While there may be a handful of perfectly matched highly compatible partners who live in perpetual bliss and harmonious coexistence, that isn’t the reality for the vast majority of couples.
Partners argue. And really, why wouldn’t they? In any union between two independent and equal adults who share power and feel secure, surely they will have differences of opinion. It could be something small (e.g., where to go for dinner, what color to paint a room), or something more substantial (e.g., parenting, spending money). But whatever it is, the chances of perfect agreement is slim. (If you’re curious about what else couple argue about, check out “The 10 Most Common Sources of Conflict in Relationships“) With so many potential sources of conflict, couples still attempt to avoid arguments.
What Motivates Conflict Avoidance?
Fear. Our relationship is important to us and hopefully a key source of fulfillment and stability. With that in mind, we’re reluctant to do anything that may upset or threaten such an essential part of our life. Not surprisingly, research finds that talking about the relationship (e.g., What are we? Where is this going?) was one of the top taboo topics to avoid for 70 percent of people, and the number one off-limits topic for one out of three people (Baxter & Wilmot, 1985). Because contemplating our relationship’s potential demise is anxiety provoking, we’re eager to avoid potential threats. But that may be the biggest threat of all.
Kitchen Thinking and Sinking
Too often, couples attempt to work things out by burying problems. It’s as simple as “letting things go,” not wanting to “get into it,” deciding it’s “not worth it,” or simply saying “whatever.” Each effectively diffuses tension and prevents conflict. But this strategy has a fatal flaw: those issues rarely stay underground for long.
That’s because each transgression gets catalogued. We forgive easier than we forget. The result is that we can’t help but engage in “kitchen thinking” where each subsequent infraction reminds us of what’s transpired before (Cortes & Wilson, 2016). That thought pattern allows new points of friction to snowball. Suddenly we’re not just upset about a missed text, but a longstanding pattern of disrespect.
It builds and builds, until we burst. Now, all of that kitchen-thinking quickly becomes “kitchen-sinking” where we ambush our partner with a list of complaints that we’ve been saving up (Gottman & Silver, 1995). Our partner is blindsided because they never saw it coming and what triggered it may have been minor. Rather than a positive or productive reaction, it’s more likely that our partner becomes defensive and fights back. This pattern gives normally inconsequential infractions and issues immense power over your relationship. Now, what should be an innocuous comment leading to clarity and compromise can escalate into a relationship killer. Ironically, it’s exactly what you were trying to avoid.
Avoiding Arguments Now, Have a Worse Relationship Later
The real problem is that by dodging conflict you’re doing a lot of work for nothing. Not only does conflict avoidance not help relationships, it actually hurts (Caughlin & Golish, 2002). In particular, when partners purposefully dodged topics, their communication suffered, they were less happy, and 7 weeks later were less dedicated to their relationship (Clifford et al., 2017). When couples pretend their aren’t problems, it creates stress that harms satisfaction (Thompson & Vangelisti, 2016). Not only does the “arguing should not be tolerated” approach undermine satisfaction, but those relationship are more aggressive and the female partners report more depression (Foran & Slep, 2007).
Skipping the arguments does more harm than good, even if it feels good at the moment. Research on over 1,500 adults confirms that participants report feeling better on days they avoiding arguing with their partner (Birditt et al., 2015). However, the next day those same people reported worse psychological well-being and had increased cortisol levels (which is linked to a range of stress-related problems). The lesson is simple: avoid tough conversations now, pay for it later with a worse relationship.
The Better Way: See Arguments as Opportunities
Instead, you need to embrace every chance you have to strengthen your relationship. Even when it’s difficult. Making no mistake, conflict is uncomfortable. But that unsettling feeling also gives you an opening to make progress. By dealing with issues head-on, you can reach some level of compromise so that the problem gets resolved. As you tackle each challenge, your relationship has one less thing to worry about.
Without arguments there is no progress. That said, this isn’t an invitation to become argumentative and looks for ways to start fights. Rather, the “argue more” mentality is an invitation to address naturally arising differences between partners head-on for the good of your relationship. Don’t worry, every relationship has ample opportunities. But you have to be willing to engage. The goal is to have more minor skirmishes, so that you rarely need to fight relationship battles, and can completely avoid all-out wars. To accomplish this, it helps to be a good listener and make your partner feel heard. It’s as easy as “giving a C.R.A.P.O.” and you learn the 5 simple steps here. When you keep small problems small, they’re more manageable and easier to resolve. More importantly, they aren’t able to threaten your relationship.
"...don't be afraid to bring me bad news. Bad news does not get better with time. So if you got bad news, bring it forward." ~ Admiral William McRaven
What may seem like common sense (e.g., arguing is bad for relationships) may be uncommonly bad advice. Every couple will have their share of arguments. Trying to avoid those argument does more harm than good. You can pretend you don’t have problems for a while, but not forever. Ignoring issues may provide temporary bliss, but ultimately it creates a ticking timebomb. You have to ask yourself: How long can you “let things go” before you’re ready to leave the relationship altogether?
Relationships take work, and working things out through tough or awkward conversations are part of that. When you do the work, it benefits the relationship right away and over time (Jensen & Rauer, 2016). Putting in a bit of work is worth it to help your relationship remain strong and thrive.
Baxter, L. A., & Wilmot, W. W. (1985). Taboo topics in close relationships. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 2(3), 253-269.
Birditt, K. S., Nevitt, M. R., & Almeida, D. M. (2015). Daily interpersonal coping strategies: Implications for self-reported well-being and cortisol. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 32(5), 687-706.
Caughlin, J. P., & Golish, T. D. (2002). An analysis of the association between topic avoidance and dissatisfaction: Comparing perceptual and interpersonal explanations. Communication Monographs, 69(4), 275-295.
Clifford, C. E., Vennum, A., Busk, M., & Fincham, F. D. (2017). Testing the impact of sliding versus deciding in cyclical and noncyclical relationships. Personal Relationships, 24(1), 223–238.
Cortes, K., & Wilson, A. E. (2016). When slights beget slights: Attachment anxiety, subjective time, and intrusion of the relational past in the present. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 42(12), 1693–1708.
Foran, H. M., & Slep, A. M. S. (2007). Validation of a self-report measure of unrealistic relationship expectations. Psychological Assessment, 19(4), 382–396.
Gottman, J. M., & Silver, N. (1995). Why marriages succeed or fail: And how you can make yours last. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.
Jensen, J. F., & Rauer, A. (2016). Young adult females’ relationship work and its links to romantic functioning and stability over time. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 33(5), 687–708.
Thompson, C. M., & Vangelisti, A. L. (2016). What happens when the standard for openness goes unmet in romantic relationships? Analyses of stress, coping, and relational consequences. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 33(3), 320–343.