The only thing more exhausting than fighting with your partner is realizing that you’re having the same fight every time you disagree. You think you’re bickering about dinner plans when your partner suddenly throws in, “It’s always the same. We eat what you want and what I want doesn’t matter.”
This is more common than you might expect–many couples find that, over time, arguments tend to get distilled down to a few key areas of disagreement. Some common conflict themes include “My feelings don’t matter to you,” “You don’t trust me,” and “You want to control everything.”
For some people, it takes years to get to this point of communication stagnation, while others fall into the pattern quickly. But once they reach this stage, it’s the same story: every quarrel somehow devolves into a depressingly similar script. From “you told me you’d be home an hour ago” it somehow veers to “here we go again, with you telling me how I’ve failed.”
Those repeating phrases are accompanied by a feeling of hopelessness and exhaustion. When you feel like you’re hitting the same wall, again and again, it’s time to put aside what led to the latest fight and who’s right (here’s the challenging secret every couples therapist knows: you’re both right. Now what?)
Here are 4 ways to restore your relationship
1. Commit to fighting
Couples have to embrace an idea that can feel kind of nutty: stop trying to stop fighting.
This is not to say that you should embrace fighting, but alternatively to see it as something inevitable and natural, and to shift the way you fight.
Some problems are entrenched and need a lot of attention. That means you might need to fight them out for a long time. But if the way we do the arguing is toxic, then we tend to shut down. Hearing the same argument over and over, we feel immediately defensive, and tell our partner why they shouldn’t feel that way. Our partner, in turn, feels resentful—no one wants to hear why their reactions are wrong—and responds with anger and distrust.
Alternatively, resentment wanes when we re-commit to arguing and to doing it well. The listener has to accept hearing the same complaints again, and the speaker must learn to communicate the problem with less anger. At this first stage of the investment process, we’re not trying to fix the problem, just to talk about it well.
2. Learn to fight better
Arguing well involves three cardinal rules: Listen closely and make sure you understand, respond with compassion, and speak without contempt. To make it even more clear, in any conflict, each partner has specific responsibilities.
3. Follow the rules
The speaker’s rules are:
- Talk about your feelings (use “I” statements and explain how you are hurt)
- Speak without criticizing or attacking (assume your partner is your friend)
- Ask “how can you help me to feel better about this?”
The listener’s rules are:
- Try to hear the unmet need (listen attentively)
- Don’t defend yourself and say why you are right in the speaker is wrong
- Take a break if you feel angry (returning as soon as you are calm).
When we use these skills, communication shifts, from each-in-our-own-corner combativeness to concerned empathy. We can start to look at this nagging problem with new eyes, and without the expectation that change must happen right away.
Whereas before we entered the discussion with the goal of changing our partner, now we approach them just to share thoughts and ideas, knowing that each conversation is part of a much longer, more meandering map of the problem.
4. Find what works, throw away what doesn’t
Imagine committing to making mistakes and fighting over them, and having faith that this is part of your journey with your partner. Imagine agreeing to “screw this up together,” and collaborating on the next move even though it might involve more setbacks. Through this system, we find what works, throw away what doesn’t, and then go on to the next step—which will also be imperfect and fail in places.
This is a “two steps forward, one step back” philosophy, which might sound frustrating but most people actually find to be a big relief. Instead of feeling lousy that we keep getting it wrong, we focus on the parts that we get right and accept and assume imperfection.
If this seems like asking too much, look to the results: a long-term, secure relationship that can withstand bumps and bruises and sustain for the long haul.
The philosophy of accepting challenges and approaching them with compassion is how successful partners already, instinctively work. They describe their decades-long relationships not as endlessly fun and peaceful endeavors but as a lot of hard work.
Final thoughts – Don’t lose the sight of the prize
Earning stability sometimes looks like an uphill struggle, but try to look at it, not as a price you pay, but a prize you win. It can be truly lovely to continually commit to a struggle together. The message you send is: We are worth the work. To investigate and problem-solve with compassion for each other is a joy and a great gift to one another. And it starts with simple communication tools.