There’s a common refrain in my house when my husband and I have an argument: “I’m so sick of having the same argument with you.”
We’ve been together almost 12 years, (married for more than 5) and yet, we still fight over the same tired things: whose turn it is to clean up, whose fault it is when we’re running late, and how we should spend our money.
However, this is hardly unique to us. Some couples have variations of the same arguments, while others have a few different ones. But according to research by psychology professor and relationship researcher John Gottman, 69 percent of the topics that couples will disagree over will never go away or get fully resolved.
“Most arguments in a relationship revolve around similar issues,” explains Nicholas Hardy, a psychotherapist in Houston, Texas. “The specifics may vary, but at the core, there is a consistent theme that exists.”
This bickering over the same things isn’t just reserved for couples though: Roommates, siblings, family members, and friends can all find themselves caught having the same disagreements year after year, with seemingly no lasting resolution or change.
A big recipe for common arguments came via the pandemic.
“The pandemic has been very hard on relationships,” says Jessica Small, licensed marriage and family therapist, “[because] people are spending more time together and have significantly less access to their self-care and outside hobbies.”
In other words: Without some of our normal outlets (like our commutes, time at work, or dinner with friends), our frustrations have nowhere to go but into a pressure cooker, leading to more fights. And yes, a lot of those fights are about the same things, over and over, like some relationship Groundhog Day.
“It is difficult to share space and time with another person,” Small explains. “We find other people inherently annoying by the nature of them being different from us and by not doing things the way we do them.
“People tend to have a bias toward themselves and to see their contributions, beliefs, and behaviors as right,” she continues, “which makes it difficult to have an accurate perception of interactions and a tendency to see others as the ‘problem.’”
It’s not really about the dirty dishes (not to state the obvious).
“Small issues can reflect larger problems in a relationship,” explains Hardy. The issue at-hand may be minor — like the unwashed dishes — but it can represent something major, such as a lack of shared household responsibilities.
“When this occurs,” he continues, “there is an exaggerated response and the ability to let it go becomes increasingly difficult” each time the fight repeats itself.
We have differences in values
“Arguments frequently occur based on a clash in values between roommates, partners, or family members,” explains Emily Simonian, licensed marriage and family therapist with Thriveworks Counseling. “Our homes are our safe place — our haven or refuge from the outside world where we want to relax, unwind, and be ourselves. So, we place emphasis on our sense of fulfillment at home. That said, most of us have a set of unspoken or unacknowledged values, rules, or guidelines about how we expect or prefer for things to happen at home.
“So when our roommate, significant other, or family members behave in ways that don’t match our expectations, they are disrupting our ideas about how things ‘should’ be,” she adds.
We really want to be right
This is especially true when the issue we’re fighting about is a core value that we hold dear. For example, this is why we find it hard to not argue politics with our parents, even if we know it’s not going to end well.
“With something like politics, people’s heart and morality are often tied into their beliefs, and so they may struggle to fully avoid the topic with a family member because they have hope of changing the other person’s mind,” Small says. “When we believe ourselves to be ‘right,’ we irrationally think that we just must not be explaining ourselves well because if the other person really understood what we were saying, there’s no way they wouldn’t agree.”
We hold on to the past
“The inability to let small things go is often the result of unresolved issues that have compounded over time,” explains Hardy.
Issues can go unresolved for a variety of reasons. For example, maybe someone tried to avoid conflict by failing to let someone else know how they’ve been hurtful. Or, maybe a friend never apologized for a previous fight, so even though both friends have moved on, the issue they fought about went unresolved.
The problem is, when there is no resolution, those small disagreements can grow and become quick trigger points. For example, if someone buys something impulsively without talking to their partner (and it isn’t the first time they’ve done that) it can quickly become a big argument.
Sometimes, the past can cause you to lose confidence or trust in your partner. “If one spouse has made mistakes in the past or lost the trust of their partner,” explains Hardy, “differences will continue to surface because one partner is viewing the issue at hand through the lens of past issues.”
We know how to “win” by knowing each other’s vulnerabilities
As you get to know someone, you learn what can really hurt them.
“We tend to know each other’s strengths and limitations,” says Gilza Fort-Martinez, a licensed marriage and family therapist who focuses on conflict resolution, “and therefore we have the ‘ammunition’ needed to wound the other person.”
This means that when a fight starts, we know how to keep it going — and when we use our “ammunition” and bring out the big guns, it brings the fight back to a familiar topic that we always fight about.
We don’t really change as much as we might think
“We argue about the same things because who we are, fundamentally, does not change a lot over time,” explains Hardy. “Sometimes, we have ‘aha’ moments and adopt a new perspective, but this is more of an exception rather than the norm.”
Simonian agrees. “We do not like to change,” she says. “Change is registered in the brain as something negative or threatening. This is a survival response — even if the change is positive.
“We inherently like homeostasis or the ‘status quo,’ even if the status quo means having arguments,” she continues. And the result is that “we get stuck in patterns with family and it’s typically hard to change behavior.”
The short answer: probably not. You can break the cycle — as long as you’re both willing to put in the work, and as long as the relationship is worth saving (if there’s violence, gaslighting, or emotional abuse, the best way to break the cycle is to end the relationship.)
“There are very few incompatibilities that are actual dealbreakers,” explains Small. “Most [people] are going to be ‘incompatible’ in some way, meaning that there will be differences in their preferences, beliefs, or behaviors.”
The problem isn’t the differences themselves, she says, but how two people talk about the issues. For example, she says, “partners talk about the same thing over and over again because they are not reaching a point of true understanding.” That lack of understanding is the source of the gridlock.
“The desire to break the cycle is a major step in the right direction,” says Hardy. “This desire can create a willingness to seek support and establishes an openness to make corrections when needed.”
There are no quick fixes for identifying and confronting underlying issues that cause argument cycles. But these 7 tips can at least put you on a more productive path.
1. Recognize that you’re both going to need to compromise
“[People] can work through chronic arguments,” says Simonian. “I’ve seen it happen. However, ‘resolving’ sometimes means being able to work through problems without achieving perfect solutions.”
In other words, to break the cycle, you’re both going to have to give a little.
2. Focus on your common goal
“I always work with couples to help them consider their ‘ultimate win,’” says Hardy. “When you can establish commonality around what is most important, it minimizes focus on situational experiences where you disagree.”
For example, if there’s disagreement about the school to send your kids to, but you agree that you want them to have a great education — it’s easier to focus on the big picture and find a compromise.
3. Fight fairly
This is a biggie — and probably the biggest roadblock to overcoming your cycle of arguing.
Remember: It’s OK to disagree with each other, but you have to do it in a fair and respectful way.
“My definition of working through problems means just being able to talk about challenges in ways that aren’t damaging the relationship,” says Simonian. “You are much more likely to move towards some semblance of a resolution if you fight fairly because you are going to feel more supported and validated by your partner.”
She continues, “To fight fairly, you typically want to avoid behaviors like name-calling, blaming, or getting defensive.”
In other words: It’s all about remembering to have mutual respect for each other.
Try not to raise your voice or bring up the past. Don’t threaten the relationship either. “[Avoid] any other behavior that creates a threatening or unsafe environment,” says Hardy.
“Your partner should feel comfortable being vulnerable and speaking their truth, even if it differs from yours,” he continues. “There are so many ways we create unsafe spaces, without consciously realizing it. For instance, comparing your relationship or spouse to others and minimizing respective contributions serve as barricades to finding a resolution.”
4. Try to let go of the past
Don’t hold on to past mistakes for leverage in a fight. All it does is takes what could be a minor argument and sends it off the rails in your attempt to “win” the fight or deflect from the issue at hand.
For example, If you both agree to work together to spend less money going forward, don’t constantly remind your partner in all future fights of all the expensive things they bought before you made the agreement.
5. Give each other a little grace
Change takes time.
If a familiar argument arises, try explaining why you’re upset, but then give the other person space to make adjustments. Don’t disparage or attack them because they may not be able to see the problem or “fix it” right away.
“Habits are hard to break because they are embedded in our subconscious,” explains Hardy. It’s going to take time — and effort — to form new habits. So, try to forgive little stumbles along the way, especially when you’re going through a time of high stress (hint: like the pandemic.)
“During stressful times, we tend to be more irritable: We snap at each other, say things that we do not mean, and generally can be unpleasant,” says Fort-Martinez. “Acknowledging that we are ‘off-center,’ edgy, angry, or frustrated can start the process of reset. Naming it can help with forgiving, both yourself and your partner.
“Forgiveness done with grace can stem conflict before it begins,” she continues. “Use the ‘rewind rule’ where we can apologize and take back the unkindness and open space for further talking.
“A willingness to forgive quickly helps to avoid the petty conflicts that might further distance you from each other.”
6. Focus on your own behavior, not theirs
Though it might feel like the ultimate goal, you shouldn’t be trying to make someone change for you. Instead, focus on what you can control: i.e., your behavior.
“My recommendation for squashing arguments between family members is to focus on how you respond, not on how your family members respond,” says Simonian. “You can choose how to respond, and it only takes one person to act differently to change the status quo and create a behavioral chain reaction in families.
“A great tool is called ‘practicing opposite action’ and this is exactly what it sounds like,” she continues. “Try to behave or respond in a way that you wouldn’t normally behave to break up cyclical arguments.”
If you and your partner tend to argue for hours at a time, try to break up the argument by putting it on pause and going for a walk. “This disruption in your normal pattern is often enough to prevent arguments from escalating or repeating,” she says.
7. Remember that it’s OK to seek help
Sometimes, we don’t have the objectivity to DIY a solution to ending our repetitive arguments — and that’s OK. This is where, for romantic partners and families, therapy can be helpful.
Therapy can help put your argument in perspective and get to the heart of what the underlying themes are.
“I once saw a couple that had a recurring conflict for years about birthdays,” says Small. “The wife cared deeply [that giving birthday gifts] was a true sign of love and caring. When her husband failed to get her a gift for her birthday, it felt like she meant nothing to him — that she didn’t matter and he did not appreciate her.
“The husband on the other hand felt so much pressure about getting it ‘right’ he would become paralyzed and get nothing at all,” she remembers. “He was so fearful of disappointing this person he cared so deeply about.”
Small continues, “When we were able to actually get to these painful and vulnerable feelings, the couple was able to restructure their way of talking about the issue from a place of healing and understanding.
“A therapist will help navigate the conversation in session and help [people] understand where they are getting caught in defensiveness versus understanding, criticism versus complaint, and bring forth the vulnerable attachment needs that are going unmet,” she adds.
If you find yourself caught in the same argument cycles with significant others, know you’re not alone. It’s actually pretty common. Plus, the pandemic (and associated lockdowns) have only made these arguments harder to avoid.
The good news is, if both parties want to work at it, there are things you can both do to break the cycle and work towards resolution. It just takes a little time and grace.