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Arguments: What causes them?


Being in a close relationship isn’t always a bed of roses and some level of conflict is inevitable. In fact, experts on relationships say it’s impossible to be close to someone without sometimes arguing. This is backed up by the findings of the Enduring Love? research project, in which more than 5,000 people were interviewed about their relationships. The study found that:

  • everybody argues at times
  • some people think a bit of conflict can even be positive
  • people have different ideas about what counts as arguing or bickering
  • most people dislike arguments

Some of those interviewed for the study thought conflict in a relationship could sometimes be a good thing. For example, when a row gets tensions out in the open or when it helps people understand each other better.

We make sense of the world and we both make compromises – at times struggle is part of a good relationship.’ Enduring Love interviewee

Enduring Love? and other studies have found that strong relationships can have lots of conflict or very little conflict, or anything in between. The important thing is that overall there are many more times when we are nice to each other than times when we bicker or argue.

Even if arguing is normal in a close relationship, most of us find it upsetting. The Enduring Love? project found that arguments were top of the list of things that people disliked about their relationship. The good news is there are things we can do to make arguments less heated and to work towards a compromise rather than a stand-off. First, let’s look at the reasons we argue.

Reasons we argue

The Enduring Love? research found that couples argue for all sorts of reasons, including: 

Another increasingly common cause of arguments is what some experts call ‘technoference’ which refers to technology interfering in our relationships. 

Enduring Love? interviewees talked about how constant use of phones and laptops became a barrier in their relationship and this is backed up by the 2013 National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles (Natsal-3). The study showed that the frequency of couples having sex had gone down and one of the researchers who worked on the study suggested that technology could be playing a role.

Of course, technology can play a really positive role in relationships. Increasingly, it is how we meet our partner, flirt, communicate and feel connected, but what about when you’re sitting next to one another? The pinging of notifications and feeling the need to immediately respond is what makes technology really addictive but by focusing on your phone, you’re sending your partner the message that they’re less interesting. Does this sound like you and your partner? And is it causing arguments? 

If you think it’s becoming a problem, a good starting point can be to set yourselves some simple rules such as not using your phone during mealtimes, leaving the phone out of the bedroom at night and allocating a set time when you’ll check your phone. You could also consider putting your phone on silent or removing the notifications. As always, it’s always wise to talk about this with your partner and tell each other calmly how you feel rather than waiting for it to escalate into another argument.

How we argue

There are many ways of having an argument but here are some common and very destructive patterns, as identified by Relate, the relationships counselling experts.

Stonewalling: this is when one person completely withdraws, puts up a wall and refuses to discuss the issue. This can make the other person feel  ignored and not valued. 

Criticism: this is when one person makes negative comments about the other’s behaviour – in the midst of an argument. They might say something like ‘you’re always so forgetful’ leaving the other person feeling attacked and threatened. 

Contempt: this is when you make someone feel worthless through mocking, being sarcastic and/or aggressive (e.g. ‘you think you’re so clever.’) This can leave the other person feeling humiliated and belittled.

Defensiveness: this is when you aggressively defend and justify yourself to your partner (e.g. ‘you haven’t got a clue just how much I have to remember every day.’) This leaves the other person feeling attacked and the argument is likely to escalate.

Hidden issues

The reasons we argue may not always be obvious. The Site’s brilliant Love Smart website highlights ‘hidden issues’ that may also be at play. It encourages you to look beyond what a relationship problem appears to be about and to dig deeper to examine the hidden issue. 

One of the examples they give is of a couple that argues about money; he is worried about spending too much and how not having enough could break them up. His partner is irritated by this and calls him a ‘tight arse’ and this causes arguments over and over again. The hidden issue is that money problems caused his parents to separate. If his partner knew this, she might be more supportive and this could strengthen their communication and resolve their arguments quicker.

The point is, that many relationships have hidden issues and they’re different for all of us. So if you have the same arguments over and over again, why don’t you dig to see what hidden issues might be causing yours? It may not be easy but it means you’ll be more aware of your own emotions and triggers. This is called ‘emotional intelligence’ and having more of it can help you have better, stronger and more satisfying relationships.

Read our advice on dealing better with arguments.


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