All couples fight. It’s completely natural, and comes with the territory of being in a relationship. But when you find yourself bickering more than usual, it’s natural to wonder, “How much fighting is too much?” and “Are we totally screwed?”
Our argument is probably about more than you think.
Long-term committed relationships are hard.
There are massive benefits to them, of course, but it’s challenging to live with someone day in, day out. You’ve got to cooperate, negotiate, communicate, and connect every single day (if you want to keep the relationship thriving). Add kids to the mix and things get even more interesting.
It turns out, there’s often a fight beneath the fight. And lots of couples end up arguing about the same things (I’m far from the only person to squabble with her partner about the dishes). Relationship therapists like Darcy Sterling, Ph.D., LCSW, psychotherapist Vanessa Marin, and Rosara Torrisi, Ph.D., have helped plenty of couples work through their disagreements. And they constantly see common fights boil down into similar root issues that have similar solutions.
1. “You’re always working. I never see you.”
Whether you’ve been in a relationship for a few years or a few months, it can be difficult to fit everything into your busy days — and sometimes your relationship takes a backseat. Maybe one person is trying to build a high-powered career and needs to put in extra hours at the office. Or maybe it’s a new-ish relationship and one of you is trying hard to avoid sacrificing your friendships. “Why are you always out with your friends?” is another version of this fight Sterling often hears.
The general “spend more time with me” request can mean a few things, Torrisi says. It could be that your partner doesn’t feel like a priority in your life, or it could be that their expectations for being in a relationship aren’t being met. For example, if your partner thought that being with you meant they’d never have to go to family gatherings alone, and now you’re missing events because of work or plans with other people, then you’re not living up to their ideal version of a partner.
In either case, Torrisi suggests sitting down together and figuring out your expectations for time spent together. If your partner is insecure about being alone at parties or family dinners, try your best to work your schedule so you can make those events. If they don’t feel like a priority, make the time you can spend together into quality time.
“Most people don’t have endless amounts of time, especially people who are just beginning relationships and are often also trying to build a career,” Torrisi says. Maybe you truly only have a few hours every Friday to be in a relationship, but if that’s the case you need to spend those few hours being fully present with your partner. Put your electronics away, plan a date night, try new things together (both in and out of the bedroom), and talk about your relationship.
2. “Can you not be on your phone all the time?”
Having technology at our fingertips can be both a blessing and a curse to our relationships. On the one hand, there are dating apps that let us connect with people we never would have met. But then, once we’re in a relationship, the phone can become a distraction, Torrisi says. “What happens with phones is that they’re our primary soothing activity for anxiety and boredom,” she explains. That means that we gravitate toward our phones when there’s an awkward pause in conversation (which tends to happen often when a relationship is young) or when we’re bored sitting at home with a long-term partner.
Zack B., 27, constantly argues with his wife about spending too much time on his phone. His head is down so often that she accuses him of being addicted to technology. Typically, he laughs her comments off without addressing them.
Yet, couples who tend to have this fight are usually fighting about intimacy more than they are about phone usage, Sterling says. They just might not recognize that. It’s likely that Zack’s wife isn’t really concerned about how many YouTube videos he watches every day. She’s probably more upset that he’s stopped being as engaged with her as he was before the phone caught his attention.
The solution to this one is pretty simple: Put your phone away. “There are so many ways we can be more mindful about our phone habits,” Marin says. “I recommend that couples try to spend at least 20 minutes of cell phone-free time per day and have dedicated phone-free date nights.”
While you can’t expect to magically spend less time with Candy Crush and more with your partner overnight, you can make it clear to them that you’re trying. That way, the argument might be softer next time, because your partner can gently remind you of what you agreed upon.
3. “Why does your ex like everything you post?”
It’s not too difficult to understand the emotion behind this argument: jealousy. And it’s not always about an ex. Jealousy can rear its head when one partner thinks the other is flirting with someone else and even when a partner’s celebrity crush comes up in conversation.
Matt, 20, had this problem with his ex-girlfriend. She had what he calls “a flirty personality,” and it bothered him when he saw her interacting with other men, even though he knew her flirting was harmless.
Tina, 23, also finds herself feeling jealous a lot, often when her boyfriend talks about his love for Emma Watson, an actress who looks nothing like her. If she’s his biggest fantasy, Tina thinks, then does that mean he’s not really attracted to her?
Insecurity is often at the root of jealousy — we get jealous because we worry that our partners aren’t invested in us anymore, or that we’re no longer “good enough” to satisfy their desires. “At its root, [jealousy is] a fear of loss: loss of a person, a situation, or of face. Until you’ve eradicated these issues in yourself, remind yourself that your jealousy has far less to do with what your partner is doing and is more deeply rooted in your own issues,” Sterling writes on her blog. Recognizing that your jealousy is about you, not your partner, can give you the perspective you need to start dealing with the insecurities that are making you feel vulnerable.
4. “Why don’t we have sex anymore?”
Anyone who’s been in a relationship long enough for sex to fade has probably uttered these words. But if you’re constantly upset about the amount of sex you’re not having, there may be a mismatch in the way you and your partner express intimacy.
Sarah, 25, has a much higher sex drive than her girlfriend. When the two don’t have sex as often as she likes, she admits that she eventually gets so frustrated that she gives her girlfriend the cold shoulder.
Again, the solution lies in communication and, specifically, in how we communicate. Usually, fights like this happen because each partner shows love in different ways, according to Gary Chapman, Ph.D.’s book “The 5 Love Languages.” For people like Sarah, sex is more than just a way to feel good physically. Her love language is physical touch, which means that kisses, caresses, and sex are how she shows her partners that she loves them and how she feels loved in return.
Sarah’s partner likely shows love in a different way (the other four love languages are: acts of service, gifts, words of affirmation, and quality time). When each person values different parts of their relationship, it can cause tension. The solution: Talk to your partner and figure out what each of your love languages are. In Sarah’s case, she could tell her girlfriend that sex makes her feel loved. It might not result in the bustling sex life she wants — because no one should pressure anyone else into having sex when they’re not in the mood. But, being honest about her feelings could help her girlfriend recognize why sex is so important. It might lead to more sexy nights or the kisses and caresses that Sarah also values.
When you find yourself fighting, don’t worry too much.
Often, people run scared when they start fighting with their partners, Sterling says. “We think conflict is the sign of a bad match. So instead of building those [conflict-solving] muscles and learning how to resolve it, most people jump ship.” Really, though, arguing is a normal part of every relationship, including non-romantic ones. And Sterling worries more when couples don’t fight than when they do — it’s usually a sign that either or both partners don’t trust that they can get through an argument. “They’re not being authentically themselves,” she says. “They’re walking on eggshells, whether they realize it or not.” Clearly though, we need to be able to express our feelings in order to resolve them.
10 Things Every Long-Term Couple Will Fight About at Some Point
The fact is, your personal and professional life, as much as you’d like to be totally separate, are inextricably linked. When things are going well at work but badly at home, it can be a problem–and vice versa.
It’s best, therefore, to be aware of common roadblocks in the romantic sphere. Here are the 10 most common fights long-term couples will have:
1. What do we spend the money on?
Study after study shows that the two biggest things couples fight about are money and sex. Does the kitchen really need to be renovated (again)? Are we going to send the kids to public school, or a $15,000/year private school? Did you really need to buy another scarf?
What you want to spend money on (and when) reveals critical things about your values and priorities. The most common couple pairing is for someone who likes to save, to be with someone who wants to spend. Savers and spenders tend to attract one another … then fight about it.
2. How often do we have sex?
Couples therapists call it “desire discrepancy” when one person wants sex more often than the other in a relationship. It’s a common issue in marriages and long-term partnerships. At the extreme, it can become a sexless marriage (see the excellent TEDx talk The Sex-Starved Marriage).
Fortunately, therapists say most couples’ actual desire discrepancy is small; partners just think it’s massive. For example, when asked separately, “How often would you ideally have sex per week?” a wife might say, 2-3 times, while her husband says 3-4 times.
They only differ by 1-2 times per week, but when asked, “How often would your partner want sex?” the wife in that example will say, “If he had it his way, we’d do it all the time–three times a day!” while he says, “If it were up to her, never! Maybe once a month, maybe.”
The perceived differential is far bigger than the actual one.
3. Where are we spending Thanksgiving? (Do we have to go to your parents’ again?)
The role of family members and extended family in a relationship is critical … and tricky. Holidays are extra hard because where you spend which one impacts a lot of people–the two of you but also your parents, grandparents, etc.
Where the holidays are spent also brings up general boundaries around family (and the accompanying disagreements). This includes questions like, “When they come to town, how long do they stay?” “Where do they stay (do they stay with us)?” and, “How much time do we spend with them?”
4. Were you just flirting with her?
Jealousy. If you’re both truly into one another, it’s inevitable that it will come up in some form or another.
This fight can also look like, “Why are you still friends with your ex on Facebook?” (That one is always fun.)
5. Who’s doing the dishes?
Sharing household responsibilities is a common source of stress, especially if things aren’t clear. Who takes out the trash? Who’s in charge of the finances? Who deals with household stuff like calling to set up the plumber (and who’ll stay home from work to meet him)?
Sex therapist Vanessa Marin says that when it comes to chores, “One person almost always feels like they’re carrying more of the load than the other.”
The best way to deal is to have an explicit conversation about household responsibilities as soon as you move in together. Agree to be responsible for certain things and see how it goes. If it’s not working, have another talk. Be proactive and don’t be afraid to get into the details (i.e. does taking out the trash include putting in a new bag?).
6. Why do you have to [drink] so much?
Or smoke, or play video games, or watch Netflix, or fill in the blank with any other behavior that impacts you and the relationship.
Everyone in a serious relationship ends up wishing their significant other would either do something, or stop doing something.
7. Are you mad at me? (Are we OK?)
How you deal with anger is something you usually learn from your family of origin. Whether you tend to be passive aggressive, clear and straightforward, or aggressive and defensive, you have an anger pattern and so does your partner.
Knowing how to talk about your upset, then have a repair conversation, is arguably the most critical relationship skill you can have. One study even showed that couples who were able to be openly angry in the beginning of their relationship were happier long-term.
8. When are you going to get another job?
Losing or quitting a job is stressful. And it’s highly likely to happen to either one or both of you at some point during your relationship.
When one partner loses a job, there’s a fine line for the other partner to walk between being supportive and being encouraging. You want to be understanding, but there may also be financial concerns that need addressing.
9. Why are you still working? (Why aren’t you spending more time with me)
Once your partner has a job, then you’ve got to negotiate how much time the two of you spend together. Fast Company’s article nails it: “What To Do When Your Crazy-Long Hours Are Ruining Your Relationship.”
It starts off with a few common refrains:
- “So I take it you won’t be home for dinner again tonight?”
- “Didn’t you have to go into the office last weekend, too?”
- “Gotta say I don’t feel like I’m much of a priority lately.”
How much your partner works can impact your sense of your importance in their life. The underlying issue in this fight is almost always, “Do I matter to you?”
10. What are you doing on your phone?
Technology. Social media. Distracted thinking. These are the consequences of a constantly-connected world, and it impacts couples in an intimate way.
It can be painful to feel ignored, which is a common feeling when your partner is on his or her phone while you’re together.
Some couples institute rules to combat this and protect couple-time (no phones at the dinner table; no phones after 9pm; no being on your phone when we’re having a conversation in the car, etc). Smart.
Because it’s natural to have disagreements in a relationship, it can be hard to know whether your level of fighting is healthy or unhealthy.
Sex therapist Marin does offers some practical guidance: “If it feels like you guys are fighting more often than not fighting, and that you guys are fighting dirty, you’re probably not a good fit. If you fight every once in awhile and do it relatively skillfully, you’re probably fine!”
It’s also worth nothing that if you think you as a couple need a little help or guidance, it’s worth investing in a couples counselor. In fact, it could be the best investment you ever make.
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