Mental Help Net
Family & Relationship Issues
Basic InformationMore InformationLatest NewsQuestions and AnswersBlog EntriesVideosLinksBook Reviews
Therapist Search
Find a Therapist:
 (USA/CAN only)

Use our Advanced Search to locate a therapist outside of North America.

Related Topics

Life Issues
Elder Care
Child Care

Allan Schwartz, Ph.D.Allan Schwartz, Ph.D.
Dr. Schwartz's Weblog

Couples and Quarrelling

Allan N. Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. Updated: Aug 16th 2007

It is no secret to anyone who is either married or in a committed intimate relationship that quarrels occur from time to time. For some couples these times are few and far between while for others they are frequent. For many couples the arguments are frustrating, anxiety provoking and, if really serious, can lead to the end of the relationship. Having work with couples for many years and being aware of my own thirty eight year marriage, I have made some observations about arguments and what should and should not occur.

Observation 1:

I have observed thousands of times in working among married and intimate couples that where an argument begins rarely is the place in which it ends. For example, recently, a married couple began arguing with one another during their session. Despite my best efforts at getting them to see what was happening they drifted from the actual problem about which they disagreed to problems and debates they had earlier and earlier in their relationship. As the heat in the room ramped up each expressed hurt and despair about the slings and arrows being hurled by the other. The trouble was that those slings and arrows had no relevance to the issues in the present moment.

During the next session, when things had calmed quite a lot I pointed out to both of them that what they argued and felt hurt about had little or nothing to do with the problem they entered the room with.

This is a frequent occurrence in most marriages and therefore reveals nothing about the identity of this couple. The question is why do couples, when arguing, drift further from the central issue?

Many arguments that begin with a legitimate complain spiral downward because no one is willing to admit to having made a mistake. Why can't anyone admit to an error? To make such an admission feels like a humiliation or surrender to one or both of the spouses and, so, they continue to argue, with increased vigor, because each is now competing to win a debate or a court trial with each the opposing attorney. To score more points, each goes further and further back into the past, digging up ancient and irrelevant complaints, obscure occurrences and petty differences. As frustration mounts, so does the anger until they each stop arguing out of sheer exhaustion or pure frustration. The end result is nothing more or less than alienation.

Observation 2:

Why would a couple seek counseling when they rarely, if ever quarrel? The answer is that they do not quarrel because one of them walks out of the room the minute a hot issue is raised. This is not a role that shifts but is perpetrated by the one spouse over and again, driving the other mate to feel utterly frustrated. Most often I have heard this complaint from women about their husbands. In other words, these are men who refuse to fight, respond to a question or resolve an issue. The more she gets angry the more silent he becomes. It is just no possible to have an argument with someone who refuses to argue. Of course, what he is doing is saving up all kinds of grievances that he may or may not be aware that he has against her.

The problem with this husband is that one day he explodes into uncontrollable anger over some utterly minor issue. With small annoyances mounting for months or years these men reach a "boiling point" where they explode in a way that shocks and surprises even them selves. After this cathartic experience, this man then returns to his quiet tranquility once again, leaving his wife completely confused and, of course, angry.

Observation 3:

There are those people who place the blame constantly on the other. Let us take a fictional example of this blaming scenario:


The couple has three children, all elementary school age. One of them has been diagnosed with a learning disability and the youngest sibling may have a similar problem. Only the eldest child is free of learning problems and is doing well. The father ignores the fact that the children have learning problems and blames his wife for the children doing poorly in school. He complains that she does not help them with their homework and places all blame on her when report card grades are poor. What he ignores is the fact that she does help them with homework but he does not because he is busy smoking marijuana in another room after coming home from work and having dinner.

In fact, this man blames his wife for the house being messy, the clothes not being clean and the bills not being paid in a timely fashion. What he ignores is that she works part time, takes the children to and from school, makes dinner, and does do the laundry and cleans the house. She complains that with three kids to look after she needs help with some of the chores but he refused to help out at all. She sarcastically notes that helping might interfere with his marijuana smoking.

By the way, he blames his wife for the fact that the eldest child is over weight!

I could continue this way but the point is made that these are not good ways to argue.

How to argue better:

Establish rules.

It is important to set up rules for arguing, sit down and agree on what those rules should be and keep them posted in a visible place.

Here are some rules:

1. Stay focused on the topic of disagreement and do not stray from that topic for any reason.

2. Refrain from using curse words and most definitely do not hurl vile epitaphs at your mate.

3. Do not derail the issue by saying something like: "you are yelling." Such a comment can take you down a side road.

4. Instead of trying to "win" the argument work on coming to some kind of consensus.

5. If anyone has been drinking or using a drug avoid the argument until everyone is sober and rational.

6. Give one another permission to pause if the argument is becoming too angry and permission to go out for a walk in order to blow off some steam.

7. If you did make a mistake ( being late, forgetting an occasion, etc) own up and admit it. An honest admission never harmed anyone.

8. Avoid using all inclusive but incendiary words such as: "You never do this..." or, "You always..." or "You..."

9. Bite your tongue before you say that really mean and angry thing when you are in the midst of anger. Most people later regret what they said in the heat of the moment.

People argue and this seems to be a necessary part of relating intimately. The idea is to fight in healthy ways. Fighting in healthy ways translates into not working to devastate or emotionally wipe out your partner.

What are you comments and thoughts?

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D.

Readers who live in the Boulder, Colorado metro area, or in Southwest Florida may contact Dr. Schwartz for face-to-face consultation. He is also available for psychotherapy through Skype video for those who are not in Florida or Colorado. He can be reached via email at for details.

Reader Comments
Discuss this issue below or in our forums.

Elaborate on #3 - Diverted - Nov 7th 2008

My wife yells at the drop of a hat; she knows I'm sensitive to having the neighbors hear our discussions, and uses her voice as a trump card.

What is a good alternative to mentioning that she's yelling?  How can she be politely brought back to an adult conversational level without seeming threatened, which elevates the yelling to shrieking?

Refusing to argue is a form of manipulation and control - - Jul 27th 2008

Someone who, as a rule, refuses to argue, is manipulating/controlling, which is perhaps not the intention, but it is nonetheless, the effect.  After all, if he doesn't engage in arguing, he pretty much assures that he won't 'lose'---having to admit being wrong, apologizing, etc

My recent experience is that the more my partner refused to argue, the more frustrated, upset and volatile I would become, which he would then use against me as an overall problem in our relationship.   

And not surprisingly, everything was supposedly my fault--including the fact that he had gained weight!

I couldn't help but call this man---a decorated Gulf War vet who served in special forces and therefore witnessed and participated in hellish acts---a coward.

Follow us on Twitter!

Find us on Facebook!

This website is certified by Health On the Net Foundation. Click to verify.This site complies with the HONcode standard for trustworthy health information:
verify here.

Powered by CenterSite.Net