Getting to the Root of It: 6 Steps for Stopping Spats

In my work with couples they will often bring up a reoccurring argument over something seemingly trivial. For example:

  • A couple fights constantly over dirty dishes.
  • Two partners argue incessantly about the time spent playing video games.
  • A husband won’t put away his socks and it infuriates his wife.

Who hasn’t experienced some version of these difficulties that seem to rear their head again and again in their relationship? The irksome act changes depending on the couple, but the dynamic remains the same. One partner expresses, “Why must you___?!” while the other responds, “Why is it a big deal?!” Sound familiar?

In these kinds of situations having a couples therapist is extremely helpful. One of the first things we learn as clinicians is to focus on process over content. Content is socks. Process is the dynamic of the couple. Content is the video game. Process is the meaning you make of your partner playing video games. As a therapist, I am adept at helping couples identify the current dynamics that get in the way of a fulfilling, connected, and passionate relationship.    

When you notice that you are having the same argument more than once, ask yourself what is it really about? What is the underlying meaning of this argument?

Couples frequently engage in power struggles that may appear to be about one thing, but there is likely something deeper beneath the surface. While you may think him refusing to put his socks away or her nagging you to do the dishes is an issue of cleanliness, there is more than likely a hidden meaning imbedded in these acts for your partner.

Trust. Respect. Commitment. Connection.

These are core issues.

Dishes. Video Games. Socks.

These are disguises that distract from the core issues.

The underlying issue for you and your partner is essential to identify because if left unexamined, or unconscious, no repair is possible. You’re partner may put away the socks, but you will still feel disrespected or unheard in a different situation. Next time the issue may revolve around forgetting to put away the laundry. Yet, if you have a meaningful discussion about a desire to feel respected, which is inherently tied to feeling valued, then it is possible to effect change and strengthen your relationship. When you address the yearning to be valued, as opposed to expressing criticism, you then come from a place of vulnerability which opens up the path to reconnection.

Expressing a relational desire promotes connection; attacking your partner widens the gap between you. 

Next time a spat is likely to begin, follow these steps:

1. When feeling triggered by a reoccurring issue, take a time out. Don’t engage your partner until you have taken time to self-soothe. Take some deep breaths so your heart rate begins to slow down, go for a walk, journal, and/or engage in a creative activity.

2. Once you are calm, take a moment for some insight. Identify the emotion that you are experiencing in reaction to the observed behavior. If you notice that you’re feeling angry, look deeper. Anger is valid, but it is known as a secondary emotion. This means that there is usually something underneath the anger, such as sadness or pain.

3. Once you’ve identified the emotion, ask yourself what is this really bringing up? It’s probably not dirty socks. Look beyond the obvious distractor to find the true meaning that you have attributed to the behavior. Discover the core issue.

4. Identify the need that goes along with the real issue. Perhaps your partner appears to putting things before you and you feel angry; the underlying feeling might be loneliness. The antidote to loneliness is connection. Once you recognize that you need more connection with your partner, you will be able to ask for it.

5. Speak with your partner from a place of openness, vulnerability, and kindness. Describe your experience: acknowledge the behavior that triggers you and the meaning you attribute to it. Express how that impacts you emotionally and then ask your partner for what you need.

6. Listen. Be receptive to your partner’s experience. We often misattribute meaning or malicious intent when we are hurt. Be open to your partner’s perception. It won’t negate your feelings or your needs, but it will break the negative cycle.

This kind of interaction is a combination of emotionally intelligent, mindful, and relational behaviors that increase connectivity and wellbeing. A dialogue such as this often results in more connection, appreciation, validation, and respect than if there was no conflict at all.

In the words of Harville Hendrix, “Conflict is growth waiting to happen.”

Contact me to learn more strategies for effective communication and increasing connection with your partner.


Jamie Elvey,