Communication Breakdown or Does Battle Work for You?

Cecilia and Ramiro were fighting again, hurling insults back and forth until they’d forgotten the specific trigger that had started the fight. What else is new? Cecilia thought, even as the fight was raging. All we ever do anymore is fight. But damn, he’s so sexy. And I wonder what I should say next …

They’d been married for six years, a first marriage for both, though Cecilia had lived with her college boyfriend for two years. “And those two years felt like loooong years,” Cecilia said once. “Maybe because even though we had a lot to do and a lot going on, every day felt the same to me. He was a sweet guy, though.”

The first year of Cecilia and Ramiro’s marriage was “smooth and easy,” she reflected. “We’d only dated eight months before getting married, so we still were having fun getting to know each other. We hardly squabbled at all, even though friends warned us the first year was the toughest. It was after that we started fighting.”

Communication Breakdown…when couples fight and why they fight

“All I wanted to do was come home and relax!” Ramiro yelled, in the middle of the ratcheted-up fight. “I had a long day at work, okay? Can’t you be supportive?”

“If you really only wanted to relax,” Cecilia said, “why was the first thing you said something to instigate an argument?”

“What do you mean, instigate? Asking what’s for dinner is not instigating!”

“Sure, but that’s not what you said…you said, ‘Cee, whatever you’re cooking, I sure hope it tastes better than it smells, because it reeks. I smelled it way out in driveway.’”

Ramiro grew sheepish at hearing his own words in his wife’s mouth, but only for a moment. Before long, he had grabbed onto something Cecilia had said about the meal he’d cooked a month ago, a comment Cecilia had not at all meant as an insult (“I like salty foods!” she pointed out. “You know that!”), a comment they’d already had an argument over. So if arguments are supposed to be arenas where each partner airs his/her grievances in order to reach some type of resolution, why were Cecilia and Ramiro groping the past to reincarnate old slights?

Although there are several reasons why couples may be recycling arguments and finding themselves stuck in the pattern of picking at relatively trivial points until they become wounds (for instance, sometimes there is a major problem in the relationship that is too difficult or painful for the couple to address head-on, so their dissatisfaction manifests in the “safer” medium of repeated fights “about nothing”), today we’re only going to address what was going on for Cecilia and Ramiro, a couple that agreed that they loved each other very much and had a strong marriage with deep levels of trust and security and commitment.

So why all the fighting?

One Couples’ Fight May Be Another Couples’ Connection

Cecilia and Ramiro both seemed surprised when I asked them the following question:

“Who would you be without your fighting?”

To give them credit, they didn’t shut it down with a knee-jerk dismissal. They sat with it for awhile, and then finally Ramiro let out a short laugh and said, “Who would we be? Boring. And bored.”

“Are you saying we like fighting?” Cecilia asked me, scowling.

“I’m not saying that at all. Only you can say how you’re feeling. I’m only asking you to consider whether there’s some secondary gain to your arguments.

“Secondary gain?” they asked.

I nodded. “In other words, you might ask yourselves whether you feel an excitement and aliveness and mutual engagement when you hotly contest things, an excitement you don’t feel anywhere else.”

We Want the Fighting to Stop…Or Do We?

The truth is, there is no one-size-fits all approach to anything when it comes to intimate relationships, especially in the area of communication and interpersonal dynamics. So where one couple might like quiet harmony, another might get bored with what to them feels like stasis or stagnation. The real problem would come if one partner wanted harmony and the other craved intensity. (That might represent a core incompatibility that could be difficult to overcome.)

And a corollary to that is that you don’t need to make your relationship fit some preconceived mold if your relationship is working for you. You don’t have to fall prey to all the “shoulds” that people in intimate relationships worry about, as long as you both are content with how the relationship is working.

For example, people often think there is some magic formula for frequency of lovemaking, and if they’re not meeting some arbitrary or socially-defined quota, then they “should” be having more sex. But that is a totally personal situation between the two of you (friends, family, and “experts” are all irrelevant when it comes to the intimate workings of your union)—some couples are content with making love once a month, some once a week, some once a day. Again, it’s only a problem if one partner wishes for more/less. What makes a good marriage will vary from couple to couple.

The same holds true for fighting/disagreements. If you relate to your partner best when the tempo is hot and quick, and if you feel connected while you’re squabbling or passionately debating, and as long as you both feel that way, then there is no harm, no foul.

It turned out that what other couples would call “arguing” was the way Ramiro and Cecilia naturally connected. They felt alive in that style of interacting, and since they couldn’t relate to co-workers that way (“Gosh, no!” she said), they felt a release in being able to “fight” with each other at home. They never said things they couldn’t take back, and their arguments didn’t make them feel distanced from each other.

They just thought they “should” stop because they wanted to know how to have a healthy relationship and because they associated fights with marriage trouble. They were worried about a communication breakdown, not realizing that they were indeed communicating…in their own way.

And this could be part of the reason Cecilia looked back on her time with her college boyfriend as “boring”—he never challenged her, even when she prodded him to do so. Her passionate relating style had nothing to push up against and she grew restless and dissatisfied. She vividly remembers growing up in a family with six brothers and sisters, pretty close in age, and all the talking and debating that went on as a rule. “Sometimes I had to raise my voice just to be heard,” she recalled. “Even dinner table conversation felt like a type of skirmish. But I loved it, maybe because it was all I knew, or maybe because it suited me.”

How to know when a pattern of repeated fighting is not okay

  • When there is any form of physical abuse. Physical abuse is never a good thing for a relationship or an individual, in any way. Never, ever.
  • When there is any form of mental of emotional abuse. Any kind of abuse is never beneficial for anyone, and should not be accepted or condoned. Abuse sets up the dynamic of one person having power or control over the other. Healthy relationships are made up of equals, not victim and victimizer.
  • When one or both partners are in pain and want to stop arguing.
  • When the fights result in detachment, apathy, resentment, hostility, anxiety.
  • When the fights are used to conceal buried major relationship issues and used to keep those issues unaddressed.
  • When hurtful, attacking things are said…things that can’t be unsaid and things that won’t be forgotten.
  • When fights become disruptive to you or to others, and when they become too loud, too explosive, and are occurring in front of children.  (Remember that children are impressionable and may be frightened by what they witness, even if it’s benign or natural to you. Also, you don’t want to send the message that conflict is the best way to resolve things…children are busy learning how to navigate the world and therefore it’s not in their best interest to have an interpersonal style imposed on them they are too young to understand.)
  • When you can’t relate in any other way; when fights have become the sum and substance of your marriage or relationship.

So if you find yourself looking forward to your next heated debate (or even “squabble”) with your partner, you are not alone. Although strong relationships may have certain hallmarks in common—for instance, trust, respect, commitment; and, as mentioned above, any kind of abuse is never okay—ultimately, what makes a good marriage is subjective and depends on the couple. Just remember that mutual respect is key. Check in with your mate on a regular basis to be sure that what’s working for you is working for him/her as well.

For some couples that connect through arguing, the aura of emotional intensity and aliveness feeds a mutual orbit of connection. It can be important to tease this out since you may find other ways to ramp up this intensity if the arguing turns out to be a concern for you or if it begins to impact you in a negative way.


Dr. Rich Nicastro

Featured image credit:  Couple by Tom Godber  under CC BY-SA 2.0

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