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