Ask Sam and Whitney how their weekend was and you’re likely to hear the same story each week: Saturday started fine, but then they had a big fight Saturday night. They each retreated into their own silos for most of Sunday but then finally made up Sunday night. And then the rest of the week was pretty good ... till the next weekend.
This is a common cycle for many couples. They have a big or pretty big argument. Sometimes fueled by stress and bad timing, sometimes accumulating resentments, sometimes by alcohol or drugs, sometimes by a combination. Hurtful things are said. One person storms out, one retreats to the bedroom, one drives away, one chases them down the driveway, one sleeps on the couch. Each is shaken, each wants to repair, close the gap, make up.
The makeup: Step 1—After an awful night, they meet in the kitchen on Sunday morning (or several hours or days later). One or both say they’re sorry. They hug. “We OK? Yeah, we’re OK.” Deep sigh. Crisis passed.
Step 2: They may each mentally resolve to do better: Control their temper, be nicer, and more considerate. Not make waves, pushbuttons, let things go, be more affectionate, have more sex. Or maybe it is more specific—resolve to not leave their clothes on the bedroom floor, help with the kid’s bedtime. Good to go. And they each do so for a few days, even a week or two. But then it falls apart; they fall back into their old behaviors; there’s another argument. The cycle repeats.
From an outsider's perspective, the days or times or even the content don’t matter. What matters here is a pattern itself: Arguing, hurt, make up, maybe attempts to do better, fall back, argue. Like most couple problems, the underlying problem isn’t the topic, but the pattern itself.
Why does this keep happening?
There are several reasons why this keeps going. Here are the most common ones:
The makeup works to reduce the separation and anxiety
Someone says they're sorry, you do the hug. The gap is closed. The anxiety you have been feeling goes down. The fact that it emotionally works reinforces doing it again.
You make a sincere effort to do better but …
Doing better is great, but there are two problems: One is that though you are both (or one of you) understandably trying to move the climate away from tension and negativity towards something more relaxed, more positive, you are rebounding, spurred on by your hurt feelings and memories of the bad weekend. You are pushing yourself, albeit in a good way, beyond your normal baseline of emotion and doing, but it is difficult to keep up, and/or the sting of the bad weekend begins to wear off. And once one of you begins to slack, it’s easy for the other guy to feel discouraged, feel that nothing has really changed, the other person isn’t committed to change. They too slack off themselves or grow resentful, eventually sparking another argument.
But the bigger problem is namely the bigger problem, the one that drove the argument and keeps driving them - handling bedtimes, money, clothes on the floor - isn’t being solved. Why? Because you wanted to close the emotional gap and were afraid that talking about the problem would just fuel another argument. As a result, the problem is getting swept under the rug until someone inevitably trips on it.
What to do instead
The breaking of this cycle requires a three-prong approach.
Rein in the arguments
This is about emotional regulation. Yes, you get angry on Saturday night, but instead of arguing, realize you are getting angry and find ways of calming yourself down rather than emotionally spraying it around the room. The hurtful comments linger and only become fuel for future arguments.
Go ahead and make up
Some couples don’t. Instead, they do the cold war, not speak for several days, and eventually drift back, pretending nothing happened. Over time this leads to accumulating a huge number of things they don’t talk about. Most often over time they become child or work-centered, talk about the weather, and lead parallel, disconnected lives.
Making up, repairing the wounds, is important but only really works if you both own your responsibility for the argument, sincerely apologize for saying hurtful things that you didn’t mean to say so that the hurts don't continue to be fodder for future arguments. If the makeup is lopsided, if one person feels that they are always apologizing, it may temporarily lower the temperature, but usually fuels resentment and future arguments.
Solve the problems
This is the most critical. Have that sane, adult conversation about the problem, actually two problems—what you were arguing about—money, sex, kids, micromanaging, feeling dismissed—and another about the arguing process and the ways you trigger each other—waving your finger in front of my face, calling me names, bringing up the past. Then come up with a concrete plan that is doable and can continue, one that acknowledges the feelings and concerns of both and is based on a win-win compromise, rather than a plan that is too vague, or is driven by giving in, sweeping things under the rug, accommodating but getting resentful.
Arguments happen, we are emotional beings, but controlling and limiting them is about emotional responsibility, putting problems to rest, learning the moral of the argument itself, seeing the dysfunctional process as a challenge you need to tackle together, rather than making the other guy the enemy. It's about moving forward so that over time you both learn how to navigate your lives and your relationship more effectively.