Ask Adam: Can We Stop Fighting About the Little Things?
After one year together, my boyfriend and I are still in love, and we are committed to making this work for the long haul. However, we are very tired of fighting. It seems like we fight more than most couples, and always about minor things like being late or forgetting to do something. How can we have more peace at home?
Tired in Tucson
Dear Tired in Tucson,
If you look under the surface of every little fight, no matter what the topic, you will find that ultimately they are about some basic core fear that all humans hold. The fears essentially look like these questions:
Does he love me?
Does he care about me?
Will he stick around?
These fears lurk in all relationships, even the highly successful long term variety.
The academic research is compelling: these unconscious fears are “built in” to humans and start in infancy. Psychologists call them “attachment needs”.
Infants must be emotionally attached to caretakers or they will die. Our need for attachment is equally important for survival as our need for food and shelter.
This process of feeling safe in our relationships gets a little more challenging if our parents didn’t have the capacity to be emotionally present at least 30% of the time when we needed them. (Yes, there is research on this.)
What To Do About It
How can awareness of these attachment needs help you and your partner?
Here’s an example from my own life. The other day my husband of 25 years was driving and turned right when I asked him to turn left. I felt oddly enraged. Rather than screaming at him (okay I may have made a snarky comment), I asked myself “What’s going on?” I realized I felt that he wasn’t listening to me. Underneath “not listening” was the feeling “he doesn’t care.”
It is not true that he doesn’t care. By realizing what was happening I was able to come back to the truth, and avoid picking a fight that could have spoiled the evening.
You can practice slowing down and becoming more aware of what is really happening in the moment. This pause will reduce the pattern of reacting quickly from the habitual place of fear or anger.
The next time you are mad at your boyfriend ask yourself “What is happening to me?” before responding to him. If you pause you’ll start to realize that you may have fallen into the automatic, untrue belief that he is the enemy trying to do you harm.
Ask yourself: is he really trying to do evil here? Does he have bad intentions?
The answer in the overwhelming majority of relationships is “no.”
The truth is that the careless or seemingly mean thing your partner did was probably not about you. It was about his feelings of overwhelm, insecurity, tiredness, hunger, vulnerability, or anxiety.
With practice you can learn to pause, to remind yourself what is really true.
This doesn’t mean that you put up with bad behavior or remain silent about it. Your partner needs to know when you are hurt by his actions. And if he does not have the capacity to comfort you or meet your needs (most of the time), then now may be the time for an overhaul or the relationship.
When you find you are arguing about soap scum, take a moment to look at the attachment issues underneath.
Adam D. Blum, MFT is a licensed psychotherapist specializing in relationship and self-esteem issues for gay men. Adam offers services in his San Francisco office or by Skype and phone worldwide. Visit his website to subscribe to his e-newsletter and his free guide on building gay relationships. Follow him on Facebook and read his blog. Send your questions for possible publication to [email protected]. (Questions may be edited.)