As a relationship counsellor many people ask me the following question:
What is the number one thing that couples argue about?
If you Google this question, the most common answer that comes up is:
Sex, money and kids. Usually in that order!
However, is this right?
Before I answer this question let me what American couples counselling guru John Gottman would say about this question.
(Note: For those who haven’t heard me talking about him, John Gottman is an American relationship researcher. He has spent over forty years researching what makes relationships work and has many extremely useful recommendations on how to create happy, successful and long-lasting relationships. Many of these insights can be found in what I think is his best book, The Seven Principles For Making Marriage Work).
Anyway, according to John Gottman, the number one thing that makes couples argue about is:
According to John Gottman, the number one thing that makes couples argue about is:
Yes, according to the guru, most couples argue about nothing!
Let’s try to understand this a bit more.
Many couples come to see me after arguments about big issues, such as when an affair has been discovered or differences in parenting styles.
However, it is even more common for couples to argue about small issues.
As example of this might be when Julie and John are watching television at home after work, relaxing. Julie arrived home first, made dinner and put the children to bed.
They are now watching a programme that Julie likes. John however is getting restless. He has the remote control and is starting to play with it a little bit.
After a little time, an ad break happens and John says to Julie, “Let me just see if the replay of the rugby is on.”
In response to this comment, Julie feels hurt. She has had a busy day and often feels that John chooses what channel to watch on television. So Julie says to John, “No, leave it on this channel!”.
John is surprised by this. He doesn’t understand why he can’t check the rugby briefly. So he stands up, slightly upset and says to Julie bluntly “Fine. I’m going to check my email.”
Julie is now starting to get more upset, so she says to John “What do you mean by fine? I never get to watch this programme because I’m always putting the kids to bed.”
John is now frustrated. Raising his voice, he says loudly “Thats not true, and besides you always get your way. And I put the kids to bed more than you do.”
It is easy to see how this argument could escalate quickly.
But what is this argument really about?
According to John Gottman, this argument is about nothing.
Or more precisely, this argument is about nothing specific. In other words, the content of this argument is not important, but what lies underneath this content (such as how each person is feeling) is more important.
John Gottman would also say that while it does not matter so much what couples argue about, it does matter how they argue. Healthy couples adopt certain communication styles in a relationship-whereas unhealthy couples argue in different ways.
As an example of this, John Gottman talks about what he calls the “four horsemen of the apocalypse”. These are certain communication styles what many couples adopt-especially during arguments.
The presence of any one of these horseman, or even worse, more than one of these horsemen, is a strong predictor of divorce in married relationships.
So, what are these horsemen?
According to Gottman, the four horsemen of the apocalypse (which indicate poor communication styles) are:
I will talk more about these four horsemen in future blogs.
For the moment however, it is worth noting that if you catch yourself using any of these four horsemen in an argument, you need to change what you are saying very quickly!
For those who want to do further reading, each of these horsemen has an “antidote”. These antidotes are (in order):
Taking Responsibility, and
You can read more about these “antidotes” here.
I see couples such as Julie and John almost every day in my counselling practice.
I agree with John Gottman that at the surface level, the most common thing that all couples argue about is basically nothing.
However, at a deeper level there are always hidden thoughts and feelings beneath these surface issues that drive what seem to be pointless and meaningless arguments.
Uncovering these hidden thoughts and feelings is often the only way to remedy the surface arguments.
Perhaps the best way to undercover these hidden thoughts and feelings is for the couple to adopt more effective communication skills. For most couples this means really improving their listening skills-and particularly their ability to get “underneath the surface” of whatever an argument is about.
Effective ways for couples to improve their listening skills include:
If you would like to improve your communication skills, I have an ebook called “How To Listen To Your Partner So That He Or She Feels Fully Understood” that gives many practical strategies for listening to your partner more effectively.
In my next few blogs I will summarise some of the key communication skills that all couples need to know, including how to listen better to your partner. However, if you would like to know how to practice these skills now without delay, make sure you check out my ebook.
Coming back to the question that started this article, what is the number 1 thing that couples argue about?
Well, perhaps predictably, I agree with John Gottman. On a surface level, the name one thing that couples argue about is nothing!
On a deeper level, these arguments are often driven by deeper thoughts and feelings. The thoughts and feeling can usually only be uncovered by practicing good listening skills or coming to relationship counselling!
If you and your partner are caught in a cycle of pointless arguments that seem to go around and around, make sure that:
These patterns of arguments can be changed and a more useful communication plan established!
I hope this short article is useful. In the comments section I’d love you to share any thoughts or comments about it, and answer what the most common thing that you and your partner argue about!
“Resentment is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die. ”
It’s been referred to as the cancer of relationships.
It’s one of the main reasons why relationships break-up over time.
It is a silent killer, sneaking up on couples slowly. It may seem like nothing at first-perhaps your spouse neglects his share of the housework or criticizes you in front of others. You may have ignored this trait at the start of the relationship. You used to think: “That’s just how he (or she) is”.
Over time however, for many couples frustration and resentment starts to build. What you once found amusing or quirky you now start to dislike. Resentment builds up, creating a wall between you and your partner that many couples simply cannot break-down.
Take John, for instance. He has been in relationship with Sandra for just over three years. Sandra is a loving, caring and organized person-but is often late to activities that she and John have planned. At first John didn’t mind-he was so happy to be in relationship with Sandra and thought: “So what if she is late? She is the best partner I am likely to get!”
Three years later John is not so sure. He is tired of waiting for Sandra and can’t understand her lateness. He knows that he cannot change her-but something is building up inside him. He is becoming more emotionally detached. Their communication is suffering as John begins to close down. Even their sex life is affected. Unless John finds some way to deal with his resentment, their whole relationship may be threatened.
What Is Resentment?
American psychotherapist Mark Sichel describes resentment as follows:
“Resentment refers to the mental process of repetitively replaying a feeling, and the events leading up to it, that goads or angers us. We don’t replay a cool litany of facts in resentment; we re-experience and relive them in ways that affect us emotionally, physiologically, and spiritually in very destructive ways.”
This reiteration of anger is the key pattern in feeling resentment, and the constant return of annoying or upsetting memories is the most distinctive sign that it’s present in you.
Resentment then, is a mental process. A past event or series of events has made us unhappy, so in our minds we:
Resentment is a very complex feeling-but for many people it is an easier feeling to experience than to take action on the issue that is causing the resentment.
Consider John again. Why doesn’t he just tell Sandra that her lateness is affecting him? There are many reasons for this-and in some situations he has expressed to Sandra how he is feeling. But there are deeper issues.
In counselling with John I began to explore the roots of his resentment. John said that he grew up in a very conservative household. “In my home feelings were just not expressed” he says. “My Dad would often say why even talk about feelings-he was a “just get on with it” sort of guy”.
“So I grew up avoiding any feelings” John added. “We didn’t even have any conflict in my family. We were taught not to hurt others-and that even raising issues might hurt other people. It is not healthy, I know. And I do it with Sandra-and I know that it is affecting our relationship.”
For John (and for many other people) the feeling of resentment offers an illusion of control. We believe that we can control the situation that we are in by rehashing the issue in our mind that we are resentful about. We may even think that we will eventually achieve the elusive prize of justice-or that we can finally be recognized as “right.” But in reality we are just hurting ourselves. As Carrie Fischer states, we are drinking poison that we have created and waiting for the other person to die.
Resentment almost always hurts us more than the person we resent. But there is good news! We can become free of resentment’s relationship poison. How? By learning new behaviours and approaches to events that are leading to our resentment and practicing better responses-either by ourselves or with our partner. Sometimes this is best done in with the help of a professional counsellor. But we can also do it ourselves. We can and will stop obsessing over the injustices (perceived or real) of the past. We can more forward together.
“Anger, resentment and jealousy doesn’t change the heart of others– it only changes yours.”
Acceptance is a powerful position to have on any event that has happened. The famous serenity prayer, used in many 12 step therapeutic programmes, begins as follows:
God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.
In this prayer the word “God” may be replaced by any sense of a higher power.
Not to be confused with surrender or denial, when it comes to resentment acceptance is equally empowering. By accepting the situations that have led to our resentment we take huge steps towards understanding and conquering this resentment.
After working with clients over many years, I find the following beliefs to be most powerful in overcoming resentment:
Belief 1: Resentment is a negative state of mind-it is not useful for me to maintain my resentment
Belief 2: You cannot change the past. No matter how often you use resentment to replay old dramas, the outcome will never change.
Belief 3: It’s common for people feeling resentment to mentally punish present partners for the sins of past partners. You can choose not to do this.
Belief 4: You cannot control others, not even those who have hurt or rejected you.
Resentment is nothing more than the illusion of strength, power, or control. By choosing resentment, we are not validating our best selves. This means we are not bringing our best selves to the relationship. Instead of choosing resentment, choose to bring your best self to the relationship.
Some people I have worked with find it useful to make lists in which their best selves show. Start your list with something like: “I’m willing to own up to past mistakes, forgive myself, and move on”. Include all aspects of yourself that you like best!
3. Communicate Your Feelings
As Mark Sichel has said, resentment is the mental replaying of a feeling or action that has made us angry. We can replay this situation in a negative spiral over and over again.
One way out of this spiral is to take action. In relationships this often means to communicate to your partner your feelings about the event or events that is leading to your resentment.
For people like John who are not used to communicating their feelings this can be a hugely brave and courageous step. It also one that can lead to valuable growth opportunities-both individually and for the relationship.
When communicating your feelings it is best to:
For example, John may choose to say to Sandra something like:
“When we go out together you are often late. This makes me worried that people will judge us when we arrive, or afraid that I won’t be able to find a carpark in time. This stresses me out and means that I do not enjoy the evening with you as much as I would like to. It would be great if you could try to get ready on time (or even early) as I’d be much more relaxed and nice to be with!”
In this communication John is focussing on expressing his feelings to Sandra (and not blaming her for the situation). While this type of communication may not solve the problem all of the time, it can lead to more constructive and useful discussions about the issue that is causing the resentment. After all, Sandra may see the situation from a completely different perspective!
Resentment is a powerful emotion and sometimes the steps described above may not make much difference to the level of resentment that you feel.
For example, you and your partner may have communicated about the issue-but it has made no difference. Or you have become even more frustrated or resentful!
In these cases there’s still no reason for you—the partner holding onto the poison of resentment—to not find a way to productively deal with it. You can help yourself to do this by creating an amnesty ritual to help you let go of the resentment. You may do this by processes such as:
“To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.”
-Lewis B. Smedes
Forgiveness is a powerful feeling-and one that can set you free as much as the person you are forgiving. Forgive wherever, whenever, and whomever you can.
This applies especially in a relationship. After all, nobody is perfect. While John is focusing on Sandra’s faults, is he thinking about his own? Does he realise that he is late sometimes as well, or that he tends to be critical of others whereas Sandra is always kind and generous to others? Perhaps she feels a little resentful about this?
It is all too easy to focus on others faults and not to focus on ourselves. By forgiving others we are saying that there are more important things in life that the events that are causing our resentment. We can choose to forgive and move on-and even deliberately forget if we need to!
Resentment can create an impasse in any relationship-a brick wall that slowly gets bigger and bigger until both partners feel very distant from each other. As a relationship counsellor I use a variety of techniques to help couples get past issues that are causing them resentment. Often couples are not able to do this without professional help-just as I would not try to fix my car without professional help!
Seeking help for issues of resentment allows couples to move on in more loving and caring ways. If you are experiencing resentment towards your partner don’t wait until it is too late-get help now!