The “Unwinnable” Fights – What They Are & How We Resolve Them in Couples Therapy

January 18, 2023
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Seven Steps to Addressing Unwinnable Fights & How Couples Therapy Can Help

Unwinnable arguments are baked into all long-term relationships and marriages. Like the certainty of death and taxes, you can expect ongoing arguments that sometimes become gridlocked if you’re in a long-term relationship or marriage. We handle these issues in many ways. We can:

  • Pretend they don’t exist
  • Agree to disagree
  • Fight, cajole, beg, argue, yell, weep, plead, remonstrate
  • Give in

No matter the strategy, the issue(s) we fight about keep popping up, often with the same results—frustration, hurt feelings, and little resolution. Over time, this cycle can become demoralizing and often leads to questions about if we can (or should) stay together.

So, what can be done? 

Here are seven steps that can help you better address the gridlocked issues in your relationship.

Step 1: Recognize that this pattern is normal

Why? Because most of the issues that we argue and fight about are perpetual problems. They are disagreements based on our differing personalities, cultural and family expectations, and values. In fact, nearly two-thirds of what couples fight about are perpetual issues that require ongoing dialogue.1 Here are just a few examples of common perpetual issues:

  • How much time should we spend together as a couple vs. time spent apart on separate interests and activities?
  • Should we save more or spend more
  • Which parenting strategy is best for the kids
  • How should we divvy up household duties fairly? 
  • What causes and social issues should we support with our finances, time, and energy
  • How frequently do we want to be sexually intimate?

The list goes on.

Our individual answers to these questions are based on a combination of our personalities, cultural expectations, and values. We often feel like our answers are the “right way to do things,” often relegating our partner’s answers as the obvious “wrong way to do things.” This frequently leads us (and our partners) to take things personally in disagreements, which often leads to focusing on the wrong things in our arguments.

Step 2: Recognize that you are probably not “arguing” about the core issue

When it comes to perpetual issues, we rarely focus on the real issue at the core of our gridlock. The reason why there is so much intensity attached to these issues is because of how the issue and our handling of it make us feel about ourselves and the relationship. What often is at the heart of the argument is:

  • Feeling dismissed
  • Feeling unseen
  • Feeling disrespected
  • Feeling unloved
  • Feeling unimportant
  • Feeling lonely
  • Feeling unheard
  • Feeling controlled
  • Feeling unworthy
  • Feeling unwanted
  • Not feeling accepted
  • Not feeling recognized
  • Not feeling competent

When we are personally triggered and there is a lot of intensity in our arguments, how we fight (e.g., condescension, accusations, dismissing, withdrawing, ignoring) ends up contributing to the hurt and alienation that we feel around the topic.

Step 3: Figure out what core issue is being triggered for you during these conversations

  • Take a step back and ask yourself:
  • ·What is at the heart of our disagreement for me?
  • Why am I so upset/frustrated/sad/angry/hopeless/hurt?
  • What am I really wanting from my partner? 

When your partner seemingly spends more time with their hobbies or at work than with you do you feel unimportant? Neglected? Lonely? All three– or something else? Do you feel controlled when your partner makes financial decisions without including you? Disrespected? Unimportant?

You don’t have to have the final answer. Your understanding of what’s at the heart of your stuckness can evolve, but try to engage your own curiosity about what this issue means for you and why it is so problematic—you’ll inevitably find that in some way, you feel diminished, unheard, or misunderstood and that is what is driving your part of the conflict cycle (maybe showing up as defensiveness, blaming, an unhelpful tone, etc.) that contributes to the gridlock, in other words.

Step 4: Figure out what you are doing when you are triggered

When we get triggered, we tend to behave or act in certain ways—often unproductively. Our habitual, ineffective responses are often categorized in three ways:

1)      Moving away: we withdraw (emotionally or physically), avoid, change the subject, give in, acquiesce, shut down

2)      Moving against we badger, argue, yes but, cross-complain, interrupt, belittle, criticize

3)      Moving toward: seek reassurance, minimize, anxiously require resolution

What we do when we are triggered is often a big reason why we continue to get stuck. How we deal with gridlocked issues often becomes the problem. So, knowing what you do when triggered is an important step in having a new conversation around an old issue.

Step 5: Reflect on what you want, not just what you don’t want 

Humans are often better able to identify what we don’t want before we get clear on what we do want. 

  • “I don’t want you to belittle me…”
  • “I don’t like when you shut down and make it impossible to have a conversation…”
  • “I don’t like how you follow me around pestering me to talk when I’m overwhelmed…” 

This often becomes a premature dead-end to arguments before a desire is specified. When we are clearer about what we want, we make it easier for our partners to attune to our desires. 

  •  “I don’t want you to belittle me…I do want to feel like you care about my opinion by involving me in conversations about the kids.” 
  • “I don’t like when you shut down and make it impossible to have a conversation…I want to respect your feelings and give you some space, and I also want you to meet me in the middle and respect my feelings by trying to stay engaged a little longer, or bring issues up when you have concerns.”
  • “I don’t like how you follow me around, pestering me to talk when I’m overwhelmed…I want you to respect that I’m not in a place to talk if I ask for a break.” 

The cherry on top of communicating what you want from your partner is clarifying what you can do to support the change you want to see. For example: “I want you to respect that I’m not in a place to talk if I ask for a break, and I will do my best to stay engaged longer and not take a break unless I absolutely need to.” 

Step 6: Attempt to have a new conversation around your old issue

This next step is not easy, but being armed with greater clarity about what is really bothering you and what you might be doing that contributes to unproductive conversations allows you to make a plan to try and have a new conversation around your gridlocked issue. This first attempt at a new conversation should focus on understanding each of your perspectives in a deeper way rather than being focused on problem-solving.

A few steps you can take:

1.       Find a time when you aren’t at odds and let your partner know that you’ve been thinking about (name the gridlocked topic, e.g., time spent together) and that you’ve had some insights into why it has been a difficult topic for you to discuss. Given these new insights about what it means to you and how you’ve handled your part of the conversations in the past, you’d like to give it another go. Ask them, “when would be a good time to try again?”

2.       Start the conversation with what you understand the gridlocked issue to be about for you (e.g., feeling unimportant, controlled) and how that’s contributed to how you’ve engaged your partner in this conversation in the past.

  • A surefire way to derail the conversation before it begins is using a harsh start-up. For example, don’t do this!: “After some thought, I now see that when you spend so much time involved with your hobbies, you make me feel like I don’t matter and that I’m not important to you. That makes me angry, and I think you’re pretty selfish! So, of course, I lash out at you when we talk about this!”
  • A more effective way to start is to speak from the heart and talk about yourself (your own feelings, your personal desires) using a softened start-up. For example: “After some thought, I now see that when you spend so much time involved with your hobbies, I feel like I don’t matter to you and that I’m not important to you. I’m not sure if this is true, but it hurts. When I feel hurt and lonely, I have a tendency to lash out at you. I know that’s not helpful, but what I really want you to know is that I miss our time together and would like to find a way to have more of it. I like spending time with you!

3.       Be mindful of your own defensiveness and tendency to move toward, move against, or move away from your partner, but also understand that even if you take all the right steps, your partner still might not respond how you hope they will. You cannot guarantee an outcome, but you can do your part to create a new conversation by doing your part differently and being mindful of how you show up to the conversation and engage your partner.

4.       Give space to your partner to share their perspective, and be mindful that this might be the first time they are trying to look at the issue in a different way. Your role in this initial new conversation is to try and understand their perspective (which doesn’t equal you’re agreeing with them) and convey your perspective in a non-defensive, open-hearted way.

Step 7: Consider couples therapy or couple intensive to help jump-start the process and to give you the tools to have more productive conversations

Sometimes it’s hard for partners to see their own triggers and their contributions to the gridlock, or it’s too hard to be non-defensive despite your best efforts. No matter what you do, you seem to fall into the old patterns. If this is the case, you’re not alone! Couples therapy or couples intensives can be a good way to jumpstart the healing process. You’ll utilize a skilled couples therapist to help you better understand your role, what triggers you, and why, and to help each of you develop the capacities and skills to better understand and engage each other in difficult conversations. Having someone walk you through this process and serve as a guide, coach, and mediator can often speed up the process of having productive conversations about hot-button topics.

Unwinnable, gridlocked issues are part of long-term marriages and relationships. It’s not if you have them, but how you address them that impacts the connection and quality of your relationship. Many times, you can begin to work through these together as you gain new insights about yourself and the relationship and then have new conversations around the old issue. At other times, the stuckness seems too great to make progress, and that’s where a skilled couples therapist can help you make progress even though right now it doesn’t seem possible!


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