Every couple has those repeat fights — those arguments that we think are settled but actually aren’t. The same fight about money or sex or parenting styles or household chores always reappears. Even if we’re arguing about one topic, it eventually tends to rear its head, tempers flare, and nothing gets fixed. The key to marital success lies in not repeating the same challenges and frustrations again and again. Unfortunately, this is easier said than done.
“We all do it,” says Dr. Margaret Rutherford, a clinical psychologist and the author of Perfectly Hidden Depression. “Fuss, bicker, quabble. And we usually do it with the people we literally love the most. It’s almost as if you’re following a script. You say the same things that you said the last time you bickered. You know how long the fight’s going to last, who’s going to complain about what, and who will do what when it’s over.”
It can sometimes feel like we’re characters in a sci-fi story that are stuck in a sort of space-time loop. But how can couples break out of the cycle of arguing about the same things over and over? It’s about avoiding bad habits and searching for the true underlying reason for the argument. Here, per Dr. Rutherford, are some tips for how to stop arguing in a loop.
1. Stop Stockpiling Resentment
A lot of recurring arguments start because people tend to be conflict-averse, says Dr. Rutherford. “We’ve been taught that anger is a bad thing,” she says. “We’ve been taught, especially women, that your job is to keep things going and flowing. And so a lot of times we will just think ‘That’s not a big deal,’ or ‘I was irritated by that or frustrated by that.’ And you just don’t say anything. Gradually over time, things build up.” It’s important to fight those instincts and bring up issues as they happen. No, this doesn’t mean to start picking fights — although we are all guilty of that from time to time, too — it means saying ‘Hey, just to let you know,’ X annoyed me because of Y so I’d appreciate it if you’d Z.” Yes, we all need to be of when and where to bring up issues, but it’s better to bring up something small then to hold everything down and explode later.
When it comes to arguments, it’s always smart to be aware of what you’re saying and when you’re saying it. “I don’t have any problem with people being angry with each other in front of their kids,” says Dr. Rutherford, “or even bickering, as long as you turn around and say, ‘You know, Dad and I or Mom and I sounded like we were at each other’s throats, and sometimes we bicker just like you and your brother bicker. But we figured it out and we’re okay.’ In fact, demonstrating the right way to argue is an invaluable lesson for kids.
2. Fight the Instinct to Label
We’re quick to compartmentalize and label. Very often in an argument, people tend to point fingers and cite the other person as being the source of the marriage’s problems. It’s hard to break down exactly what it is that our partner is doing wrong. “How often do we label each other?” Dr. Rutherford asks. “We say, ‘You’re a spendthrift or you’re greedy, or, you’re out of control.’ Nobody wants to be labeled.”
As an exercise, Dr. Rutherford suggests talking about yourself and revealing more about why this particular recurring argument makes you so angry. For instance, try saying ‘I get scared when you spend money, because I grew up in a family where we didn’t do that.” Speaking plainly about yourself offers a deeper understanding of where you’re coming from and allows your partner to share, too. Ultimately, you’re That’s not labeling someone that’s saying, “This is the impact your actions are having on me.’”
3. Swap perspectives
Try an exercise with your partner where you each argue each other’s viewpoint, letting them hear what you sound like and perhaps develop a better understanding of where they’re coming from. “It’s so funny to see people do that,’ says Dr. Rutherford. “They’ll even start sitting the way the other person sits, or talking lower. It just adds an element of playfulness to it. But then they begin to really hear each other and say, ‘Wow, I sound just like my dad!’”
4. Talk about issues when you are not angry.
No one wants to rock the boat and bring up things that aren’t pleasant when everything is going smoothly. After all, isn’t the goal of all this to avoid arguments? Yes, and that’s the point. But if you can have open and frank discussions when both of you are in a good place, it can help smooth out issues so that they don’t erupt when an actual argument is happening. “Risk being vulnerable and express what you’re truly feeling,” Dr. Rutherford says. “Don’t be afraid to ask for your partner’s help.”
5. Recognize you are really arguing about what’s underneath.
Recurring arguments are rarely about what they appear to be on a surface level. They have Inception-level layers. A fight about never doing the dishes, for instance, is more likely about respect and how partners see one another in a relationship. A fight about money is likely also about power, intimacy, and trust. The fact of the matter is that despite what has pulled the ignition and restarted the same fight you had two weeks ago, it won’t be resolved unless you pinpoint the underlying issues — and where they first began. It’s crucial to confront and admit those issues and not allow them to inform your actions in the present.
“You’re not supposed to go back and blame your parents,” says Dr. Rutherford. “You’re supposed to go back and acknowledge what was in your past and how that was hard for you, hurt you, taught you something that you still believe, but it’s not correct. It’s not accurate in the environment in which you find yourself now.”
With time, this introspection will break the cycle.