It's Not About the Dishes: How to End Repetitive Arguments With Your Partner

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Anyone who’s been in a long-term relationship will likely agree that it can be pretty discouraging to deal with repeated arguments or seemingly constant bickering. As a relationship therapist, I help couples find out what’s going on underneath the frustrations (and sometimes anguish-filled moments) that arise between them so that they can connect more and argue less.

As it turns out, the recurring challenges we experience with our partners are often related to stuff from the past (often as early as childhood) that shaped how we experience the world. Understanding this connection to your past is the key to defusing arguments and finding more understanding and love in your relationship.

"But," you may be wondering, "Is it always that deep? How can you tell when it really is just about the dishes?"

Here's how to tell if your frustration is connected to something deeper:

1. Have you and your partner had the same argument two or more times? If so, there’s likely a past hurt underneath the presenting issue.

Partner A: “How many times have I told you that I can’t stand waking up to a sink full of dirty dishes? You said you’d do them, and once again, there they are!” 
Partner B: “I feel like I’m constantly being judged and graded on my behavior. When are you going to stop telling me what to do all the time?”

Note: If you and your partner sometimes have interactions like this, never fear: many couples do. Keep reading to learn how to navigate these tricky repeat arguments.

2. Are you and your partner able to figure out how to remedy the issue in a few minutes’ time, without getting into an argument? If so, then neither of you are likely experiencing historical hurt.

Partner A: “Hey, can you do the dishes later tonight? They’re piling up.” 
Partner B: “I have a thing tonight - but I can do them in the morning. Would that work?"
Partner A: “Okay then I'll try to get to them tonight but if I don't, it would be great if you could take care of them in the morning. Thanks."

Note: If you and your partner can’t do this about a particular topic, that’s not necessarily an indication that there's anything "wrong" with you as a couple. It means that you have something deeper to explore together - and that’s actually a good opportunity to strengthen your relationship.

Simply put: it's (almost) never about the dishes.

Underneath anger is usually an unmet emotional need, and under that unmet need is often sadness or fear. Back to the good news: by connecting with those hidden emotions and expressing them to your partner with care, you're on your way to actually getting your needs met. You'll be creating a healthier relationship for your partner, too. Here's how:

The practice:

When you have some time and space, encourage yourself to explore the roots of your frustrations, and reflect on what's really underneath the discomfort. Here are some questions to help deepen your understanding of yourself:

What am I most frustrated about? 
Example: My partner forgetting to do the dishes.

What scares me about that thing?
Example: The idea that my partner doesn’t care about me or think I’m important.

When can I remember the above scary dynamic (in this example, the idea that I'm not cared about or important) coming up for me in my childhood?
Example: My dad used to slack on helping me get me ready in the mornings sometimes, and when I got to school without my lunch, I felt unimportant, lonely, and embarrassed.

What didn’t I get back then that I really needed?
Example: Consistency, attention, and care.

How am I acting with my partner when I feel those needs (in this example, the needs for consistency, attention, and care) aren’t being met in the present-day?
Example: I don't say anything about the dishes, and it builds up inside until one day I explode in anger at my partner.

The conversation:

Once you've explored these feelings on your own, give your partner an opportunity to understand you a little better by sharing your reflections with them. Often, partners are much more available to hear present hurts that are related to real wounds from the past. This is for two main reasons: 1) suddenly your partner is not the "bad guy," and 2) learning about your challenges as a kid gives them an opportunity to experience deeper kindness and empathy for you. It helps them to see your hurt in the context of an earlier formative experience.

Keep in mind that your partner likely has their own history around what it feels like to be criticized at home (like for not cleaning the dishes), and it may also be helpful for them to consider what comes up for them around this frustration. If they are open to exploring their own emotions with you, you can ask your partner some of the questions from the reflection practice above to learn a little more about what's going on for them. You'll probably find that they aren't skipping the dishes because they don't care about you.

Finding your stretch:

Once you've connected with your partner about the deeper emotional context behind your initial frustrations, it’s up to the two of you to find areas where you’re willing to stretch to meet one another’s needs. And when empathy is present, this is done out of love rather than obligation.

If your partner needs less micro-managing, maybe your stretch is to experiment with providing more positive support when your partner does things that you appreciate, and less criticism when they don't. This may help them heal old hurts of feeling stifled or incompetent. And if your partner needs more consistency, maybe your stretch is to experiment with developing routines together, even though that might not typically be your style. This may help your partner heal old hurts of feeling lonely or unimportant. 

In an ideal world, we'd all know exactly what is under the surface of a present-day frustration after just a few moments' reflection so that we can address it in real-time. While that may not always be possible, if you practice the above reflection exercise enough, you'll become more skillful at decoding your frustration in the moment. As often as you can remember, ask yourself, "If it's not about the dishes, what is it really about?"

One of the gifts of being in a relationship is that you get opportunities to heal and grow with someone who really cares about you. What often comes disguised as a problem with you or your partner is actually an invitation: to become curious about your pain, to be compassionate with your partner's pain, and to stretch into new behaviors together. In the process, you'll form a deeper and more meaningful connection.   

Would you like support with navigating repetitive arguments and transforming them into powerful growth experiences? I work with individuals and couples in San Francisco who want to explore how they can make their relationships more fun, supportive, and fulfilling.

This article is based on the wisdom of Imago Relationship Theory - a transformative approach to intimate partnership developed by Dr. Harville Hendrix and Dr. Helen LaKelly Hunt.