Couples often think their partner’s behavior makes them upset. They believe they argue because their partner won’t just do the right thing. In reality, it’s not that our partner’s behavior is the problem. It is the meaning we make of it, and the way we communicate about it, that causes arguments. This means that it is always a good idea to step back and ask ourselves, “What is this really about? What is my vulnerability here? Why am I arguing with my partner?”

Why do couples argue? It is all about the meaning we make.

It’s not really the behavior that is upsetting; it’s the meaning we attribute to it. And when we can get clear about this, and reflect on why we are upset and what meaning we are making of it, we are on our way to taking responsibility for our own feelings, and reactions.

Take for example the kitchen.

A young couple I’ve worked with recently has had an ongoing conflict about their division of labor. Their dynamic perfectly illustrates the conflict cycle that so many couples deal with.

Every evening, the wife (I’ll call her Sally) bathes baby while the husband (let’s call him Bobby) cleans up the kitchen. Routinely, Bobby forgets to wipe down the counter. Routinely, Sally enters the kitchen to find the job not done. It makes her crazy.

“Why do you always do this?,” she demands. “Why can’t you finish the job? Do you expect me to do everything? I can’t count on you.”

Unsurprisingly, Bobby takes offense. He feels defeated, like he can never do anything right — at least in Sally’s eyes. He decides her standards are too high.

“Why can’t we just leave the counter alone? Why are you so picky? Your standards are unreasonable,” he complains.

Unfortunately, the couple then begin to debate who has the “right” standards, who is “right” and “wrong” about wiping down the counters. She feels like she’s living with another child. He feels like he’s married to his boss, or his mother.

There’s no romance. They are driving a wedge in their relationship and further tearing at the bond of trust that once bound them. Neither feels safe.

They are having the wrong conversation.

Instead of the chores, they need to shift to the meaning of the chores. What does the conflict about the chores represent? When they’ve identified the meaning behind the conflict, they can partner together to solve their problem and restore their trust and connection.

I turn to Sally. “What is the significance of the chores?,” I ask. She explains that she’s a feminist. Her parents had a very inegalitarian marriage and she is afraid that she’ll end up like her mom. She does not want her son to grow up in such a household. Moreover, since she’s explained herself to Bobby, she thinks that his carelessness is a symptom of his disregard for her and her feelings.

I turn to Bobby. “How does it feel for you to talk about this issue,” I ask him. He feels shamed, helpless, hopeless. He forgot to wipe down the table, and he just knew she was going to get into an argument about it. And here they were, talking about chores for the umpteenth time.

I gently remind Sally to just listen, and not defend herself. Sally hears that Bobby feels defeated about this. Bobby hears that for Sally, chores represent something personal to her, about her.

I remind them that when they are arguing about the facts of the case, they are having the wrong conversation. This type of (typical) couples’ argument pus them in a zero-sum game. They are pitting themselves against each other.

Your partner can be the person who makes you feel safe in the world, but they can’t do that if you are enemies.

The conversation goes the way it starts

Sally softens, and feels some connection with Bobby after hearing about how defeated he feels about the whole situation. She turns her complaint into a request.

“Bobby,” she says, “When you leave the counters dirty, I feel like you don’t care about how important an equal partnership is to me. I am not saying that you actually think this, but I wonder if you care. I am grateful for all the work you do. And it would mean a lot to me if you’d wipe down the counters when you clean up the kitchen. Would you do that?”

Bobby feels relieved. It’s nice to know that she doesn’t think he’s a total slacker. He feels respected. He says he’ll wipe down the counters, and asks her to kindly remind him, and let him take care of it, if he should ever get distracted and forget.

We talk about the importance of a gentle start-up when we have an issue to raise with our partner; research shows that conversations tend to go in the same way they start. We talk about the value of making a simple request when we have a complaint; it leads to less defensiveness, and we put ourselves in problem-solver mode. We talk about the benefits that come from discussing issues like this in a neutral time, rather than in the heat of the moment.

Realizing why couples argue lets us turn it around.

If you are experiencing conflict in your relationship, try taking time for self-reflection before you talk. Ask yourself “Why exactly am I upset? What does this mean to me? What do I want to ask my partner?”

Then choose a neutral time to bring the topic up. When we ask ourselves why do couples argue, or why am I arguing with my partner, it is always a good idea to look at the meaning we make of it. You can read more about this approach to conflict here.

With practice, you can learn to make your relationship the safe harbor it can be. And both of you will be better for it!