A Therapist’s Guide to Arguments with your Spouse

Recently, I had a couple come in. They’d been arguing….a lot. We discussed a number of aspects about the dynamics of communications between couples that I think were part of their problem.

In most couples, there is usually one person who wants to discuss an issue to its completion, win or lose. They are the “Approach” person. Their partner however, usually prefers to avoid a fight. They are the “Avoidance” person.

Approach people have been known to follow the Avoidance person throughout the house, trying to continue the discussion/fight.  They have also been known to provoke the Avoidance person to get them to engage in the fight, so they can finish it. They may also bring the topic/issue up again and again, in hopes the fight will be finished.  The Avoidance person is known for walking away from the Approach person; literally, in the middle of the discussion/fight. And they continually walk away from the Approach person if the Approach person follows them around the house.

What to do:

First. This is a common dynamic in couples. This is NOT an indication that they two people are fundamentally incompatible as a couple. In fact, some therapists suggest the “one approaches/one avoids” dynamic is more stable than both being avoiders or approachers.

Second. I suggest they agree to take a break when one or both feel they are getting too upset in the fight to listen to what their partner is saying. This usually is toughest for the approach person. Either person can suggest this…taking a break.  If the avoider is always the one to suggest it, the approacher may feel the avoider is just using a break to avoid the fight. So, I suggest both take on the responsibility to suggest taking a break.

Third. There is a right way to take a break; most reports doing it the wrong way when they first come into my office. The proper way is (something like): “I need to take a break.  I am going to go outside for about 30 minutes. When I come in, I will find you and we will decide if we are both at a point where we can continue this or if we need more time to calm down before talking.” Don’t just walk off. Most couples need to practice this when they are not fighting to be able to do it when they are fighting.  Yes, you will feel silly practicing this; but who said you would not feel silly doing a lot of the things we have to do in life?!!!

Fourth. Guys generally are physically bigger, stronger, have a deeper voice than women.  Women, on the other hand, generally, can think faster, talk faster and talk longer than men. Consider these aspects (how they play out) in your relationship. If you are the man and the Avoider, do you use your size to intimidate her to back off?  Does she then need to scream at you to get your attention?   If you are the woman and the approacher, do you overwhelm him with how much you say, how fast you talk, etc. Does he withdraw because of how overwhelming you are?

Fifth. Consider your partner’s background. If your partner has told you their mother/father used to yell a lot or if they have told you that they don’t like yelling, if you really want to communicate with them, you must not yell or raise your voice. Conversely, if your partner tells you your father/mother never stood up for themselves or if they have told you they want you to be honest with you and speak up, walking away from them during a fight or discussion because you are uncomfortable is not going to help the relationship.

Sixth. When I was in my twenties and thirties (and married), I was not mature enough to make myself stop/take a break during fights. What helped me learn to stop/take a break was years of seeing the consequences of my persistence of making my point in a fight…. my ex-wife withdrawing from me for hours and days. After a while, it began to dawn on me that that was not what I wanted (….but by then, I had done considerable damage to our relationship).

If you are having difficulty taking breaks during fights, perhaps you don’t see the damage you are doing to your partner and your relationship. Or perhaps you don’t care if you hurt your partner or damage your relationship.

More later…