How To Keep The Peace In Your Relationship - Couples fight, but what's really going on?

“In the context of couples, research in this area suggests how we as partners can manage one another’s highs and lows. We don’t have to remain at the mercy of each other’s runaway moods and feelings. Rather, as competent managers of our partners, we can become expert at moving, shifting, motivating, influencing, soothing, and inspiring one another.” 


- Dr. Stan Tatkin

Very often I am asked why do couples fight even if they love each other madly? Well firstly navigating relationships is difficult, it can be hard to know exactly what's going on when we disagree yet at the same time know we don't want to lose the person we love. We all know breaking up is hard to do! 

Here are nine points to consider next time you and your partner find yourselves in a fight?

  1. We have a roughly almond-shaped mass inside the brain that is involved with the experience of emotions. It is called the amygdala. This part of the brain is used to scan the environment very rapidly to see if it is safe and that there is no threat. If we experience threat we go into fight/flight response which stops our ability to communicate in a way that feels non-threatening to our partner.
  2. This fight/flight response or threat can be triggered by facial expressions, tone of voice, words, jerky movements like slamming cupboard doors, body language, someone getting to close, someone walking away, someone ignoring, someone yelling and the list goes on.
  3. There are five common things I find in my practice that couples argue about. They are time (spent together), money, children, sex and mess. These may be areas of disagreement that need negotiating but often they are not the primary "cause". The "cause" can lie a lot deeper and it's often because someone is feeling threatened or the amygdala has been set off into flight/fight and sometimes even freezes.
  4. Fights can often be about bids for "connection" from one partner being ignored overtly or covertly.  
  5. Take time out - remember the nervous system needs time to regulate again, go for a walk, go away and makes some notes and come back to the issue with your partner later, John and Julie Gottman say that if an argument has gone for more than three minutes it is too long - come back to it later. More than three minutes the brain goes offline and you just won't get anywhere closer to sorting the issue out.
  6. Both should agree when to come back to the disagreement. If you are completely flooded, you’ll need at least 20 minutes to let your body reset. If you wait longer than 24 hours you both may be avoiding the issue which over time will make the conflict bigger.
  7. Stop and really look into your partners eyes or do so after 20 minutes when you have both calmed down. When we look into our partners eyes up close we don't see a cliched fist, or a back turned or hunched shoulders which can spark off arguments because it has triggered a negative response. Up close we can see our partners hurt, love, tears or upset in their eyes which can create an empathic response and de-escalate an argument rapidly.
  8. I often say to couples if you don't face each other when you are in disagreement you can't see what may be going on for your partner. It leaves you too much to your own mind without the visual clues that could make you feel a little softer towards your partner. If you can see their genuine upset, tears or pain that says they don't want to argue with you because they care and love you.            
  9. Remember that when stress goes up communication goes down.  

Couples that can learn to read their partners better by watching and observing rather than reacting can learn to de-escalate arguments quiet rapidly. To learn to be able to do this can be a gift to your relationship and can undo damage from past hurts when you weren't so good at it. Arguments are often not what they seem and following the nine points above can point you both in the right direction.     

Warning: Any reference made to "fights" or "arguments" in this blog refers to every day differences between a couple. If you are in a relationship with Domestic Violence it is very different and you need to get help or get out of the relationship. Here is some explanations about what is domestic violence and where to get help at ReachOut.com or Queen of Hearts Foundation in the Penrith area.