Even though it might seem that couples argue about a myriad of different issues, when we look a little deeper, we often find that most arguments have one thing in common: They are really about how we feel about each other, and more specifically, how loved or how significant we feel to our partner.
A wife might complain about her husband not cleaning up after himself, but when this wife takes the time to reflect on her dismay in a couples therapy session, she usually discovers that her annoyance is rooted in her sense that her husband does not really pay attention to his surroundings and does not keep her preferences in mind. In other words, the milk carton on the kitchen table becomes a symbol to the wife of feeling like she is in a relationship by herself. When further investigated, this undigested feeling of being alone in her marriage ultimately connects to a deeper fear that she does not really matter to her husband. In other words, she asks herself: "Am I loved?" and "Does my partner care about me?"
This wife is not alone. In academic circles we refer to her concern about mattering to her partner as a universal human need to feel securely attached.
What we can therefore generally say is that: most arguments deep down are about our frustrated attachment needs and our longing to feel more connected to our partner.
The Fundamental Question of all Relationships:
The fundamental question that each partner struggles with when they are in a relationship is the question: Are you there for me?
We all have a fundamental need to be sure of each other, and to know that our partner is there to catch us if we fall, or will step up and be there for us when we need them to.
The Truth about Attachment:
What attachment researcher John Bowlby discovered is that the same bond that unites child and mother in our infancy continues to function throughout our adult lives as we meet new people and form new connections with significant others.
As Bowlby says, “All of us, from the cradle to the grave, are happiest when life is organised as a series of excursions, long or short, from the secure base provided by our attachment figures.”
In other words, the more connected we feel and the more secure we feel about our relationship, the more free we feel to develop our individuality and pursue our individual goals.
Needing others and being your own person are therefore not opposites. The more we are able to reach out to others and feel connected to others, the more separate and autonomous we can also be.
What You Need to Know to Understand Why You Fight:
When we enter into a relationship with someone, we have a need to feel bonded or connected, and if this bond is threatened, we become anxious, unable to think clearly, and often lash out or demand proof that we can count on the other person.
If the answer is “not so sure” or “maybe not” the distress we experience increases, and our attempt to get a more clear and affirmative response that we matter becomes more forceful. We become more angry, more demanding, more controlling, and more critical, until we eventually become depressed and give up.
The Biggest Problem Couples Have...
The problem for many couples is that attachment needs are often not at the forefront of their discussions.
A husband may know that he feels lonely and unloved at times, but may also feel quite embarrassed about depending on his partner, or may find it “unmanly” to need someone. To deal with this shame or self-judgment, he therefore hides his need for comfort and reassurance both from himself and from his wife.
Yet, just because you hide something doesn’t mean it isn't there, so the husband still has to find a way to soothe the pain of disconnection he feels. He may do so by becoming critical of his wife, given that he may feel more comfortable with his anger than with his sadness, or he may deal with his underlying fear that he does not matter, by dialing back his expectations and retreating inward where he can feel safer and not so vulnerable.
In this way, what couples actually end up fighting about is not the longing for connection, but rather their many critical remarks about each other's character traits and acts of commission and omission. In other words, they fight about the milk carton left on the counter, and not about feeling lonely, and longing to feel more important to each other.
3 Things You Need to Know about a Strong Relationship:
The hallmark of a strong relationship or attachment can be defined by 3 perceptions of one’s partner, often referred to as A.R.E.
A stands for accessibility: Do I perceive my partner as available when I have a need to talk about something, or when I have a need to feel close?
Many arguments start because one partner begins to feel like they are bothering the other person when they have a need to talk or connect. They may feel like the other person seems closed off, is too busy with work, or does not pay attention when they enter the room. A wife once complained during a couples session that she would come home carrying several grocery bags and that her husband would not even say “hi” or offer to help her because he was too engrossed watching TV. These kinds of events can gradually lead a person to feel unimportant, neglected, or shut out.
R stands for responsiveness: When I open up to my partner, does he or she provide me with what I need, and do I feel understood, validated, or comforted by the response I get?
Even if your partner is available and ready to listen, they may not exactly provide you with what you want. Many arguments I hear about in couples therapy involve discontent from one person about opening up about their feelings, and getting frustrated that their partner tries to fix or solve the issue. Although, the problems-solving partner is well-intentioned, the unintended consequence of their attempt to help, is that the person sharing their feelings does not really feel heard. What they want is often not a solution, but a caring and validating response. They want to feel understood and cared about. They want to hear things like "I get what you are going through” or “that must be really hard”, not “why don’t you just tell your boss off?”
For a humorous illustration of this frequent stumbling block for couples, watch the short video: "It's not about the Nail"
E stands for engagement: Do I feel like my partner trusts me and comes to me to share experiences, concerns, and feelings, or do I feel like I hardly know my partner and hardly know what he or she is thinking and feeling?
Sometimes what triggers an anxiety about our relationship is not whether our partner is accessible or responsive, but whether or not they are really engaged with us and in the relationship. If I am the only one sharing about myself, I may begin to question how much you really trust me and want to engage with me. My relationship might begin to feel one-sided, and I might begin to wonder how much you are really into me. Many fights in relationships are about one person feeling like the other isn't really "in it" with them. One partner I met with in therapy always felt like she had to probe for answers to get some sign that her husband cared. She lamented that her husband never seemed to just spontaneously share how his day went, and that he would not turn to her for comfort and support when he was going through a conflict at work. She felt shut out and unimportant, and soon began to feel critical of him.
The Best Way to Stop Fights in Your Relationship:
With more knowledge about the components needed to have a strong or secure connection, couples can more actively work on increasing their accessibility, responsiveness, and level of engagement.
You can work on dropping what you are doing once in a while to check in on or pay attention to your partner. When you are less engrossed in other things, or even just look up or ask a question once in a while, your partner will gradually start to perceive you as more accessible
You can also work on increasing your responsiveness, which is best done by putting your own agenda to the side when you respond to your partner. Try to engage in active listening to fully understand what your partner is feeling and why he or she is feeling distressed. As your partner perceives you as responsive and empathic to their concerns, they will in turn feel more at ease and more at peace with the quality of their connection with you.
Finally, you can increase your level of engagement by doing things that show that you are thinking of your partner, or by making a more concerted effort to open up about your thoughts and feelings about things that have happened during the day. Whether you pick up your partner’s favorite ice cream when you are at the store, or let your partner in on a recent dilemma you have faced at work, they are bound to feel that you are more engaged with them, and reward you by feeling happier and less critical of you.
So why not help build the foundation of a stronger connection with your partner. It is the surest way to decrease the gap of disconnection that is the #1 reason why couples fight.
To read more about creating a strong relationship bond, check out Sue Johnson's book: Love Sense
About Me: I am Rune Moelbak, a psychologist and certified EFT couples therapist in Houston, Texas.