If you’ve ever struggled with the unpleasant aftermath of an argument with someone you care about, feeling wounded and hurt and unable to move past it, and if you’ve been told to “just get over it,” you know it’s not that easy, even if your partner is ready to put the relationship conflict behind him/her.
What’s the cause of this feeling of stuck-ness when it comes to certain arguments? What accounts for those relationship or marital conflicts that one or both of you just can’t seem to let go of?
Not all arguments are alike, of course, and the key to understanding why some of them seem to grow tentacles and cling to you and why some evaporate like steam is gaining some insight into the nature of couples conflict in general.
The shapes of marital/relationship conflict that can prevent moving on
1) Deep wounds rather than surface wounds
When the topic is a superficial one (something that’s not about you, per se, but about something that you don’t feel all that invested in), it’s much easier to shake off the emotional residue of an argument. When the argument wounds deeply—when your partner says things that strike a nerve—the conflict is likely to linger in your psyche, even if the two of you have made your apologies and are trying to put it past you.
For instance, if the argument is about sex—one of the most difficult topics for couples to argue over, since it’s so personal and makes us so vulnerable—you’re likely entering into a very different emotional space than you would be if the argument were about household chores or who should have control of the TV remote. If you’re worried your partner might comment on your libido (maybe s/he feels you have too much libido, for example, or maybe too little), or on how attractive you are to him/her lately (or, you fear, how unattractive), you’re going to steel yourself for a potential deep wound.
Whether or not that deep wound comes, it’s hard to quickly transition from that self-protective psychic space to an easy, relaxed space where everything feels okay between the two of you again.
2) Projecting blame instead of taking responsibility
After a fight, if one of you—in the Monday-morning quarterback post-argument stage—insists on pointing the finger at the other as the sole cause of the fight, rather than accepting culpability for his/her share of the conflict, the argument is more likely to get dragged out even though, officially, the scores have been tallied and the bleachers have emptied.
When one (or both) of you can’t own up to an equal share in the conflict, it means the argument isn’t actually over. There are unresolved feelings of blame still brewing, and some semblance of the argument-fueled hostility (even if it’s buried and feels “civilized”) will continue until you can bring it out into the open and mutually address it.
(Contrary to popular belief, it’s impossible for one person to be solely responsible for a fight…by its very nature, a fight involves more than one; if one person walks off the battlefield, it’s no longer a battlefield. Even if one partner did something objectionable, the decision to fight about it rather than discuss it as calmly as is humanly possible is made by both of you. I realize this is easier said than done, so don’t beat yourself up if in the moment you indulge in the fight and feel very justified in doing so. We are all human, after all! And what you do after the fight in terms of seeking to regain your own inner sense of peace and control is as important than how you behave during the argument itself.)
3) Minimization rather than validation
“You’re making a big deal out of nothing,” your partner may tell you after a fight. Or perhaps you’ve heard that same message come out of your own mouth when you’re eager to move past a particularly nasty squabble.
But let me ask you this:
When has “don’t make a big deal of it” ever really helped anyone who’s genuinely upset? That message minimizes the other person’s experience, which is more likely to cause the other to cling more tightly to his/her feelings of being wronged. That’s right: it does exactly the opposite of what you intend!
If you feel validated, however, or if you help your spouse/partner feel validated (through active listening and through genuine statements like: “I understand”; “I can sense you’re feeling bad about what happened”; “I’d be feeling the same way if the tables were turned”), the wounded partner is much better equipped to move past the hurt in a healthy, productive way.
4) Frequent (repetitive) arguments instead of occasional (episodic) arguments
Often couples that come to see me at my counseling practice think that their marriage is in trouble because they fight. It’s a mis-assumption that fighting = relationship trouble.
Quite the contrary, research shows that couples that never fight are not any healthier than couples that do (and actually, if the couples that never fight are repressing problems and only avoiding conflict through that repression, they may be in less sound relationships than their counterparts that air grievances when they occur).
With that said, though, if you and your partner find yourself arguing so much that you fight more than not, and if the arguments tend to be about the same issue (rather than different, or episodic, issues), then in a sense the arguments are never truly resolving. Rather, you’re only taking a metaphoric breath at times and launching into the same argument after a little time has passed.
That pattern of arguing can be problematic because it feeds ongoing resentments instead of undoing them. So it can cause you to feel that you never really “get over” that particular relationship conflict.
5) Intentional wounding rather than accidental wounding
There are plenty of times we say things to our spouse/partner in the heat of an argument that we later wish we hadn’t said (and in the heat of the moment, we don’t always identify those statements as potentially being hurtful). We can be more mindful of what we say, even when we’re distressed (so as not to inadvertently hurt our mate), but still, those accidental woundings are part of being human and being in a relationship. (But we still should strive for more mindfulness!)
But when one partner deliberately wants to hurt the other, that’s a whole different story, and that is likely to cause the wounded partner to have a very difficult time of psychically letting the argument go.
Because people are complex, ever-evolving beings, relationships are complex, ever-evolving entities. And relationship arguing is complex, too. It can help to gain some understanding about the various patterns relationship or marital fighting can take so that when we’re next in the throes of one (or looking back on one we just had), we can gain fresh perspective and deeper insights.
Until next time,
Dr. Rich Nicastro
(Photo courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net)