Relationships evoke some of our deepest longings and needs, such as wanting to feel loved, wanting to feel appreciated, wanting to feel safe.
Nobody goes into a relationship looking for a fight. We want love, we want someone who values us, we want safety and a partner we can share with. We don’t want a fight.
Yet, fights are common with most couples. We’re human, after all, so frustration and the occasional miscommunication is unavoidable.
What is avoidable, however, are those recurring fights that drain our emotional energy and make us question why we are even in the relationship. Revisiting the same old fights with the same old outcomes of hurt, drama and emotional disconnection can be a cancer on our relationship.
Thankfully, we can stop these recurring fights by tackling the root cause of the problem. Couples who get stuck in the same fight over and over again is something I see all the time in my relationship coaching practice, but there’s a pretty easy solution: Focus on emotional triggers.
“A lot of couples say, ‘I just don’t know how to communicate RIGHT.’ They think it is about a structure. ‘If I just get the right structure of how to say things, the right words, then things will go well,’” Couples Center co-founder, Gal Szekely, noted during a recent episode of my relationship series, Talking Love.
“There are tools for communication out there, really great tools, but when it comes to a heated moment, couples don’t actually use them,” he said. “So we have to look a little deeper. The real cause of communication problems is not the way you talk, it is the emotional triggers that get evoked.”
Understanding Emotional Triggers
Couples fight over a million different issues. It could be taking out the garbage, it could be not doing the dishes, it could be too much time in the office or how best to raise the kids. What you and your partner fight over we can’t say, because there’s an infinite number of possibilities. But what’s more certain is that these issues probably aren’t the real reason for the fight.
Washing dishes is not the real problem because we only get annoyed when a friend fails to wash the dishes. The dishes becomes a huge problem for us or our partner when it signals something deeper about the relationship that does matter a lot, such as not having a reliable partner or not being heard.
Relationships evoke some of our deepest longings and needs, such as wanting to feel loved, wanting to feel appreciated, wanting to feel safe. These are important issues for us, so when our partner does or say something that threatens these needs, we react strongly.
These strong reactions are our emotional triggers, and each of us usually has a few of these triggers that set us off pretty quickly.
The problem is not that we have emotional triggers or that we care what our partner thinks. The reason many of us live through recurring fights is because we misunderstand the real reason for the fight and add fuel to the conflict by getting defensive and setting off each other’s emotional triggers once the fight has begun.
“You get some kind of negative message that for you is sensitive, which then causes you to act strongly emotionally in a defensive way. That then triggers your partner to react defensively in a negative way because they just got triggered by something sensitive you said,” Gal pointed out during our chat on the topic.
The cycle repeats itself during the fight and things usually end badly. And because most of us don’t understand the real reason we’re fighting, these proxy issues like washing the dishes confuse us and keep us from addressing the real problem. The fight repeats again later because we never actually resolved the underlying issue.
How to End the Fight
Getting out of this negative cycle takes work, but the process is simple and straightforward. It is something we all can do, whether the argument is a recurring fight that keeps happening over the course of 20 years or a one-off dispute that emerges out of nowhere one day at the breakfast table.
There are three basic steps: understand the cycle, discover the real issue, and communicate what’s really got you upset.
Step 1: Understand the Negative Cycle
The first step for resolving that recurring fight is recognizing that you’ve gotten into a negative cycle and emotional triggers are in play. Start by recognizing that you’ve gotten defensive, you’ve been emotionally triggered, and now you’re hurt or frustrated. Also realize that you’re probably activating the emotional triggers of your partner by criticizing, withdrawing, demeaning or not listening to them, which perpetuates the negative atmosphere.
Step 2: Find the Real Issue
Once you see the dynamics and how things have gotten out of control, the second step is figuring out the real issue that has caused the argument.
Begin this by recognizing that you’re getting defensive. That helps you stop the cycle. Then you have to ask yourself what just happened to you. What just caused you to get hurt, and what is the real issue that caused the problem? If we are honest with ourselves, we probably know our emotional triggers. So start there, and see if you can make the connection between your triggers and the proxy issue that caused your high emotions.
Step 3: Communicate What’s Really Bothering You
The third and most important step is then communicating your real issue and disarming your partner by disarming yourself through humility and vulnerability.
Once you know what’s really bothering you, you can take communication to a whole new level and stop the negative cycle that has caused the argument.
Instead of saying “You didn’t do the dishes yesterday,” for instance, you might instead communicate the real issue in an open, vulnerable way: “When you don’t do the dishes, I feel like I can’t count on you. That’s difficult for me, and that’s scary for me. If you’re my partner and I can’t count on you, that’s a huge issue and I feel horrible and worried!”
When we address the real issue directly and from a place of vulnerability, we do more than just make the real issue known; we change the whole tenor of the conversation, and both we and our partner start to disarm.
By finding and focusing on the real issue in a vulnerable way, you start working together as a couple again and move away from oppositional, me vs. them thinking. This has an almost instant effect on the fight, and don’t be surprised if there’s a magical change in your partner within seconds of you focusing on the real issue in a vulnerable way instead of a defensive, accusatory tone.
Stopping a recurring fight in our relationship is something we all can do with this three-step technique, but it can take time and practice before we successfully pull ourselves out of our longstanding tension points. If you need help putting this technique into practice, please reach out to me or The Couples Center for one-on-one guidance and support.
You also can learn more about the topic of emotional triggers by watching my video with Gal. He has some great advice on the topic, so I hope you’ll take the time to watch.
All the best to your relationship! You can stop the fight.
If you need help ending that recurring fight with your partner, reach out to The Couples Center for one-on-one guidance and support. You also can pick up some additional exercises for strengthening your relationship by watching my interview above with Gal.
Peter Kowalke is lead coach at Kowalke Relationship Coaching. He travels the world helping couples and singles build stronger relationships, and you can find him on Twitter @kowalke or through his YouTube channel.