Michele O'Mara

Why Don't We Get Along?

Filed By Michele O'Mara | November 03, 2008 4:30 PM | comments

Filed in: Living
Tags: advice column, gay advice, gay relationships, relationship advice, relationships

Why do my partner and I fight all the time?


Dear Frustrated,

According to relationship researcher John Gottman, 69% of all relationship problems are unsolvable. While that is an unfortunate statistic, it does make sense. It is unlikely for two people to think the same way about everything. So when we pair up with someone else, it is likely that they will want to fold their towels differently, mow the lawn differently, handle money differently, have different amounts or types of sex, enjoy different foods, have different priorities, change the bed sheets on a different schedule, enjoy different styles and types of decorating, and the list goes on. The point is, there is just so much about which we can disagree when we set up a life with someone else.

The issue, though, is not whether or not we disagree - we will all have disagreements, and that is healthy and okay! The issue is how we disagree and the meaning we assign to our disagreements. Unfortunately, many couples respond to disagreements as a "threat" or as if something is "wrong." The disagreeing itself becomes the focus of concern, when in reality, disagreeing is healthy and can lead to a lot of personal growth. (To prove this, if you are a McCain fan, let's talk).

Most people become very disappointed in their partner after the initial chemical buzz of the romantic stage wears off. We long for the fantasy of who we want our partner to be, and the more in touch we get with reality, the more disappointed we are.

Adding further insult to things, when we partner with someone, we become vulnerable to them - wanting their approval, their love, their support and their attention. Does this sound similar to what a child wants from his parents? Uh-huh! Often in our adult relationships we end up feeling the same frustrations, hurts and worries that we experienced growing up with our primary caregivers. We still want what we never got, or what we didn't get enough of!

Think about this question: "What was your greatest frustration or hurt when you were growing up?" Now ask yourself, "What is my greatest frustration or hurt in my current or previous adult relationship?" If you are like most, the answers are similar.

When growing up, we were at the mercy of our families to create a safe, loving, and supportive environment in which we can grow. For some people that happens, for some people it does not. For most of us, our childhoods are a mixture of good and bad. Our parents, after all, are human, and we humans are not perfect. If you find yourself blaming them for how your life is today, though, you are wasting your time, and avoiding taking responsibility for the adult you desire to become. In fact, any time we blame another (or hold someone else responsible) for anything in our own lives, we are giving away the only power (personal responsibility) we have to change things.

Our partners are human too, and you may have already noticed that they also come with imperfections. We do the best we can, and sometimes that's just not enough. As children, we are powerless to directly influence the adults in our lives, so we develop a host of behaviors and coping mechanisms to get our needs met, and to simply survive.

Now fast-forward to adulthood, and surprise, surprise, these same coping behaviors that we learn as children are the same old coping behaviors we are using now, in our adult relationships. In fact, sometimes we use these coping mechanisms even when there is nothing with which we need to "cope." For example, if growing up you had a high-conflict family environment and you learned to cope with the chaos by fighting back, you may find that you are still on guard - ready to fight, even if there is nothing about which to fight. If, as a child, you responded to conflict by "keeping the peace," you probably find yourself avoiding conflict by withdrawing from, or avoiding issues. Typically we do what we have always done (whether it still works or not). The great news is that we CAN learn new coping skills if we are willing to do the work.

Bringing this full circle to "why do we fight all the time," my guess is that you and your partner are needing something from one another that you are currently not getting/giving. I'm also going to go out on a limb here and suggest that these unmet needs are not new - you have likely always wanted or needed what it is you are longing for from your partner. It is not about him. You came to this relationship with unmet needs, and now you are determined to get them met by him, and simultaneously convinced that it is simply not possible because of who he is. Examples of these wants and needs are things such as attention, affection, to feel like a priority, acceptance, unconditional positive regard, compassion, time, predictability, security, trust, honesty.

To stop the frequent fussing, or to make it more productive there is one very magical thing you can do, starting immediately. That one thing is this: focus 100% of your energy fully and completely on understanding your partner's frustrations and hurts with you, and then challenge him or her to look back into their childhood and see if any of these hurts remind them of times when they were younger. Stop trying to be understood, and start trying to understand. The more you work to understand your partner, the more he or she will want to understand you.

Give what it is you wish to receive - take the lead on understanding what is really happening. Let go of the fear that he will not respond by wishing to understand you. Stop fussing about who does the dishes and start talking about how you feel like you always have to be the responsible one, and what causes you to feel that way. Stop talking about how much your partner works and tell her that you miss her and you feel rejected or unimportant. The more you can become conscious of what the real issues are, the faster you can get on with the business of being happy together, and the less fighting that you'll need to do!

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Great advice.

That statistic sounds about right. But then they're usually about things that aren't all that important (when examined objectively), and people can move on from that.

But that Gottman has a pretty good name.

Jerame and I argue and squabble all of the time. If he stopped arguing with me, I'd worry that he didn't love me anymore.

Partnerships of any flavor take so much courage and endurance!!
Your writing and information feel very supportive and truthful.

I facilitate with my clients, irregardless of how terrifying, to declare days of the week each individual will be an adult and put their skills of drama, mental health fragmentations, and exhaustion in a safe place and just show up in humility as a partner. Those are memories that last and last and last. Those memories are wealth in the partnership banking. Those negotiations often open ways to rest and heal.
At least that is what inspires me to continue to seek a my own partner.