I am struggling with constantly arguing with my husband. We fight so much lately that it seems both of us have gotten to this point where we would just rather not take the risk of arguing once more so we basically avoid each other. We have been married for 11 years and have a 9-year-old son who is wonderful. Our son is not a stressor on our marriage whatsoever, he is basically a really well behaved kid, but there are still the parenting disagreements and scheduling conflicts that cause stress for us. It doesn’t matter what the topic is, it can turn into a fight. It could be how he overcooks the burgers, packing for a trip, anything parenting related, household chores, the way I eat my food, taking care of the dog or even me using the “wtf” abbreviation in a text message. Basically it doesn’t matter the subject, we will argue about it. It seems as if we are just massively annoyed by one another. This has me feeling empty and alone, wanting something more. I look at other loving couples with envy because I want that again. We are finding ourselves doing more and more separately and I fear that we are drifting apart.
We have gone to therapy in the past for about five sessions but it didn’t seem to help. Plus, the cost of therapy is not something we can afford right now. When I have reached out to my friends and family, and even researched a bit online about what to try, I have seen a lot of advice pointing towards date nights. So I have tried planning date nights for us recently and they seem to go okay for a little while but it never fails that we still seem to get annoyed by one another and we ultimately end up bickering before the night is over. I am lost at this point and don’t know what to do. I mean, if we can’t even have date nights be a success we must be doomed, right? What do you suggest for us to do to get out of this rut and possibly feel some love towards one another again?
Dear Constantly Arguing,
When we find ourselves at the point of constantly arguing with our partners, it is a really confusing and lonely place to be. I feel for you and what you are going through. Times like this can leave us wondering, “What is wrong?” “Is our marriage not going to work?” “Is it him?” or “Is it me?” Filling our head with so many questions, thoughts, and doubts. Sometimes finding ourselves in a place of desperation. Which leads me to a place of cautionary advisory. The state that you are describing your marriage to be in, “lonely”, “lost”, “constant arguing”, “avoid each other”, “massively annoyed”, “empty and alone”, etc., is a place that some couples find themselves in which either becomes a positive turning point in their marriage or a point where one or both partners acted out of character and did more damage to the relationship. So it is beneficial for you to be highly aware of how you are getting your needs met or ways in which you desire to get your needs met at this particular time. We all are in more vulnerable states when we aren’t getting the emotional, physical and mental nourishment that we need.
That being said, reaching out for help is a healthy step for your marriage right now. Your acknowledgement of how you feel and being open to outside support are important first steps in making a change. It’s not easy to admit when your marriage is in danger so I commend you for that and hopefully after the tide settles you will reap the benefits of such a courageous act.
First and foremost, let’s talk therapy. You have seemed to rule out therapy and I get the reasons why you would; however, I would hate for you to give up on therapy already so I ask for you to hear me out for a bit on this one. My husband and I have been on the therapy journey ourselves and I personally know how frustrating and hopeless it can feel. We altogether have seen four different therapists. First and second were not helpful to us… at… all. Third one was good enough but I felt like he was a smidge biased and not getting to the root of the issues, which I call the “good stuff” because that is where you need to go for change to occur. The fourth therapist we saw was absolutely fantastic. There were a number of eye opening conversations that took place in our sessions. I gained more insight into our relationship, myself, and my husband, in the four sessions that we had with her than I had in the collection of therapy up until then. Unfortunately we were only able to go four times to the last therapist because we moved to another state. The important message here is that therapists have different styles and the process of finding a therapist is not much different than finding a doctor or a friend. There needs to be a connection in some way. You likely won’t connect enough with every person you meet to want to be friends with them. You likely won’t prefer every doctor you visit and hopefully after a few doctors you find the one that meets your taste. It’s also likely you won’t have a positive experience with every therapist you see and that is very typical. There is no need to settle for the first one you land on and feel free to shop around until you find “the one”. My suggestion is not to stop until you find the one that meets your needs. I tell people that you know when you found the right therapist when you walk out of the 2nd and 3rd sessions (first session is basically just a gathering information session) feeling enlightened about at least something, have a smidgen more of hope and see the therapist as someone you could trust and open up to. He/she is out there, so go find him/her!
Another factor that makes therapy frustrating is cost, which is not lost on me when it comes to therapy either. I know that some therapists offer “sliding scale fee” options, which simply means they accept a few clients at a time that can be at a discounted rate based on the client’s income. When you are interviewing a potential therapist (yes, you should interview them before setting up an appointment so you don’t waste your time and money) ask if they offer sliding scale? Also, thanks to the Affordable Care Act, if you have health insurance you also likely have mental health insurance with it now. What is covered varies depending on your plan but look into it and see what your plan covers. The other point I will make about cost is that it is a whole lot more affordable than divorce. Seriously. If you’re thinking divorce could be ahead for you two, then what do you have to loose throwing some serious money at therapy, once you find a therapist you like? Plus, if you are going to an ethical therapist, their mission is to help you reach your goals and then to end therapy. An ethical therapist won’t drag you along in therapy past when you need it just to make a buck. The point being that it won’t last forever and the financial burden of therapy is only temporary. Your marriage is worth it so if you need to cut out something less important in the budget, do it! If you are buying/paying for things you don’t necessarily “need” then make some sacrifices for the sake of your marriage. The trip to the spa, the expensive makeup, the new pair of shoes, the social gathering… whatever it is, there is probably something in your monthly spending allowance you can cut temporarily. If you need to sell some stuff to afford therapy, do it! Your marriage, your family, and your self will likely thank you!
Now, getting to the arguing. There are four main reasons that I believe lead to constant fighting in a relationship. 1) Unmet Needs, 2) Poor Communication, 3) Quality Time, and 4) Unhappy Self. When needs go unmet in a relationship it is the same as trying to get water from a dried up well. You will constantly be frustrated, annoyed, and desperate for nourishment. We as human beings need to feel loved which includes being cared for, attended to, thought of, understood, valued, respected, receiving affection, feeling secure, heard, and much more in our relationships. If our relational needs go unmet then it can lead to many symptoms such as depression, disconnection, loneliness, irritability, substance abuse, arguing, extreme emotions, anxiety, and the list goes on. The important piece with relational needs is figuring out what your unique relational needs are and communicating those to your partner. It would also be just as important for you to understand how to fulfill your partner’s top relational needs. I offer this service in as little as two sessions. You can also take some self-reflection time to figure out what has you feeling most fulfilled? Is it when you are spending time with your family? Is it when your husband tells you how much he appreciates you? Or maybe twice a week when you go to the gym? Whichever it is, write down the things in your life and relationship that contribute to you feeling fulfilled. Ask your husband to reflect on the same thing. Write them down and share them with one another. Then have a conversation about how you each could help fulfill one another’s needs. I suggest keeping it to five needs per person, at a time, to not overwhelm yourselves. Once you each are fulfilled with the first five then you can add to them. It is also important to work from the perspective that you two are a team and you are faced with a challenge to achieve together. If only one of you ends up being fulfilled then neither of you win. The goal is accomplished only if you both have your needs fulfilled. You can even make it fun and think of a clever team name!
The next topic, poor communication, is understandably complex. There are soooooo many factors at play with communication that the list of things to improve and tweak feels never ending. The rule of thumb is that you can always look deeper than the surface. The issue is usually not about what you are actually arguing about but rather a much deeper issue. It’s deeper than hamburgers and wtf’s so find the deeper meaning. Again, something a therapist is trained to do but there are some ways you can try to do it yourself. Here is one:
When you end up arguing you can ask yourself, “What about (this topic) is (feeling) to me?” Take your husband overcooking the hamburgers for instance and ask yourself, “What about (him overcooking hamburgers) is so (upsetting) to me?” Your answer may be that you don’t feel important when your wants seem to be ignored. So that is what you would communicate instead of talking about burnt hamburgers. Seems easy, right? Nevertheless, people tend to struggle to get beneath the surface on the first try so then you would just keep asking yourself the same question until you landed on a deeper answer. This is the digging deeper part. For instance, staying with the burger example, a typical answer to the above question for a couple unfamiliar with deep communication would be, “I don’t like dry hamburgers, I like mine pink in the middle.” Which leaves us still on hamburgers, which is still surface level. So then ask yourself the same question: “What about (getting dry hamburgers when I like them pink in the middle) is so (upsetting) for me?”
Possible answer: “Because then I don’t enjoy the food.”
Question: “What about (not enjoying the food) is upsetting for me?”
Possible answer: “Because he doesn’t care if I enjoy my food or not”.
Question: “What about (him not caring if I enjoy my food) is upsetting for me?”
Possible answer: “Because then my wants don’t seem important to him.”
And there you have it… a deeper meaning answer for a more productive conversation! Being able to have conversations about needs and wants is a skill that takes lots of practice. Just keep in mind the more you practice, the more effective your communication can be. Think big picture of how much better a conversation would go with your husband if you approached him and said, “I’m tired of you overcooking the hamburgers” compared to, “When you overcook the hamburgers, knowing I like them pink in the middle, I feel unimportant and that leads to me believing my needs are not important to you.” Big difference! So often we get stuck running in circles on the surface, which is why we don’t get very far and ultimately give up.
Just as important as communication, quality time is a must-have in a healthy relationship, especially in today’s society where being overly busy is viewed as normal. Without spending quality time with your partner, or in any relationship really, I would question how well you really know one another. Defining quality time for your marriage is important because it can look different for each couple; however, it is important for quality time to include the following basics: undivided attention, limited interruptions, and the main focus being on one another. This involves putting your phones away, turning off the television, and spending time alone without other friends and family. Sure you can have a nice time together when you are around your friends and family but how focused can you be on your partner with six friends and family around you? Not hardly. That is why when you plan to spend quality time with your partner, it is important that it is just the two of you. The same goes for your nuclear family, in your case, being with just your husband and your son. How often are just the three of you hanging out together? Some ideas are having a joint task such as building and creating something together, which is a great way to increase bonding. Playing non-technological games together can help strengthen any connection by promoting playfulness and learning more about one another. As long as you are sharing in your experiences together and the focus is on each other it likely qualifies as quality time. The distinction would look like this: Couples A and B go on a date to the driving range. One of the partners of Couple A is very competitive and the golfing becomes the focus for that couple instead of the togetherness. This would obviously not be quality time any longer. Couple B remains more focused on laughing, being playful, and even giving one another pointers. Couple B is focused on being together over the actual sport, which is a scenario of spending quality time with one another. Hopefully this helps clear up any confusion. I noticed you mentioned you were fighting during date nights. I would be curious what date nights have looked like for you two. Are you spending true quality time together? A healthy remedy to a marriage on the rocks is some serious quality time. There are several date ideas on the Internet if you need some unique ideas. Time to change up your social calendar to make more room for numero uno… your nuclear family.
The last contributing factor I see in relationships when there is a lot of arguing is individual turmoil that has not been resolved. When this occurs, there is likely some struggle occurring with one individual in the relationship that impacts the entire marriage and family. In the end, families are all interconnected in some way and when one person is carrying a negative energy it creates a tensional dynamic that ultimately pulls the family in a different direction. I see couples all the time where there is one identified partner constantly trying to make sure their partner is not upset and they walk on pins and needles trying not to disappoint their partner. They soon become exhausted and give up because they find it easier to just avoid trying all together or simply attempt damage control by saying sorry every time because less effort than walking on eggshells. This ultimately pisses of the unhappy partner even more and you get your viscous cycle of constant fighting and the “never enough attitude”.
Being unhappy with your self can sometimes be the most difficult element to change because it requires some serious self-awareness in order to even start the process. The best thing to do is ask yourself, “Am I happy with myself?” If there is a large degree of uncertainty or the answer is simply “no” then you have your answer. I am not saying that if you are unhappy with yourself and have your own growth areas to improve upon that you are the problem in your relationship. I am saying that struggles within yourself are probably major contributing factors to the problems in your relationship and until you solve your own issues then your relationship will always struggle. When you are unhappy with yourself there is only one person that can ultimately change that and that person is YOU. Your partner can tell you that you’re beautiful, an excellent mother, an amazing wife and all those wonderful things until you are blue in the face but it will not make you fulfilled until you truly believe those things about yourself. It is impossible for your partner to make you happy if you are not coming from a place of happiness within yourself.
Even though you are ultimately the person who is responsible for your happiness… there are a few resources to help you along this path. A therapist is a valuable option and someone who is trained to take you on a self-exploration journey to narrow down what areas you are not happy with and then uncover opportunities where you can grow. If you attend church, there are various options within your church to seek guidance regarding this topic. You can also just ask people whom you love and trust for an honest answer to the question, “In what ways do I seem unhappy with myself?” Stay away from people who will answer this question all too willingly because the last thing anyone needs as a response to this question is someone rambling on about how miserable you seem! Conversely, only consider the ones who will tell you the truth because it will be important to not be misled. I suggest choosing safe people who support you and don’t harp on your misfortunes. Lastly, start a diary and begin journaling about your feelings and experiences a couple times a week. After a month or so, go back and read what you wrote and see if you can pick up on any themes; as well as notice any reoccurring feelings or events that came up leading to certain feelings. This would be a great way to identify focus areas for you to work on within your self. All of these could be viable options to discovering if you have an Unhappy Self.
We have covered what I believe to be the four main reasons that lead to constant fighting in a relationship and I have provided a handful of DIY ways to help you grow in each area; nonetheless I have to say there is really nothing that compares to having a trained professional who can help guide you down a restorative path based on his or her objective observations. However, if you decide to decline therapy at this time you still have several tools to work with and lots of sweat and tears (no blood please!) ahead of you. As long as you stay committed to your marriage and family, and are willing to put in the work, then there is always hope. After all, “The grass is greener where you water it.” – Neil Barringham
Feel free to keep me posted on your progress. Best wishes on the journey ahead and as always; the most strength is in asking for a helping hand!
Your fellow wife who also has to water her grass,