Kat Mindenhall, LCSW

Couples’ Arguments: Understanding and Stopping the Cycle

woman reaching out to man to come back after an argument

Couples’ arguments often actually have a pattern: The most common is when one of you wants to talk and reach resolution, but your partner shuts down.

This in turn leads to greater frustration — and often more anger — as one of you needs to talk and connect and the other seems to refuse, to not care enough to work things out.

If this sounds familiar, you could have one of the most common patterns experienced by couples.

And, if you’re the one who pursues your partner to talk and stay engaged in the discussion, you probably find your frustration escalating by his or her silence or when your partner even leaves the room.

If you’re the one who withdraws from the argument, you may be baffled why your partner can’t calm down or let the issue go. The arguments seem to go on and on — and nothing will get resolved even if you were able to talk.

We’re going to help you get to the bottom of these ongoing behaviors in couples arguments and to open the door to greater understanding of each person’s reactions. Understanding your partner’s position is the first step to ending those “endless arguments.”

What Lies Beneath: The Deeper Emotions of the One Who Pursues

In Emotionally Focused Therapy (or EFT), the leading and most-successful approach to helping couples in distress, we know that the person who keeps wanting (and needing) to talk may actually be feeling:

  • Unimportant to their partner, not wanted
  • Afraid of abandonment or betrayal
  • Hurt or shame for feeling rejected when they want to talk
  • A fear of not being truly loveable
  • Afraid of being dismissed

When there is tension in the relationship, the partner who pushes for talking and answers feels fearful that the marriage is in trouble, that they will lose their partner. They are reaching for — and longing to feel — close and connected.

When an argument has ensued, those core issues and the need for reassurance become overwhelming. The partner who pursues to talk needs to know the relationship is secure. Beneath the anger is often anxiety and fear and difficulty coping with now knowing where he or she stands.

Pursuers often get labeled as “too emotional” and too easily upset. Yet, this partner tends to be open and expressive of his or her feelings.

Understanding the One Who Withdraws

The person who withdraws is a mystery for the partner to understand: “Why won’t you just talk to me?” “If you really cared, you’d listen and not leave the room.” “If my needs were important, you’d talk to me!”

However, what lies beneath for the partner who avoids arguments are some profound feelings as well, that may include:

  • Sad about letting the partner down
  • Fear of rejection for always failing to meet the partner’s needs
  • Not wanted or desired
  • Judged or criticized
  • Ashamed for not feeling accepted as they are

Other patterns include when couples defend their own position and deny the validity of their partner’s. Some couples both withdraw and avoid arguments, yet not talking about important issues can be fertile ground for building resentments.

Damage of the “Negative Cycles”

In EFT, we call the patterns of couples’ arguments and distancing a “negative cycle.” Couples, after months or even years of repeated arguments, often see their partner as “the problem.” It’s an easy trap to fall into. After all, if your partner would just respond differently, you’d be able to reach some agreement on issues that matter.

However, the true “enemy” here is the negative cycle itself. And, there’s hope: Couples can learn to stop the negative cycle and to talk calmly about their concerns.

Unfortunately, that “enemy” of the negative cycle leaves in its wake some lingering fears and hurt feelings.

When couples’ arguments escalate, both partners’ emotional brains are activated: The one who pursues desperately seeks contact. The withdrawing partner is in “flight” mode, seeking relief from the partner’s fury.

So, when “fight” or “flight” are in full force, hurtful things may be said, name-calling can be harsh and painful. These emotional scars can last unless the couple is able to apologize and forgive.

Emotions among couples can be triggered because — and this at first sounds paradoxical — because they do care for and love each other. When we fall in love, a powerful bond is set into motion — that feeling of being special to someone and a powerful emotional and physical attraction.

When you’re upset with each other, that strong bond feels at risk. 

And, over time, when couples’ arguments have been occurring frequently, it can take less and less to trigger emotions (even a raised eyebrow, a “look”) . . . and they’re off to another negative cycle.

Reaching a New Understanding

Given all this information, you can see that couples’ arguments:

  • Are the way our brain reacts when our partner — who is so very important to us — seems distant or upset
  • Each of you may react quite differently when you’re feeling disconnected
  • The negative cycle is your true enemy — not each other. When couples’ arguments are taking place, what both partners actually need is reassurance that their bond is safe.

Most importantly, couples can learn to exit the negative cycle and talk about their concerns, hear each other calmly and work toward a resolution.

In a related blog about communication in relationships, we outline the proven approach that is part of the EFT process. Couples learn to slow down their emotional brains, to listen without reacting so each partner is fully heard and then to calmly discuss their differing viewpoints.

Couples also learn to speak from their “deeper” emotions — those feelings of hurt, sadness, fear of disconnection that lie beneath the anger, frustration and withdrawal that the “surface” emotions that your partner sees.

You can learn more about these two levels of emotions in our post: Emotions in Relationships: Learn to Deeply Understand Each Other

Couples Counseling Stigma: Slowly Eroding As More Couples Seek Help

The dilemma of the couples counseling stigma is all-too familiar to professionals who work with couples. We’ll sometimes hear:

  • We feel like a failure that it’s come to this — that we need help with our marriage.
  • We didn’t know where to go for help — We were embarrassed to tell anyone we were struggling.
  • We put off going for years because we were intimidated by why might occur in therapy for our relationship.

In this post, we’ll discuss the stigma of seeking relationship counseling, marriage counseling fears that keep couples from coming for therapy and what couples can expect when they take the step to come for help.

Why Michelle Obama Shared Her Marriage Counseling Experiences

“That was jaw-dropping news,” one radio commentator said when discussing the former First Lady’s disclosure. That phrase, alone, reveals that the couples counseling stigma still exists. 

However, in interviews, Mrs. Obama has said why she revealed this personal information: “I know too many young couples who struggle and think somehow, there’s something wrong with them. I want them to know that Michelle and Barack Obama — who have a phenomenal marriage and who love each other — we work on our marriage, and we get help with our marriage when we need it.”

She notes that marriage counseling was “a turning point for me” and that “marriage counseling was one of those ways where we learned to talk about our differences.” “I want young people to know that marriage is work. Even the best marriages require work.”

Couples Counseling Stigma: Diminishing, but Still There

The stigma of going to counseling or therapy of any kind has long existed. Unfortunately, keeping the stigma “alive” are some outdated and even false beliefs.

These marriage counseling fears have included:

  • Counseling is associated with mental illness, and having any emotional problems has long been stigmatized in our culture. In fact, however, many people who seek counseling are looking to address very common concerns, including low self-esteem, grief and loss and, of course, help with a relationship. 
  • Seeking counseling has been associated with “weakness.” Some people believe we should be able to independently solve our problems. Americans, in particular, may feel that independence is an important personal strength. Part of the couples counseling stigma is that couples should be able to solve problems themselves.
  • Talking about problems is not a seen as a valid way of coping. Many believe that people should be able to “pull themselves up by their bootstraps” rather than looking to professionals when they need help.
  • Therapy isn’t really “science.” It’s just talking. However, over the past few decades study after study has validated the role of counseling — whether for individuals or couples — as a scientifically based source of help for a range of problems and a valid resource to get through tough times.
  • “Our relationship has been hard for us to talk about ourselves — much less with a stranger.” It feels so vulnerable to open up about such highly personal issues. Professional relationship therapists recognize your marriage counseling fears, and we make every effort to go at your own unique pace.
  • “We have put this off for so long. We’re afraid we’re hopeless.” This is a fear we often hear; however, as mentioned above and discussed below, we use the most-researched and most-successful approach to helping couples regain closeness, trust and joy. 

We Understand You May Delay in Seeking Help 

Myths and misconceptions abound that contribute to the couples counseling stigma. It is well-known that couples often delay seeking help — putting off the decision for years, sometimes decades. 

It’s unfortunate that the misunderstandings about couples or marriage counseling have been so prevalent. You’re not alone, however, if you have felt concerned or intimidated. 

Some of the misconceptions — and the actual facts — include:

  1. “The counselor will take sides.” This common marriage counseling fear  is understandable because we all want to be heard and understood — particularly by a professional whose help we seek. However, in Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy (known as EFT), the focus is on helping both partners understand themselves and each other. 
  2. “We’ll be judged by the therapist.” No one wants to be criticized or felt not accepted by their counselor. In EFT, the role of the therapist is quite different and well-defined. We help couples learn to understand why they argue or have become distant. We assist in teaching you how to resolve issues. We accept that each of your intentions are wholesome. There’s no place for judging of any type!
  3. “Counseling will take years — and we need help now.” We understand this concern. The EFT model is considered a “brief” therapy model, with many couples gaining a new understanding of their challenges in the first phase of the process. Yes, counseling does require a commitment; however, it is our intention to help you quickly acquire new skills and tools to reduce distress as soon as possible. What you learn in counseling can then be used well beyond after therapy has ended.
  4. “We tried marriage counseling in the past, and it didn’t work.”  But not every counselor is skilled in working with couples. According to a survey by the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, while 80 percent of therapists in private practice offer couples therapy, few have taken a single class in couples therapy or have completed an internship with someone who has mastered the art. 

Here at A Peaceful Life Counseling, our therapists are skilled and trained in EFT. The path of learning this model is lengthy and arduous and includes study and supervision by a Certified EFT therapist/supervisor.

“I’m Ready, But My Partner’s Not Willing to Come”

Marriage counseling fears can weigh more heavily on one of you than the other. The greatest gift you can offer your reluctant partner is compassion and honoring his or her trepidation.

Yes, it’s possible to get some benefit if only one partner participates in couples counseling. You can learn about your own contribution to the issues and disconnection in your relationship and perhaps gain insight into your partner’s concerns as well.

However, the best chance of reaching your goals occurs when you both make the journey together.

Also, recognize you may have different marriage counseling fears: It’s easy to dismiss or minimize the importance of your partner’s concerns when you don’t share the same perspective. Accepting their fears as valid for them can be a first step in fully listening to each other and realizing that seeking relationship counseling is a big step for both of you.

Perhaps the Biggest of the Marriage Counseling Fears

One of the key focuses — and what distinguishes the EFT model — is on the patterns of interaction between the couple. This often diminishes the biggest fear: “I’ll be blamed and found at fault for our relationship problems.”

We refer to the arguing and disconnection couples are experiencing as a “negative cycle” that has emerged between you. Couples learn that this negative cycle — not each other! — is the source of their misunderstandings and repeated, unresolved arguments.

The negative cycle can have different forms:

  • One partner keeps pressing the other to talk and for answers during an argument. The other partner withdraws, leaves the room or goes silent.
  • Both partners argue and pursue the other to talk things through, often causing an escalation or continuation of the argument.
  • Both partners withdraw, feeling reluctant to engage in a discussion, often fearing he or she will make matters worse if they try to work on the issue.
  • One of the “symptoms” of the negative cycle is the feeling that one or both of you are frequently “walking on eggshells” and afraid to try to reconnect.

In our sessions together, couples learn to recognize their own cycle. Then, importantly, they learn to stop the cycle more quickly. Without blame, they then learn to talk through their differences calmly and repair any misunderstandings and hurt feelings.

The Fear of Being Vulnerable

Being open about personal feelings can be more challenging for some than others. And, to do so with someone you don’t know can seem overwhelming. 

For some, feelings were not openly discussed in their families. Or, expression of feelings and emotions was discouraged. Children may have been chastised, even, when they spoke up about problems or concerns they were experiencing. Parents may have had the best of intentions to help their children be able to weather life’s challenges; however, these early memories can surface when thinking about going to counseling.

Professional relationship counselors are well aware that you may feel fearful about opening up and about revealing your true feelings. We ease into this process gently and respect the brave work you are willing to try.

When You’re Ready to Seek Help for Your Relationship

We recognize that “making the call” might be difficult for you. We make every effort to respond quickly to you and to help you feel as comfortable as possible when you visit with us. Let us know any concerns you may have, as we are always open to your thoughts.

We also want to emphasize that marriage and couples counseling has evolved greatly in recent years. We have chosen to offer EFT because it is the most research-supported and scientifically based approach. We want to give our couples the greatest opportunity to rekindle their relationship.

We encourage you to read more about Emotionally Focused Therapy with A Peaceful Life!

Speaking Up in Relationships: Essential for Lasting Connection

speaking up in relationships
Speaking Up is Hard to Do


Speaking up in relationships feels extremely challenging for many people and is more common than you might think.

And, there’s usually — when we drill down to the emotional level — one basic element: Fear. In this post, we’re explaining those fears as well as the “root causes” of why speaking up in relationships is more challenging for some than others.

Most importantly, we’ll share how speaking up actually brings you and your partner closer and can greatly enhance your emotional connection. Also helpful is recognizing that speaking up is indeed difficult and that as you work toward being more open with each other, you may also find that expressing your needs becomes easier over time.

Understanding Common Fears

Here’s what we often hear when a partner says he or she is afraid to let their significant other know what they’d like and what they need in the relationship:

  • “I don’t want to upset my partner.”
  • “He or she won’t understand my feelings.”
  • “If I speak up about a sensitive issue, I’m afraid we’ll end up in an argument.”
  • “It won’t make a difference — and then will leave us with unresolved feelings.”
  • “It’s early in our relationship — I fear we’ll break up if I tell my partner what I need.”

When we list these common themes — and, of course, there are many others — it’s easy to see that the basic root of speaking up in relationships is fear.

We emphasize this point because we know from research studies that fear of becoming more distant from our partner is at the core of many couples’ concerns.

“But My Partner Should Know What I Need Without My Needing to Tell Him or Her!”

Indeed, there is a part of us that believes we should not have to express our needs to the person closest to us. He or she should be fully aware.

We can thank Hollywood for this belief, as romantic partners on the screen seem to instinctively know just what their partner wants. These lovers seem to have such a flow together.

However, we ordinary humans can’t always know what our partner needs in every situation. The path to our heart is a moving target, after all. Our needs can change with each passing event.

So, let’s take that deeper dive into understanding how we may fear speaking up in relationships.

What We Learned Growing Up About Speaking Up

In his family, his parents were often uncomfortable talking about emotions and, at times, he was even chastised when he would seek comfort or reassurance from either parent. They wanted him to be independent and confident. So, emotions were seen as weakness for their son.

Her family was complicated. Her father’s frequent alcohol abuse caused arguments between her parents, and her mother was often the main breadwinner, at times working a second job. As a child, she did not want to be the cause of any additional problems between her parents in their fragile marriage. If she needed anything — whether a new pair of sneakers or comfort — she became fearful of making her needs known.

fear of speaking up in relationships

Neither of these youngsters had positive experiences with expressing their needs, afraid of rocking the boat or shame for making needs known.

We know from research that childhood experiences of all types can have profound — and sometimes lasting — influence on adulthood relationships. Fortunately, we also know that we can learn new ways of interacting as adults to have happier, healthier and more loving relationships.

When we bring this to light, please note we are not blaming parents, who had the best of intentions and in no way wanted to limit their kids’ success in life. However, as adults we can increase our awareness of our deeper feelings and work to set our lives (and our relationships) on a different path.

Our Very-Human Desire and Need to Belong

We’ve heard folks bemoan that they are “people pleasers” and that they fear rejection if they speak up. And, we understand that this fear is strongest in your relationship with your spouse or partner.

You may also find it difficult to speak up to others as well. Your fear of expressing your needs and wants may also occur in the workplace, with friends and with family members.

The closer and more important the relationship, the higher the “stakes” of speaking up: We truly may fear we won’t be loved or accepted if we discuss difficult topics with our partner or bring up our needs and wants.

And, here’s why:

When we fall in love, we form a powerful emotional and physical bond with our partner. As humans evolved, we became hard-wired to seek the security and comfort of a special person. People naturally seek relationships with others — parents first, family, and then a close circle of friends. We have this innate desire to be close to others and, as adults, our partner becomes the one we turn to for reassurance and comfort.

It’s common for us to hear, “I only get this upset with my partner when we’re arguing. I’m not so emotional with anyone else.” That is your “bond” talking! Your closest and most important connection began with your parents and then switched to your romantic partner as an adult.

Dire Consequences When We Don’t Speak Up

When we are not speaking up in relationships — particularly with our partner, the results can include:

  • We can build a resentment from a time when we felt disappointed in our partner; these unspoken and unresolved feelings can then last for years.
  • We may later find the negative but unspoken feelings are hard to contain — leading us to outbursts of anger and more frequent arguments. The arguments can cause us to feel less connected and secure — and, remember, we are hard-wired to seek comfort with our partner.
  • Children can be impacted by the arguments and the tension between the two of you.
  • Over time with continued arguments, there is often greater disconnection, which can result in less intimacy, greater feelings of rejection and a fraying of that emotional bond you shared earlier in your relationship.

It may be a challenge to realize that your partner also may be uncomfortable at first with these “deeper” conversations. You both can have an unspoken fear of losing each other and of creating unresolved conflict in your relationship.

Disagreements Are Often Inevitable

No two people are always on the same page. Successful couples, however, learn to manage and handle disagreements in positive ways. They learn to be “curious before furious” about their partner’s beliefs and views related to a situation. They learn to resolve differences rather than let them linger.

And, they learn to avoid two key triggers for bringing about anger: “Always” and “Never.”

When we use either term, couples are headed for escalating arguments, such as, “You always ignore me . . .” “You never remember. . .” 

Both terms are very accusatory and usually untrue: Rarely do we “always” or “never” do or don’t do something. Yet, when we’ve held in our resentments and we’re frustrated with our partner, it certainly can feel valid.

Taking Risks, Being Vulnerable and Making Our Needs Known

Let’s look again at that fear of speaking up in relationships, and what the experts have to say.

Dr. Susan Johnson, the primary creator of Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy, notes in her book for couples, “Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love,” “It is one thing to acknowledge and accept your own emotional reality, but another to open it up to your partner. This is a great leap for those of us who have little experience of real safety with others.” 

So, if we did not learn it was acceptable and welcome to speak up as a child or in our previous romantic relationships, it is indeed daunting to begin now.

In “Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy for Dummies,” which was written by two leading experts in the process, the authors help readers understand the fear of speaking up in relationships: “Fear is not built into human beings to be ignored . . .Fear signals that you need to deal with the core of the issue.” They emphasize that successful couples “connect in their fear” by taking a risk of vulnerability to share their feelings.

Dr. Johnson also points out that speaking up is difficult: “If this is too hard to do, take a smaller step and talk about how difficult it is to explicitly formulate and state your needs. Tell your partner if there is some way he or she can help you with this.”

Growing Closer Together

If opening up is so difficult, why should we try? Dr. Johnson addresses this: “Because we long for connection and remaining sad and defended and isolated is a sad and empty way to live.”

When we risk being vulnerable and share our feelings and emotions with our partner, we open the door to receiving the support and caring we crave. Yes, it feels daunting at first; however, the rewards lie in the new closeness and richness that can be achieved.

As we take steps to break the cycle of holding resentments, we can move past old hurts and learn to prevent new issues from lingering and fueling disconnection.

Learn More

We’ve devoted a number of blog articles to couples’ communication: You might also find helpful:

Couples and Chores: Putting an End to the Chore Wars

Couples and chores is a not-unusual source of arguments, hurt feelings and disconnection in relationships.

However, what lies beneath the complaints that your partner is not doing his or her fair share of household chores, are typically much deeper feelings. And, it is these deeper emotions that can fuel the intensity of those arguments.

In this post, we’ll take that journey down to the depths of why couples and chores arguments can be so difficult to resolve, why many agreements couples make may not last and, then, offer suggestions for making peace over getting things done around your busy household.

Chore Wars Abound — And So Do the Consequences

One study showed that 25% of couples who divorced named disagreements about chores as a contributing factor, with infidelity and the relationship drifting apart as the top two reasons.

Other research showed that couples who chose to hire some help with household chores were happier because outsourcing chores gave them more time together.

Still, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that, while men are contributing more help these days with chores, women still spend more time doing household tasks.

Let’s Look at Deeper Reasons for Arguing About Chores

At the core of Emotionally Focused Therapy, the most-successful approach to helping couples, are three guiding principles that keep a couple’s emotional bond secure and strong:

  • Accessibility: Can I reach you when I need you?
  • Responsiveness: Can I rely on you to respond to me emotionally?
  • Engagement: Do I know you will value me and stay close?

Keeping that deeper focus on our core emotions, we can see how these basic needs are at the core of arguments of couples and chores. Consider these common themes of the chore wars:

  • “Don’t you see how much I have to do around here?”
  • “I feel so hurt when you don’t follow through with the chores you’ve committed to do!”
  • “I pull my weight around here, but you grumble every time I remind you of your responsibilities.”
  • “Oh, and why do I have to keep reminding you anyway?”
  • “Why don’t you understand why all the clutter and stuff  lying around bothers me?”

It takes a moment and some thought to make the connections: At the deeper, core level, one partner clearly feels hurt and unimportant when the other partner doesn’t do their fair share or keep a commitment.

And, it is those hurt feelings and deeper emotions that fuel the intensity of the arguments. One partner is protesting the apparent lack of honoring commitments that were made. Too, he or she can feel hurt when requests are seemingly ignored or forgotten.

In summary, the hurt partner is feeling that his or her needs are not understood or respected.

Couples and Chores Arguments: Chicken or the Egg?

Only by probing further, can couples understand the origins of their chore arguments.

We find in our therapy offices, that when couples are feeling distant, emotionally unsupported and the relationship is in distress, the chore arguments often are a symptom — rather than the root cause.

Jane is feeling hurt that John has not initiated intimacy or date nights. When John forgets his chore of taking out the trash, Jane fumes.. She barks at him: “Dang it, you’ve forgotten the trash again!” John only hears the anger, he isn’t aware of the more hidden, deeper pain.

On the other hand, when John and Jane are doing well and are kind and loving together, Jane’s request is entirely different:

“Hey, Hon, the trash is full. Could you take it out for me?” she says in a gentle tone.

He replies, also kindly: “Oops, sorry. I forgot to open the lid and check. I’m on it now!”

Easy, peasy, right?

It’s helpful to discern which came first: Couples and chores arguments — or a fundamental breakdown of closeness and connection.

The degrading of those three principles we listed above is, of course, more challenging to resolve. We’re going to focus here, though, on how to address the misunderstandings that occur about couples and chores and on suggestions to resolve or avoid those pesky chore wars.

The Essential Discussion

Failure to sit down and make some clear, distinct decisions about chores can clearly lead to a greater degree of misunderstandings later.

We also think it’s helpful to accept some basic chore-related principles:

  1. Some chores are less desirable or pleasant than others. Doing yard work in the hot summer months or cleaning bathrooms, for example. Oh, and dog poop clean up . . . .
  2. “Fairness” can change from time to time. When one partner’s workload is heavier it’s more difficult to share chores equally. This imbalance can occur, for example, when one partner is going to school plus working or when one partner’s job includes a great deal of travel. Therefore, one partner may have to pitch in to a greater degree at times.
  3. Agreements are best when they are continually reviewed, discussed and revised.

Creating the Best Chances for Success

Couples and chores agreements can have the best potential when you are both open and honest when making decisions.

Most importantly, if one of you is not okay with an agreement, are you speaking up to your partner? Can you say, for example, “Actually, that doesn’t feel right to me?” When you make an agreement you don’t truly agree with, you can be planting the seeds of a resentment — which can surface later as an argument.

Include in your discussion how you can support each other. Types of support can include taking on a few more tasks when one partner has higher work or childcare demands. The first year of a baby’s life is particularly taxing on both partners, however, often more so for the mom.

Discuss how you will remind each other if someone neglects a chore commitment. Clearly, you want to avoid angry, hostile encounters. If this has been a problem in the past, it can be helpful to discuss and agree how you’ll share your feelings going forward.

And, finally, agree to those regular discussions and to making revisions on the commitments if needed.

Neatness, Tidiness, Degrees of Orderliness

When not more deeply understood, the needs of one partner for greater levels of cleanliness and order can be a minefield for couples and chores arguments.

Getting to the heart of each person’s beliefs and feelings can be a game-changer. Replacing repeated arguments with a greater knowledge of your partner’s emotions related to the level of comfort he or she has with household order has the potential to reduce the discord.

At times, a person who requires greater tidiness, finds comfort in having everything in place. On the other hand, a person may have feelings of shame if the house is not attractive when company drops by.

Someone who grew up in a chaotic home environment may find peace in the stability of having everything in place. To the contrary, someone whose parents were very strict on chores may want relief as an adult from strict demands.

When each partner truly listens to their significant other’s story and accepts their partner’s feelings, it can become much easier to make those agreements about household chores. Too, when we feel heard by our partner, we can feel more secure and loved — as well as getting to the core of chore conflict.

Keep on Reading!

Some of our other blogs may be helpful:

Communication in relationships

Avoiding relationship conflictS

Why Couples Fight About Money — and How You Can Learn to Stop Arguing

why couples fight about money

Why couples fight about money often has deep roots in each person’s core beliefs that extend far beneath the dollars and cents of  finances and budgets.

The problem, however, is pervasive: Studies have shown that one-third of couples report money is a major source of conflict — and that arguments over money tend to be more intense and less likely to be resolved.

We’re going to help you understand those deeper beliefs of which you or your partner might not be aware. As we bring those to the surface, you’ll gain new insight into your money arguments. Then, we’ll offer suggestions on how to use that greater understanding to reduce or end conflicts about finances.

It’s Not Just About the Money!

John Gottman, Ph.D., the well-known author and developer of the Gottman counseling method, points out: “Arguments about money aren’t about money. They are about our dreams, our fears and our inadequacies.”

We said we were going deeper, right? Money in many ways defines who we are: how we dress, the social groups we join, the careers we choose, where we live, what we eat.

“Out of all the forces that determine our relationship with money, the most influential is our personal history — the melting pot of our childhood, teenage and adult experiences that have sculpted and re-sculpted our likes and dislikes about money throughout our lives,” Dr. Gottman explains.

Things to consider include:

  • As a child, was money challenging for your family? Did your parents struggle to pay bills, rent and to buy food?
  • On the other hand, was money plentiful in your family, but for your partner, the picture was far different?
  • How did you look upon other kids who had more than you when you were young?
  • Did your parents argue about money? Did a parent have a problem with gambling, spending too much or spending to keep up with their social group?

Research shows we do “inherit” or learn attitudes, values and beliefs about money from our parents and other family members.

Yet — and here’s the tricky part — we may not even be aware of our beliefs about spending and saving and why couples fight about money.

A Save vs. Spend Scenario

Bruce and Jerry found themselves frequently arguing about Jerry’s spending. Since combining their households, every part of their relationship was great — except the issues surrounding money. And, that “great” relationship was being negatively impacted because of increasingly frequent arguments.

Bruce was fearful of spending money. Jerry much less so. Bruce feared debt; Jerry felt some debt was just fine. As with many couples, they’d never discussed finances to any degree earlier in their relationship. After all, they both had good jobs and, now in their late 30s, enjoyed promising careers.

Yet, the tensions grew.

Jack and Jillian, on the other hand, had no longer argued about money — because they had become so frustrated because their attempts at discussions never ended in  any resolution. Yet the tension between them was eroding trust and confidence. Jillian had been labeled the “spender” by Jack, and he became accused of being the “cheapskate.”

Their negative cycle of arguing had been emotionally charged, indeed. Nothing was ever resolved, understood or changed. They felt stuck.

We’ll return to these couples, but first let’s focus on the true, deeper meanings that lie beneath why couples fight about money and finances.

The Meaning of Money — and How Differences Can Help You Understand Why Couples Fight About Money

Brent Bradley, Ph.D., and James Furrow, Ph.D., in their book, “Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy for Dummies,” cite four different ways partners in a relationship may look at money:

  • Security. We feel secure in our lives when we have stable finances.
  • Pleasure. Money is a source of the good life — we can buy nice things, be generous in giving to others and, it seems, buy some level of happiness.
  • Control. When we’re financially secure, we may feel we have more options and choices in life — where we live, work, send our kids to school.
  • Status. Money shows we’re successful.

But at the root of these differences and beliefs, can lie a major gap in how partners feel and the deepest root is often fear. These deeper fears that can contribute to why couples fight about money include  worry about becoming more disconnected from each other when both partners don’t share the same values related to money. Trust concerns can emerge when financial decision-making isn’t shared before expenditures are made.

Let’s Return to Our Two Couples

Bruce began to explore his fears related to money. He realized his concerns were heightened following the 2008 financial crisis when he’d lost his job in a major downsizing. He vividly remembers, like so many of his peers, when he was told his job was ending and then carrying out his box of personal belongings.

Jillian admits she likes to spend money. She grew up never feeling secure because of times when her parents struggled with housing and even having enough food. When she began her career, she enjoyed the new freedom of being able to buy things she both needed and wanted. Jack had a similar background but felt differently: He adamantly felt having a nest egg of savings was tantamount.

As couples explore the deeper meanings of money and learn more about why couples fight about money, they can bring to the surface those seemingly hidden emotions. This new understanding of self and partner can help them bridge the gaps in their differing beliefs.

“Oh, now I understand!” “So, that’s why you didn’t want to help me plan our vacations!” “I can now see why the bill for the new air conditioner really sparked a lot of fear.”

Why Couples Fight About Money: Learning to Defeat the Conflict

Healthy conversations about money are critical to learning how to handle finances together.

Financial experts suggest that before couples move in together, they ask each other:

  • Who will pay for which expenses in the household?
  • How will we handle unexpected bills, such as major house repairs?
  • How much debt do you have? How are you managing that debt?
  • What’s your credit score?
  • What will happen if one of us loses our income (job loss, illness., etc.)?
  • What are your beliefs about kids and money — allowances, school tuition, helping adult children?

Yes, these can be difficult questions to ask, and many couples will shy away from being this direct. However, learning to talk about money openly, frankly and calmly in the earlier stages can make reaching resolution to differences easier later on.

If a couple has been arguing about money, beginning the conversations about finances can be much more difficult. The chance to be emotionally triggered can be greater because of the negative cycles of arguing that developed in the past.

Moving Toward a New Understanding

We suggest setting aside time for these conversations that are without distractions and when children are not present. Plan on a series of conversations so you don’t become over-tired or too stressed. For guidance on having these discussions, read [link to Emotional Communication blog].

If the conversation becomes heated, slow down; take a short break if necessary.

And, we suggest starting off with the possibly easier questions of gaining a greater understanding of each other’s beliefs about money, such as:

  • What did you learn about money growing up in your family?
  • Were there times of financial difficulties? Was there great abundance of money?
  • How were these experiences different from those of your partner?
  • Were there any events growing up that were challenging around money — or other events, such as an illness, job loss, financial losses?

Then, you can try to get to some “present day” issues, which could include:

  • What deeper meaning does money have for you? Look at the information above: How do you each see money in terms of security, pleasure, control and status? Keep in mind there is no “right” or “wrong.” Try to avoid judging each other; rather, seek to understand what shapes your beliefs.
  • What makes each of you uncomfortable about money? What are your fears?
  • What are your values concerning teaching kids about money?

Your conversations may wander a bit and lead to tangents. However, good information may lie in the various stories you each recall about your “money history.”

Going Forward

Areas of difficulty for couples can include when one partner makes a financial decision without consulting the other; not developing a shared understanding of a budget; lack of clarity about who will handle the tasks of paying bills and financial decisions; and how to manage debt.

Consulting a qualified financial planner may also be helpful. That way, you’re getting professional advice that can help pave the way toward a healthier financial life.

Turning to Each Other

The arguments over money may have become a very dividing force between you. However, couples can learn to rely on each other when finances get tough.

If you’ve been able to bring to the surface your deeper (and possibly hidden from your awareness) beliefs and concerns related to money, you can use this new knowledge to actually strengthen your connection, such as:

  • Providing comfort and reassurance when your partner is distressed about finances
  • Problem-solve together to thoughtfully work out solutions. You were “islands” in the past; you can now work as a team.

Repairing Broken Trust

When couples fight about money, issues of trust may have occurred, including when:

  • One partner made a purchase decision without consulting the other
  • The amount of debt incurred was hidden or not disclosed
  • Bills didn’t get paid or paid on time
  • Finances were always kept separate when one partner preferred them combined and the other partner was hesitant

As noted earlier, issues about why couples fight about money often involve varied emotions. And, when couples fight about money, there often is an erosion of trust and confidence in the security of the relationship.

Therefore, some healing may be needed. You can read about how to gain some understanding about the impact of shame and find some general guidelines on communication.

How to Apologize in Relationships

How to Apologize in Relationships

Couples often are struggling with how to apologize in relationships. Because of our very nature has human beings, we are all imperfect. We can be forgetful, insensitive, distracted, tired or cranky.

It is impossible (yes, impossible!) to not occasionally hurt our partner’s feelings. Something we said, didn’t say, did or didn’t do. . . missteps that, even without intent, can be hurtful and cause emotional distress.

However, when it comes to apologizing, we hear quite often that couples are challenged by how to apologize in relationships, how to be genuine and how to effectively address their partner’s needs.

In this post, we’re exploring why apologies often fail to hit the mark and then, of course, how to apologize in relationships with meaning and empathy. We’ll discuss how apologies can strengthen your bond and reconnection by maintaining and enhancing trust. And, we’ll help you deepen your understanding and appreciation of each other’s emotional needs to feel securely loved.

When Apologies Fail

Apologies rarely are helpful — and can even at times be more hurtful — when:

  • An apology is given only to appease the other partner’s anger and disappointment
  • The apology is an attempt to move on and put the issue behind you without acknowledging the pain the hurt partner is feeling
  • Automatic and almost rote when a more serious issue needs to be addressed

To be successful, an apology must recognize and not minimize the hurt feelings the partner is experiencing.

A major stumbling block in how to apologize in relationships can occur when the offending partner does not see the hurt partner’s painful feelings as justified or valid.

A natural (but not helpful!) reaction by the offending partner to the situation can include:

  • “I don’t understand why it’s such a big deal!”
  • “You’re too emotional about this.”
  • “You know I didn’t mean it.”

Getting to the Heart of the Matter

Apologies matter most between spouses and partners — and to a far greater degree than with others in our lives. The emotional and physical bond we share with our beloved is a powerful force. So, when something hurtful or forgotten occurs, the hurt feelings are far more significant than with anyone else.

It’s not unusual for the offending partner to feel at a loss about how to apologize and this, in turn, can lead to unintentionally minimizing or dismissing the partner’s feelings.

With our partner, we have a basic need to be heard and understood. We desire to be appreciated for our uniqueness and for our span of normal human emotions. We have a strong need to preserve that bond and know that we are secure in our partner’s hearts.

Therefore, we need to know that our feelings matter. We need our partner to validate our needs for connection, trust and acceptance.

We very much need to know that our partner is on our side. So, when something hurtful occurs, we need to know that our partner will seek to repair the situation. An apology takes on a much greater meaning because of that strong bond.

How to Apologize in Relationships: The Key Elements

In Emotionally Focused Therapy, the most-successful and most-researched approach to helping couples in distress, there are clear guidelines for healing hurtful events. These steps have been proven, through studies and research, to be effective in how to apologize to a partner.

1. The hurt partner is able to discuss the impact of the event and his or her deeper feelings. This can be challenging because it can be difficult to be calm and to avoid anger. There can be a fear that the other person won’t understand or that the hurtful event will never be healed.

2. The offending partner works hard to decrease defensiveness and to avoid interrupting — which is often a sign of being defensive. As both partners are able to calmly discuss the event, the offending partner can begin to understand the significance of the event in his or her partner’s mind (even if the action did not feel so big or important to the offending partner).

3. When the hurt partner can speak of the pain and the other partner hears the feelings, the door is open for the injured partner to speak more deeply of the hurt. The importance of the bond is often part of the hurt partner’s explanation.

4. The injuring partner becomes more aware and is having a “felt sense” of the partner’s pain. He or she is emotionally connecting with the partner’s concerns and level of feelings about the event. At this point, the injuring partner is able to take responsibility for what happened and express regret and remorse with true empathy

5. The injured partner is able to accept comfort and reassurance, feeling that the partner “gets it” that the event was hurtful for him or her.

At this point, both partners are more able to respond to each other: One partner accepts that the event was hurtful to the other, and the hurt partner can begin to trust that he or she will be heard and understood.

Jane & John Practice How to Apologize in Relationships

Jane is feeling very hurt that John was not very focused on their 15th anniversary. Granted, Jane was the one who usually planned the dinner or weekend away. She was typically more tuned in to special occasions.

But this year, John was more distracted than usual because of changes at his job. His company was forecasting another “reorganization,” which was usually upsetting to all the staff because there were many unknown possibilities that could impact his work and his sense of job security.

Feeling that the number “15” was an important milestone, Jane planned an overnight at a local resort and some spa time for both of them. But John was on his phone to colleagues and he even bought his laptop. Jane felt a slow burn as the weekend progressed, feeling unimportant and sad that John could not focus on her and on being close.

Jane held back speaking up because she did not want to cause an argument — and she kept hoping John would respond to her hints that he set work aside for just those two special days together.

Not surprisingly, on the drive home, Jane could no longer contain her feelings. She was angry, and she became very emotional about how hurt she felt. John defended his position. He hoped she would understand how worried he was about work. Both felt distant and they tabled the discussion when they got home so they could spend time with their children.

As the days moved forward, each hoped for the other to gain some understanding and apologize. However, the subject of the weekend became a “hot potato” of shorts, each doing a pretty good job of avoiding any discussion of their disappointment.

Lingering Feelings Are Still as Painful

Jane grew frustrated that her feelings weren’t being acknowledged. She told John they really needed to talk.

They were able to use the above guidelines, which they had practiced before in couples therapy. While they had a roadmap for the discussion, they both felt a degree of apprehension. So, John took the initiative: “I know it’s hard for us sometimes to discuss problems. However, I realize we need to set this behind us.”

John’s acknowledgment of Jane’s need to talk helped her relax, knowing she would be heard and that John was willing to understand her deeper feelings. They knew how to apologize in relationships — and they needed to have that conversation.

The discussion took some time — and considerable patience. However, they slowed down their reactions to each other and worked at focusing on what each other was saying. They were able to agree that had Jane spoken up earlier, it might have helped John realize how distracted he was. John was able to recognize how he was distant and how important the weekend was to Jane.

Each was able to apologize with sincerity. The couple was able to turn a hurtful time into a bonding event — when they shared deeper feelings and their need for understanding and support.

Bigger Events May Be More Challenging to Heal

The most challenging dilemma for most couples is navigating affair recovery. You can learn more here [link to blog]. To learn more about Emotionally Focused Therapy, read [link to cornerstone page.]

To understand more about communication in relationships, read our article on relationship communication here.

If you are reeling from an emotional affair and need help moving on, read our article on the subject here.