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Why Do We Keep Having the Same Fight Again and Again?

Why Do We Keep Having the Same Fight Again and Again?

Picture Rose and Alex. They have been together for ten years. They get along well most of the time, but find that, when they argue, things get intense and heated. They don’t always argue about the same things. Sometimes it’s about whose turn it was to do the laundry; sometimes it’s about Rose wanting to go out and Alex wanting to stay home; sometimes it’s about Alex’s parents making snide remarks about Rose and Alex not jumping in to intervene.

But what Rose and Alex find is that, while the content of their arguments is not always the same, the pattern of interaction seems to repeat itself. Rose will initiate by presenting Alex with a thesis about who is at fault, what the data is to back this up, and what is to be done to fix it. Alex becomes defensive and sarcastic, looking out the window and scrolling through Instagram as they ‘talk.’ Rose becomes sad and embarrassed, becoming quiet immediately. The two retreat to opposite corners of the home until they cool off. Eventually they come back and discuss the issue, but not before hours of emotional strife.

Why do these ways of interacting tend to repeat? The way we are with significant others in our adult lives, be they friends, romantic partners, our children, etc., is shaped by our histories. Our experience up to the present is the dataset that our minds use to help us make sense of our world and the people within it. We make decisions about how to act with those who are important to us by using what we know from what we experienced with those who we have loved in the past. So say, for instance, Alex was constantly being made to feel growing up like a worthless person by a parent. It makes sense, then, that any criticism will be perceived as an attack on Alex as a whole person, and that defensiveness would ensue. How can we fault Alex? This is simply behavior that stems from expectations formed based on past experiences. Now let’s take Rose. If Rose’s primary caregiver was only wont to give in to Rose when presented with an intellectual argument, Rose will likely try to apply that in future significant relationships. She will expect that, just like her caregiver was only swayed by intellectual, rather than emotional, claims, others will respond similarly.

All of what has been described here is very typical. Even for those who were raised in secure, loving homes, distressing patterns can emerge when in the throes of an argument or emotionally-intense moment with loved ones. If you find that there is a pattern that is causing distress to either individual or is driving a wedge in the relationship, there is what to be done.

The first matter is to contextualize. Rose and Alex both brought their histories to bear when in the midst of an argument. While we could argue that one party is, in fact, ‘at fault,’ the reason that the argument became what it did was because of the interaction between the two of them. Each one triggered something in the other, which in turn caused another set of interactions. So while it may feel at times like one person is to blame because he/she is the one with the ‘troubled past,’ or the ‘daddy issues,’ it is often not that simple. It is at the point of interaction between the two individuals that the intervention can be made.

The next step is to turn these automatic, unconscious transactions into interactions that each person can understand. If we were to ask Alex and Rose what happens between them, they would tell us something like, “When Rose tries to bring something up, it always becomes a huge argument and we both end up crying for hours.” Without exploring it deeply, they probably do not really understand what is going on between them. It is Rose’s job to figure out why there is a temptation to present these scientific arguments, and why there is shame when these ideas are rebuffed. It is Alex’s job to figure out why there is intense defensiveness when there is a hint of criticism presented. They must ask themselves, what belief gets triggered when we have these interactions? Was Rose taught, explicitly or subtly, that being emotional rather than rational would make her weak and stupid? Did Alex’s experience cause the development of a sense of impending doom, of rejection right around the corner?

Possibly. Or it could be something else entirely. But the way to get there is to look at the interactions, to understand what is going on between you and those you love, and to ask what beliefs underly these interactions.

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