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!
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