When Couples Fight — The Argument Is Rarely About the “Issue”

It probably took me a good 5-6 years of marriage before I realized that the fights my wife Heather and I were having were rarely ever about the issue that we were fighting about.

The fight is just the top of the surface, or as I like to tell couples — the top of the funnel. But as you enter the funnel and dive deeper you realize there is more to the fight than the supposed content a couple is arguing about.

For example, when I thought Heather and I were fighting about too many late nights working (hers and mine) — it wasn’t really about that. In this case, Heather and I’s fights were about feeling disconnected, or not important or valued. And when we are disconnected we experience deeper feelings underneath those. Feeling alone and abandoned (those go way back for me — long before Heather; check out Chapter 3 of my book The Anxious Christian if you want a better glimpse of the core negative feelings that go back way before your partner).

A typical fight that couples bring into my therapy office is over money. But money is just the issue at the top of the funnel — but it’s rarely about that. Dive deeper and one might discover that one of the spouses feels they have no voice in the marriage, and it just comes out in an argument over money. No voice leaves them feeling not important — not important leaves them feeling worthless. That’s just an example.

I could play this scenario out in how couple’s fight about sex, money, kids, in-laws, etc, and you would soon discover that the fight is just the smoke that points to a fire below the surface. And when arguments stay at the top of the funnel, solely focused on the issue, they are rarely healed long term.

Slow Down and Observe
At this point in our lives we have probably developed some pretty good coping skills that cover up the issues below the surface in our marriage. But begin changing your marriage by doing something. I recommend that you slow down and begin to observe the arguments that you and your spouse are having. As you observe pay real close attention to your experience of yourself in those arguments. Ask yourself questions like, “What am I feeling right now?” Not what are you doing, but what are you feeling. “What do I want to do when I feel this way?”

As you pay closer attention to your feelings and coping patterns in an argument you will begin to see below the surface, and hopefully begin the process of gaining a clearer picture of what is happening between you and your partner when you argue.

It may not seem revolutionary, but trust me, it can change your marriage. It has changed mine.

For some guided help on better understanding the patterns you have created between your feelings and coping, I recommend the book 5 Days to a New Marriage by Terry Hargrave and Shawn Stoever.

2 Comments

  1. by Sage Therapy on June 2, 2012  1:35 pm Reply

    It was interesting reading your blog, and I understand perfectly well the message you are trying to imply. I think this kind of situation often occurs too, when there are unresolved issues in the past. When you and your partner starts to argue about small things, it will always end up getting worse because either one of you will always brought up what was never finish before. So I believe that a certain argument should always have its closure for things to start getting better.

  2. by Ann on August 17, 2012  6:21 pm Reply

    I also recommend the book Hold Me Tight: 7 Conversations for a Lifetime of Love, by Sue Johnson. In it she introduces readers (couples in particular) to her brand of therapy - Emotionally Focused Therapy, or EFT. It's so applicable and works wonders for couples. I try to incorporate the principles in my own relationship.

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