What’s that Fight Really About?

What's That Fight Really About-Couples all too often, when reflecting on an argument, say “It was about nothing,” or it’s over “just the little things.” It’s certainly true that many relationship conflicts don’t revolve around the bigger issues such as financial disagreements, parenting differences, or sexuality issues. While some arguments appear to be about nothing, are they truly not about anything? (As you can probably guess, the answer is “no” since I otherwise would have practically no reason to write this article!)

Recently, while browsing in an online professional forum, I came across an explanation of what is at the root of most relationship conflicts (including the aforementioned “bigger issues”). It was proposed that pretty much any conflict can be boiled down to occur for three reasons, or a varying combination of them.

Discord in all relationships is really about one or more of the following issues, which we usually are not aware of in the moment:

1. The need to feel significant and important.

2. The fear of abandonment.

3. The need for a sense of control.

The need to feel significant and important is common, and everyone experiences it from time to time. This need is frequently at the root of relationship conflict. For example, if one partner insists that their opinion or way of doing things is always right (how to spend money or discipline the kids), there can be some issues with self-esteem underlying why someone stubbornly believes that their way or decision is best. He or she needs to feel important or significant. Another example that comes up for couples is the desire for attention, or the amount of quality time together that one partner may need, which the other may not share. This desire can be looked at as a need to feel significant, or important to their partner.

On the other hand, a partner who never or rarely voices an opinion or disagrees with his or her mate regarding financial decisions, sexual preferences, or division of household chores, may have an underlying fear of abandonment. They may worry that if they rock the boat, their partner won’t accept them, and will ultimately abandon them. Suspicion and jealousy expressed in an intimate relationship are other examples of emotional reactions often covering the underlying fear of abandonment. This happens frequently, of course, if one partner has experienced trust issues in their current (or in a past) relationship.

The need for having a sense of control may in fact account for the most relationship conflicts. Underlying incompatibility issues with tidiness and cleanliness is often one partner’s need for having a sense of control over their environment. Another example is one partner insisting there is a “right” way to load the dishwasher. As you can see, many “little arguments” can often be about one partner’s need to maintain a sense of control.

As a couples counselor, while this notion of three basic root causes of conflict is important and helpful to consider, the biggest challenge is helping couples identify and express the underlying reason for their conflict. Once the core issue is uncovered, then the next challenge is a willingness to address it. Counselors can help a couple discuss underlying fears and needs, but it’s often difficult for clients to express them. A big challenge is for couples to be vulnerable enough to express their underlying fears and needs to their partner. Helping couples communicate their vulnerabilities is a challenging, but extremely important step in couples counseling.

Think back on your last conflict with your partner and see if you can identify the core reason(s) for your disagreement. Do any of the above-listed needs or fears help explain what contributed to your conflict?

If the same root fear or need recurs frequently in your relationship, it probably makes sense to seek (couples or individual) counseling. Taking time to figure out the source of your conflicts is well worth the time and energy and can help ensure your future happiness together.

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