say, "I don't even know what started it," or "Why did she react so irrationally to that trivial thing?" or "What just happened? All I did was ask a simple question, and he went nuts!"

The other person probably does have a perfectly logical explanation for their angry eruption (don't we all!), but that explanation oftentimes obscures the real origins: hurt or pain that was quickly buried in one defensive reaction after another.

Identifying those feelings is the key to arguing less. You can't resolve something when you don't know what the problem really is.

If the partner in first scenario had tapped into the hurt she was feeling, she would've been able to say, "Babe, when you took that call, I felt brushed aside. I wanted this evening to be just the two of us." It then would've been easy for her partner to respond by saying, "I understand. Let's start over—cheers to just the two of us!"

Couples don't want to argue, but solutions like "I'll try not to get so angry" or "I'll just accept things the way they are" go by the wayside in a flash. Humans are wired to connect, which is why these solutions are paper-thin—we often are not actually OK with this new and unwanted status quo. (In turn, when true feelings are buried for the sake of avoiding arguments, people often go on to complain, spend more time with friends, or even have an affair—which, again, are not solutions to the distress in the relationship.)

When we feel misunderstood or criticized, our nervous system signals danger, and we fight, flee, or freeze in response. Our ability to follow any rules of fairness is minimal, as is our ability to interact with each other in any fruitful way.

So to combat this snap reaction, the very first thing to do is stop arguing.

Agree on a "timeout" signal. It's really hard to stop, of course—won't just one more sentence prove your point?—but it's essential.

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Getting to the root.

Arguments have value—if you take a step back and reflect. It's all too easy to focus on the hurtful comments and unfair accusations. What's crucial to identify are the feelings that really started it all.

Ask yourself:

  • When was the very first moment you felt hurt, misunderstood, dismissed, or unimportant, to name a few?
  • What exactly made you feel this way?
  • Is this a familiar feeling? In your relationship and/or earlier in your life?

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You might identify feelings of shame, fear, inadequacy, not feeling loved, worthlessness, or more. They're not easily apparent because they're so darn uncomfortable to feel, so we tend to automatically bury them in irritation or anger. Think of anger as an inexpensive narcotic to mask those feelings we'd rather not feel.

It is these feelings that need to be uncovered in order for you to be able to know what to do to address them. You can't fix something when you don't know the problem.

Imagine this vow being a part of your wedding ceremony:

"Do you accept that your task in marriage is to understand the tender, raw, vulnerable feelings that will be at the root of arguments and work with your beloved to respond to these feelings? Do you understand that you need to step up to this task so that you can fulfill all those other vows that you've just agreed to, especially 'until death do us part'?"

It would be rather stunning for this to be part of your ceremony, of course. It would also speak to a truth that needs to be spoken. Back to the example: if the partner doesn't say she feels unimportant when you take the phone call, you think it's an argument over the use of phones. This leaves you annoyed and confused, as the facts just aren't adding up. The root of her distress remains hidden, and it's impossible for you to know how to proceed.

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The bottom line.

Learning from your arguments strengthens your relationship. Once you've identified the feelings at the root of your argument, expressing them directly can help your partner to respond empathetically rather than defensively. Being able to stay in touch with vulnerable feelings and communicating them can more readily lead to understanding each other better and treating each other differently.

Relationships don't fall apart because of arguments. They fall apart because partners aren't responding to the needs and emotions of the other person. They fall apart because the affection that has been food for their souls is fading. Digging into the sources of arguments—way below the surface—can restore what's been missing.

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